As we arrive at the Protestant church of Saramandja in the town of Paoua, in northern Central African Republic (CAR), we are welcomed by 16-year-old Larissa Néoumangue, mother of a one-year-old. Larissa is one of thousands of people who fled violence in villages to the north of Paoua and took shelter in religious sites or with host families.
Larissa’s story is brutal but common. She told OCHA: “My husband was killed before my eyes when our village was attacked on 3 January. I fled with my baby. What you see on me is all that I have with me. I left everything behind to save our lives. I came here because I have nowhere else to go.”
Conflict has again resumed in CAR. In this part of the country armed groups are clashing over control of grazing corridors and access to mineral-rich land. And as in most conflict zones, civilians are paying the heaviest price. Since the clashes broke out in December 2017, 65,000 people have fled their homes and farms to Paoua. Others are still hiding in the bush and a further 22,000 people have fled to neighbouring Chad.
To respond to mounting humanitarian needs, the 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan is calling for US $516 million to help 1.9 million people.
Villages and farms across grain belt abandoned
The villages people left behind are almost empty, except for a few remaining elderly or disabled people who could not flee. The area was once one of CAR’s grain belts, and crops are now ready for harvest, but everyone has abandoned their farms. This is devastating for farmers, who worked for months to prepare this harvest.
Displaced farmer Bellon Begoto was bitter: “I have left sesame, cassava and all I need to live without anyone to look after it,” he said. “I need security to return to my home. I have nothing to do here. I want to go back to Begatra, where I come from, and cultivate my land.”
As farmers are barred from accessing the harvest, food insecurity is expected to worsen. Food scarcity is already causing prices to soar in the markets: cassava, a staple food, is now two to three times its usual price. Zahra, a market stall owner, says she fears the worst: “Our stocks will finish in one week’s time. We don’t know how we will help people out.”
Children falling ill
Many of the children and babies who fled with their parents are now sick from malaria, diarrhoea or respiratory diseases, and many are hungry. Marie-Claire Denaidi-Gabita, a displaced mother of 10, walked 57 km from Bemal village to Paoua over five days. She fed her children hibiscus leaves to stave off their hunger.
Gisèle Maraba, another young mother who fled, couldn’t hide her anxiety: her 9-month-old child contracted a bad case of malaria on the 22 km walk. “I hope she will make it,” she said.
Host families are also struggling to cope. Gisèle Aladjikimi owns a one-room hut that is now home to 24 extended family members who have fled Begatra, 19 km east of Paoua. “We have shared everything we have, but now we need food, soap and medicine…everything would be helpful.”
Many of the displaced people hang around water pumps looking helpless, as they have no containers in which to carry the water home.
Humanitarian aid on the rise
With new arrivals each day, humanitarian groups are increasing their response. The World Food Programme has started food aid deliveries and plans to scale up. The International Committee of the Red Cross has repaired 26 boreholes and is distributing hygiene kits to enable people to clean the water they can access. Doctors Without Borders, Mentor Initiative and the World Health Organization are providing free health care, including malaria treatments, to displaced people and host communities.
But more help is needed quickly. Assistance and, crucially, protection are people’s immediate priorities, but all they ultimately want is to secure their farms and villages so they can return home to live their lives in peace.
Click here to support people forced to flee across the Central African Republic.
CAR: Farmers forced to flee as harvest arrives was originally published in Humanitarian Dispatches on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.