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Journal of an aid worker in Central Africa

Armed confrontations in Alindao – a town in the south of the Central African Republic – killed over a hundred people and caused massive displacement. Our colleague Esperant Mulumba coordinates a Cordaid-led humanitarian intervention that reaches 24.000 internally displaced persons in Alindao. He wrote a journal.

It’s 6.30 in the morning. I am on my way to the Bangui airport to board a humanitarian flight to Alindao. I spent the previous night packing materials. I can’t help but feel a certain degree of anxiety. Over the past 13 years I have been involved in similar operations in other parts of the world; each time is different. Each crisis requires different skills sets and carries different types of risks. Every time we come into close contact with human suffering requires some degree of mental preparation. But somehow you can never be fully prepared. By now, I can feel the fatigue setting in. It’s both mental and physical. The past 10 days have been grueling.

Mobilizing resources

Over the past week, I have been actively involved in resource mobilization efforts. Looking for ways and funds to rapidly respond to a bad situation that could easily deteriorate in a matter of days. Through the Start Network and Cordaid funding, we are able to kick-start a project to provide emergency latrines, drinking water, and household hygiene materials, a need that was expressed by the affected population. These interventions are further supported by hygiene promotion activities. I spent the last few days before my trip to Alindao ensuring that all the 2350 beneficiary household kits, water supply systems, and construction materials are of the right quality and are loaded onto two 40-foot trucks for the more than 600-kilometer journey to the town of Alindao.

As we settle aboard the 8-seater plane, I have to remind myself to stay alert as I reflect anticipatively on what I’m likely to see and feel in Alindao and what needs to be done to ensure the success of the program. Our flight will last 1 hour 10 minutes. As we reach cruising altitude I fall asleep only to be woken up 45 minutes later by the turbulent descent past the clouds as we begin to catch a glimpse of Alindao. From up here, it all looks perfect. Beautiful green pastures dotted with trees and bordered by winding rivers.

I spent the last few days ensuring that 2350 beneficiary household kits, water supply systems, and construction materials are of the right quality and are loaded onto two 40-foot trucks for the more than 600-kilometer journey.

Esperant Mulumba

The road to Alindao

As I step out of the plane I’m greeted by the warm and humid air. We board a double-cabin pick up and head towards the town. Along the way, our driver Faustin shares his experiences as he escorted the relief materials over the 600-kilometer journey from Bangui to Alindao just two days before my arrival. “The drivers and crew of the trucks were very nervous about traveling into this area. I had to reassure them several times that I had received reliable information on the situation and safety of the road!” he passionately explained. “We had to navigate through bad roads. I had to put all my energy and concentration to navigate through some extremely muddy areas. In some places we didn’t think we’d make it through. I have to admit that though we had taken all precautions, I also had moments of uncertainty. But everything is alright now, we reached Alindao safely and the drivers and crew were particularly happy to see the good the materials they carried was going to do. They got a feeling, for themselves, of the situation on the ground” he added.

emergency aid for displaced persons in Alindao emergency aid for displaced persons in Alindao emergency aid for displaced persons in Alindao emergency aid for displaced persons in Alindao
Distributing aid items in Alindao (photo’s: Esperant Mulumba / Cordaid)

As we enter the town I sense an uneasiness, there’s tension in the air. In the first week of May 2017 a violent armed confrontation between the Anti Balaka Militia (largely perceived as Christian) and the UPC ex-Seleka armed group (predominantly Muslim) left entire neighborhoods razed to the ground and at least 132 deaths were recorded in the immediate aftermath. The situation drastically polarized the Christian and Muslim communities that were in an already precarious relationship when a similar attack of a lower magnitude affected communities some 20 kilometers on the outskirts of Alindao in the first quarter of 2017. The May conflict caused massive population displacement with more than 10,000 internally displaced persons seeking refuge at the local Catholic Church and other sites in the immediate aftermath. Today, the Cordaid-led humanitarian coordination in Alindao points to nearly 24,000 internally displaced persons just two weeks into the crisis.

We had to navigate through bad roads and some extremely muddy areas. In some places we didn’t think we’d make it through. But everything is alright now, we reached Alindao.

Driver Faustin

We reach the Cordaid base in Alindao, Dr. Jean Claude, the medical doctor in charge of the DFID-funded program in Alindao warmly welcomes us. He informs us that protocols must be observed and we need to meet all the key actors and “authorities” before we begin our activities.

There is no cell phone network in Alindao. Our link to the outside world is a satellite phone and a V-sat internet connection that depends on a fuel powered generator and backup batteries hooked to a solar-powered system. When there is a heavy downpour or heavy clouds cover the sky we lose all connection. This situation means that information within the sub-prefecture and information coming out of the sub-prefecture is always sketchy. Our visit is therefore geared towards reiterating our mandate to the various key actors so as to avoid any sort of misunderstanding that could jeopardize our safety during this mission.

Meeting with local authorities

The Seleka armed group has controlled this area for several years. The group substituted all branches of the national authority and until a few months ago had tight control over security, movements, and taxation in the area. On our way to Alindao we meet with the Area Commander and his team. The police commissioner, a member of the same group, helps him with translation as he does not speak French himself. As we introduce ourselves one by one the Police Commissioner looks straight at me and says “You are a Sangaris[1]! You must be a Sangaris!” He has a smirk on his face so I assume it’s a joke. I quickly give him a big smile though I don’t find it particularly amusing in this context. It is important that we remain calm, reach the place we are heading for.

emergency aid for displaced persons in Alindao
Esperant Mulumba with displaced youngsters in Alindao (photo: Cordaid)

When entering Alindao, we are obliged to meet with whatever authority in place, also if it is a non-state actor due to the chaos in this country or specific geographic area. This does not mean we endorse that group, but simply that we need to negotiate access to be able to reach beneficiaries.

The Area Commander sets up a meeting for us with the leader of the ex-Seleka movement that has controlled the area. I give him a firm handshake. I’m surprised at how soft the palm of his hand is. “We are happy to have Cordaid working for the well-being of the local population, particularly in these hard times”, he tells us. “Even at the peak of the crisis, the Cordaid team continued providing emergency healthcare and free medical services to the population. You are most welcome with your humanitarian program”, he assures us. “The security situation is now under control and you are free to move about. There are many needs with the population and we count on you to support us during these difficult times”, he reiterates.

Impact of the crisis on children

From one meeting to the next, moving around the town of Alindao, I can’t help but notice the very visible presence of weapons. The majority of those bearing those weapons are minors, reminding me again how in such situations children are both victims and coerced into being perpetrators as well. They walk about the town with a certain degree of pride and a sense of recognition. Proudly carrying their weapons, they give off a sense of meaning, a sense of belonging.

We make our way into the largest internally displaced persons’ site at the Catholic Church. My heart sinks and I feel a million thoughts rushing through my mind. The needs are far greater than I could have ever imagined. Grass huts constructed as makeshift shelters are positioned very close to each other. The children here don’t have much to do. For the most part they are cheerful although they walk in the mud with bear feet. Their clothes are torn and there are no schools or play areas here. I make eye contact and as always, one smile sparks another and before long I am surrounded by children wanting their photos taken.

The majority of those bearing those weapons are minors, reminding me again how in such situations children are both victims and coerced into being perpetrators as well.

Esperant Mulumba

Gracia and Merveille

As I walk to another part of the camp, I meet Gracia and Merveille. They are not as cheerful as the kids I met earlier. I can’t really communicate with them as we don’t speak each other’s languages. But I can see in their eyes a sense of loss. They’re in a strange environment. A gentle hug, a firm handshake and a smile. That’s all I can do to let them know that we’re here now and Cordaid will try to make the situation better. Their mother, who delivered another child by C-section at the peak of the crisis through the help of the Cordaid health program, explains to me that since the displacement finding food has been a challenge. When I ask about their source of water, she points to a well not far from their hut. The water is brackish and the surroundings uninviting to say the least.

As I continue my walk around the IDP site, I am gripped by a daunting realization of the magnitude of the crisis and the depth of the physical and psychological needs here. Our project team has already done a lot to kick start the project. But it is clear to me that while our initial intervention will prevent deaths and improve the quality of life for these crisis-affected populations, there’s much more that needs to be done here.

[1] Operation Sangaris is a military intervention of the French military in the Central African Republic, from late 2013 till 2016. It has been the 7th French military intervention there since the independence of the country in 1960.On 30 October 2016, France announced it officially ended Operation Sangaris.

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