Central African Republic: Refugees Returning Home, Starting Over

by Kim Pozniak

CRS staff and Caritas volunteers unload corn and peanut seeds provided by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The corn and seeds will provide food for a year to families who lost their livelihoods in the Central African Republic fighting. Photo by Kim Pozniak

CRS staff and Caritas volunteers unload corn and peanut seeds provided by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The corn and seeds will provide food for a year to families who lost their livelihoods in the Central African Republic fighting. Photo by Kim Pozniak

“When the Seleka entered the city, they were shooting with heavy weapons—kalashnikovs. The noise was so loud, it was like having a heart attack.” Clotilde Benani recalls the night in March 2013, when Seleka rebels came through her town, killing, looting and casting a spell of horror over its 50,000 inhabitants. Along with her sister, Ruth, and their children, she fled into the bush, where they stayed until it seemed safe enough to come back. After the rebels retreated, leaving behind a scene of burned houses and a traumatized population, Clotilde and Ruth moved into a vacant building but were too afraid to venture outside – until six months later, when someone told them to come and stay at the Catholic Mission, joining 40,000 others who had sought protection there. donate-now“We suffered a lot. Especially women and children. Women were raped. Children were killed, especially boys,” she recalls of the time during Seleka incursions. “Old people died because they were sleeping outside on the ground, they were cold, there was lots of rain.”

A Violent Conflict

The conflict in Central African Republic began in early 2013, when Seleka rebels, made up of mostly Muslim fighters and mercenaries from neighboring countries, attacked towns and villages throughout the country and eventually overthrew the government in a coup. Their rule ended after nearly a year, when the newly installed president, Seleka leader Michael Dotjoda, who replaced President Francois Bozize, was forced to step down. During the brutal and violent Seleka reign, young, non-Muslim men formed an equally violent militia, called Anti-Balaka, to protect their communities and avenge the killings by Seleka.

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The arrival of French and African Union peacekeeping troops has decreased the violence in some areas but regular killings and attacks by either side are ongoing. In Bossangoa, people stayed on the grounds of St. Anthony of Padua church for months, under the care of Bishop Nestor-Désiré Nongo-Aziagbia, living in cramped conditions, traumatized and without much food or healthcare. When Anti-Balaka formed in December in response to Seleka violence, they drove Seleka rebels out of town and unleashed a wave of retaliatory violence against anyone they associated with the rebel group. One mile down the road from the Catholic Mission, as many as 7,000 Muslims, Bossangoa’s entire Muslim population, fled brutal violence, killings, and destruction, seeking refuge at a school. They couldn’t leave the school grounds without risking their lives and after four months in this confinement, the last Muslims left Bossangoa on a humanitarian convoy on April 11, crossing the border to Chad. Today, just over a year after the attack in Bossangoa and with relative stability there, many, including Clotilde and Ruth, have returned to their homes, but with an ever-present awareness of the volatile situation and violence that still dominates many parts of the country.

Finding Purpose Against All Odds

During their time in the camp, the sisters were approached by Caritas, which has its offices on the church grounds. “So, I’m here as a displaced person, I was doing nothing. I was staying here with my sister, and one day Caritas was looking for workers as animators [local outreach workers], so I went to apply for it,” recalls Ruth. “And because of my previous experience, I got the job.” Clotilde was also hired as a data entry clerk.

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On a rainy Saturday morning, usually her day off, you find Ruth outside the Caritas offices, talking to her colleagues and other volunteers. Along with CRS staff, who set up an office here to assist Caritas with the emergency response, they discuss the goal for the day ahead: distributing seeds and tools to half a dozen villages in the Bossangoa area.

A Race Against Hunger
In May 2014, Catholic Relief Services and partner Caritas distributed lifesaving seeds and farm tools to families in Central African Republic, where a violent conflict has left hundreds of thousands vulnerable to hunger. In Bossangoa, a small town in the northwest, many villages were burned and looted in rebel attacks. Thousands of people sought refuge at the Catholic mission.
Today, with relative stability a little more than a year since the attacks, many people have returned to their villages. But with no homes or possessions, they are facing a dire situation. If planted in time for the rainy season, the seeds from CRS and Caritas will provide 10,000 families with food for a year.

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It’s early May. The start of the rainy season and a critical time to plant. For hundreds of people in the area, who lost everything during the Seleka attacks, this is the time to plant to ensure a harvest and food supply for next year. If seeds don’t get in the ground now, they know they will go hungry next year, or even starve. Around 10 am, after scrambling to find enough fuel for the truck that will carry the bags of seeds and tools and after studying the route one more time to ensure everyone’s safety, the Caritas and CRS convoy gets under way.

Bringing Seeds and Hope to Villages on the Brink

As the convoy snakes its way through the bush and over a narrow, rugged road, it passes several small villages, each made up of a few mud brick houses that are built close to the road. It passes, men, women and children, some looking at it with curiosity, others waving with joy. Several times, the convoy, including an old eight-wheeler covered in red dust, carefully crosses a stream that parts the road—over nothing more than a few loosely arranged wooden boards. Luckily, they support the weight of the truck. Several miles later, when the vehicles stop at one of the small villages dotting the road, it is immediately surrounded by throngs of people. The CRS staff and Caritas volunteers get out of their vehicles and swiftly start to set up the parameters for the distribution. A few volunteers gather people on one end of the village, while others start offloading the truck on the other. After just a couple of minutes, an announcement is made by megaphone, followed by the sudden eruption of cheer and song. People are clapping. Some are jumping up and down. They are about to receive a lifeline that will help them get through the next year. Like a well-rehearsed play, they start lining up, carrying containers and bowls of different sizes and shapes. One by one, they register for the distribution and in exchange for their signature, receive a coupon. On the other side, they exchange the coupon for corn and peanut seeds and tools, replacing those they lost during the attacks. One of the displaced, a mother of four and the village chief of Banga 2, one of the villages attacked by Seleka rebels. “Last year, we didn’t have anything because everything was destroyed. When the Seleka arrived, we fled to the bush. They took all the chickens and goats. There was nothing left in the village. With the hoes and seeds we received today, we’ll have something to eat for next year,” she says. During the month of May, CRS along with Caritas, distributed corn and peanut seeds as well as farming tools to almost 8,000 families, reaching 40,000 people with life-saving assistance after they lost everything in Seleka attacks, including homes, food and seeds, livestock and all other belongings. “Many villages in this area were attacked—and many brutally killed—at harvest season last year, so they lost their entire crop—their main food supply and income source for the whole year. The attacks were so brutal, we had to go to some of the villages several times before people dared to come out of the bush, where some of them had lived for up to six months because of fear,” said Kyla Neilan, CRS’ program manager for food security. “Over the past year, people here have exhausted all means for survival – they cannot afford to lose two harvests in a row. And even with this support, more assistance is needed to make sure families can plant and consume more diverse crops, and protect and recover their livelihoods.”

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donate-nowA big smile crosses Ruth’s face as she helps one of the women lift a large container of seeds onto her head. The woman joins others walking back to their homes, ready to plant her seeds and be able to provide her family with food for another year. Being able to provide women like herself with the means to survive is what Ruth likes most about her job. “We feel proud of doing this work. If people need something and you come and you provide it, they are really happy. It’s a pleasure to go and help [them]. Even if we sacrifice our day off, we’re happy to.”

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