Baltimore, Md., May 21, 2014 / 15:57 pm
An ongoing lack of security in the Central African Republic is among the challenges facing those who long for peace, said a relief agency staff member who recently visited the violence-ridden nation.
"Without feeling safe, people are afraid to live in their homes," Kim Pozniak told CNA May 21.
She explained that "they don't farm and they've either lost or abandoned their small businesses for fear of being killed. This has resulted in thousands of people now without food, proper shelter or a means to make a living."
Pozniak, a Catholic Relief Services communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa, visited Central African Republic in early May. There, she witnessed the "sheer suffering" of people in the country, many of whom "lack even the most basic things."
"When a small boy, probably the same age as my daughter, gently tugged on my sleeve as I was observing the conditions, and asked if I had something to eat for him, my drive to bring this crisis to the world's attention was re-affirmed a thousand-fold," she reflected.
The Central African Republic has been embroiled in violence for the last 18 months, leaving thousands dead and more than 1.1 million estimated to have been displaced from their homes, with double that number facing food insecurity.
Violence broke out in country in December 2012 at the hands of Seleka rebels, loosely organized groups that drew primarily Muslim fighters from other countries. Although the Seleka were officially disbanded, its members continued to commit such crimes as looting, rape, and murder.
In September 2013, after 10 months of terrorism at the hands of the Seleka, "anti-balaka" self-defense groups began to form. The anti-balaka picked up momentum in November, and the conflict in the nation took on a sectarian character, as some anti-balaka, many of whom are Christian, began attacking Muslims out of revenge for the Seleka's acts.
Amid continuing conflict among political, tribal, and religious groups, the African Union has deployed 5,000 peacekeepers to the nation, and France has sent 2,000. The U.N. intends to send some 12,000 before the end of the year.
"The situation for most people in CAR is dire," Pozniak said. "So many – nearly a quarter of the population – have been displaced by the violence and now live in unimaginable conditions, either in displacement camps or elsewhere in the open. They lack food, shelter, healthcare and any other essentials required to survive."
She described the scene she encountered in one camp in Bangui: "up to a dozen families, mostly headed by women, as their husbands were either killed or driven out by rebels, were sheltering in large, open tents with their children."
With the advent of the rainy season, water infiltrated their tents, and the families slept on thin straw mats atop several inches of mud. Malaria is also a mounting concern, particularly among children.
Conditions are also difficult in Bossangoa, where some 40,000 people fled their homes due to Seleka attacks. Many sought refuge on the Catholic Mission grounds, where hundreds of families continue to live in fear, with little access to food, shelter and other necessities. Other people in Bossangoa have now begun returning to their homes, but with so many homes destroyed or looted, many of these people have "nothing left."
In the midst of the suffering, Catholic Relief Services is working to provide assistance, providing crucial seeds and tools for up to 50,000 people in order to plant for the next harvest season. The agency faces obstacles including barely-usable roads, fuel shortages and travel restrictions due to violence.
In addition, Pozniak noted, "the clock is ticking, as the window for successful planting closes at the end of May." The United Nations has voiced concerns that the country could face famine if adequate planning levels are not met.
Pozniak described visiting one small village on the outskirts of Bossangoa.
"Driving over barely-there roads to those villages, you could see homes burned by Seleka rebels, either partially or completely to the ground," she said.
"We stopped in one such village, with burned homes, when throngs of people emerged from the thick Central African bush when we arrived. They had fled there during the attack, and were still living there, too afraid to come back and rebuild their destroyed homes, which were situation close to the road."
"Their cheer and joy upon hearing what they would receive mirrored all the other villages we had visited that day."
In addition to addressing immediate survival needs within the country, efforts to re-establish peace are also underway, Pozniak said, pointing to Catholic Relief Services' work with community and religious leaders, as well as women and youth of different faiths.
Reconciliation workshops, held by Rwandans experienced with conflict from the 1994 genocide, aim at forgiveness, allowing people to come together and work through their differences in a non-violent forum.
"Over and over, I heard about the need for peace, the want for peace," Pozniak said. "Many people in CAR are ready."
She stressed the importance of support for grassroots efforts underway in order to help them spread their message across the country.
"With still so much tension and violence, people are literally risking their lives by being outspoken about peace in a society torn apart by conflict, loss and suffering," she said. "Some receive threats to their lives, others risk being alienated by their own communities. Yet, the people I've met – the people participating in the workshops – are determined to continue until peace returns to CAR."
Pozniak also hopes there will be a greater awareness of the situation in Central African Republic among people in the United States.
"While the conflict has received some media coverage on and off, mostly focusing on the violence, most people don't know this country even exists."
She quoted one bishop who said, "When you see that people don't know – or care – about CAR, it makes you feel as though life in CAR is worthless."
Poznaik noted that Catholic Relief Services has set up a webpage on the Central African Republic for people to educate themselves about the crisis, pray for those involved, participate in advocacy efforts and donate to relief initiatives.
"I'm convinced many more people would care and take on responsibility, we just need to tell them," she reflected.