Long Read CAR: “It’s a bit like my parents are here again”

Since 2015, the Dutch Relief Alliance reached out to thousands of war-affected children and adults in the Central African Republic. We joined hands with Central African responders to provide shelter, protection, food and livelihood assistance, clean water and cash support. What follows is the story of some of the villagers and the responders in Ouham province. It’s a story of hope against all odds.

Wars tend to infest the most beautiful of countries. The Central African Republic is no exception. Zigzagging on bumpy dirt roads through the savannah of Ouham province is like driving through a catalogue of natural beauty. But every village and every hamlet is a pandora’s box full of harrowing stories.

‘Wars come and go’

Some years back, most of these smaller places were deserted. For years, people hid in the bush, fled abroad or flocked to bigger towns, seeking security in camps or churches. Jean-Baptiste, a 79-year-old farmer whose fields are on the outskirts of Bossangoa town, is one of them. “When the Seleka rebels arrived in 2013, I was in the field. I ran home, but my wife and children had already left for the cathedral, a few miles away”, he remembers.

He manages to find his loved ones. For a year, they live in a makeshift camp, sleeping under open skies in the first weeks. Cramped and packed together with 10.000 others, next to God’s house, toiling with rain and tarpaulins. Jean-Baptiste’s wife dies of exhaustion within months. Some of his children die on their way out of the country. Jean-Baptiste survives. He returns to his village of Zoro. Today, he spends his days farming and taking care of his orphaned grandchildren. He’s an old man with a smile on his face that transcends reality. “Wars come and go. I have seen a few in my life, but the last one was the hardest.”

This last one flares up in 2012. A coalition of disgruntled and mainly Muslim armed groups calling themselves Seleka (and later on Ex-Seleka) seize power in 2013. On their way to the capital of Bangui, they plunder, maim, kill and rape Christian villagers. Their brutal attacks are countered by equally violent assaults of – predominantly – Christian self-defense groups called the Anti-Balaka. Villages are rifted apart along ethnic and religious lines. Up to this day, even in places that have been stable and secure for a while, Muslim minorities have not returned to the Christian villages of Ouham. Peaceful co-existence is reduced to ruins and burnt down mosques.

Forgotten crisis

The civil war plunges the country into a humanitarian crisis that is on a par with those in Syria and Yemen. Almost a year after the Khartoum peace deal, signed by the Central African government and rebel groups, the army and armed groups continue to fight over land and resources. 60% of the Central Africans are in need of humanitarian assistance. More than 600.000 people are internally displaced and almost as many have fled abroad. But as the country lacks geopolitical importance, this crisis is largely neglected by western media and unknown to the world.

In many ways, the Central African war was, and still is, a children’s war and a children’s crisis. Between 2012 and 2017 as many as 10.000 children are used and abused as soldiers, both by Seleka rebel groups and Anti-Balaka militias. Kids as young as 10 are forced to go on killing sprees, often in their own villages. Girls are raped and forced into motherhood. Kids are orphaned and abandoned.

Francis is one of them. He was 14 when his parents were killed. “The Seleka had entered my village. They were driven out by the Anti-Balaka and came back again. They shot my parents in our house, in front of me and my younger sisters.” The boy leaves his younger siblings with caretakers and joins an armed militia. “We took herbs that protected us. They gave us old guns and we learned to shoot, attack and hide in two weeks”, he tells us, while walking along slash-and-burn farming fields.

When member organisations of the Dutch Relief Alliance joined hands with Central African responders in 2015, reaching out to the young and helping them to heal from the unspeakable, was high on their humanitarian list. After five years, it still is.

‘I’m learning a trade!’

One of the places where this healing takes place is Bouca. Two years ago this was a ghost town. Today, this idyllic place with its rows of giant mango and baobab trees, its patchwork of vegetable gardens, its marketplace of wooden stalls, its churches, and school, is actually populated by hard-working people. Most of those who fled have returned. Except for Muslim families.

Bouca lies more eastward then Bossangoa, nearer to rebel-held territory and more insecure. “The past few months were calm, there were no shootings. But still, we’re on our guard every day”, says Mamy Lofemba, DRA coordinator in Bouca. Her team of 12 responders offers psychosocial support and vocational training to kids and youngsters in the area. “We help them cope with what they have gone through and to catch up on lost school years”, she explains.

The small DRA supported vocational training centre of Bouca is a special place. Former child soldiers and girls who were sexually abused during the war work and laugh side by side. Most of the boys take a course in carpentry or mechanics. Some want to become a tailor. Together with the girls, they turn colourful fabrics into blazers and dresses. “After six months of training, they receive the tools and equipment that allow them to set up their own business. Most of them will return to their villages, and use the income they will make to support their families”, Mamy Lofemba explains. “During their internship here in Bouca we also provide food and lodging. Our psychosocial assistants follow up on them and we make sure they get the medical care and legal aid they need.”

One of the future tailors is Maxim. This 18-year old never went to school. “During the war, I had to stay for four years with the Anti-Balaka militias. Now, I’m learning a trade. In fact, I am learning something for the very first time in my life”, he says, all smiles. And what about the rest of the class he’s in? “We all went through bad things and hard times, but we don’t talk too much about that in class.” One of Maxim’s co-students has a baby son. She’s 18 too. Last year she and friend were raped by Fulani cattle drivers who drove their herds through her community’s farming field. “We had to stay inside our village, because of the armed cattle drivers. But one day we went out, looking for food. While we were eating termites, they attacked us”, she tells us. She got pregnant. “In my village, people from the Dutch Relief Alliance referred me to the nearest medical centre. I gave birth there. They also invited me to join one of their courses. Which is what I am doing now, 55 km away from home.”

‘There are opportunities and I can grab them’

The tailoring course is about more than making clothes. “Doing this is like entering a new world”, says the young mother. “For the first time since the war, the sexual abuse and the pregnancy, I can now look ahead. As a child, I thought my village was the world. Now I know there is more. There are opportunities and I can grab them. I have rights, I can stand up for myself. And for my child. Because I love my child”, she says. “And the other girls who take this training are like sisters. Sometimes they take care of my child, allowing me to play with the others. I love a game called ‘gbagba’, where you clap and sing together and fall backward into the arms of friends.”

Play and dance are at the heart of the Dutch Relief Alliance’s psychosocial support for younger kids. They have built and staffed a number so-called child-friendly spaces, all of them near schools. The one in Zoro, attended by some of grandpa Jean-Baptiste’s grandchildren, is like a beehive of kids from three up to 17 years old. Each age group has its class. “Half of them are war orphans”, says Jean Yves Maganda-Belalengbi, who supervises five of these children’s spaces in the area. “We have a lot of ex-child soldiers and many girls are abuse survivors. They don’t know each other’s stories. But they dance together, play games, tell fairy tales, act in theatre plays. The older ones take extra reading, writing and arithmetic classes. We help them discover their bodies, dreams, and talents. And their rights”, Jean Yves explains.

Kids come here on foot, walking up to five miles. The younger ones are accompanied. “They come in between regular school hours. This way we make sure they aren’t forced to work by their parents or wander off all alone in their free time. Because that’s when they get abducted or abused”, he continues.

Healing by listening and playing games

The child-friendly spaces’ educators, psychologists, and psychosocial assistants all know how to recognize malnourishment, abuse, anxiety. “We’re constantly on the lookout. Malnourished children are quickly referred to the hospital. Parents who can’t buy food for their kids receive financial support. We offer legal assistance and psychosocial support to girls who were abused or sold into marriage. We offer this kind of protection to 3000 children and youths in child-friendly spaces in the Bossangoa area”, Jean Yves concludes.

Psychologist Annie Safi explains how kids’ interactions are good indicators of their wellbeing. “All these children have internalised the violence they have witnessed. Traumatized boys often become aggressive towards other children. Girls tend to shut themselves off”, she says. Psychosocial assistant Melly Gaëlle Bido gives the example of a 9-year-old girl. “She wouldn’t play with the others. She kept silent. Bit by bit she told me her story. At the age of four, she had seen how her mother was killed. By listening to her, being with her, holding her, playing games, I try to help her come out of the circle of negative feelings and thoughts. It takes time.”

Filling the gaps of those who died

In a way, even for the adults and the elderly, the war is a children’s war. Because it killed their kids and grandchildren. Because a child that dies never leaves a parent. Because women lost their husbands and become single mothers. Because grandparents like Jean-Baptiste fill the gap of parents that were killed.

Christine Yassi lives in Yongo, a hamlet where skilled and unskilled labourers are building a school with DRA support. This cash-for-work project is part of a bigger cash program, that includes unconditional cash distributions to people who’ve been dealt too many blows to give something in return. Christine is one of them. She can’t be older than 55, having young kids. But she looks 70. Seated under a tree she shares bits of her life. “Two of my daughters died from diseases and exhaustion when we were hiding in the bush. Ingrid and Henriette, four and five years old. Myself, I have been farming here in Yongo all my life, but now I am old and weak. I’d like to continue, but I hardly have the strength and my husband died long ago. Sometimes I dream that other villagers help me in the field. But that’s a dream.” With the cash support – three times an amount of 68 euro – Christine buys food and pays the school fees of her youngest children. “And I saved some of it. I hope to buy myself a mattress.”

When Leonie’s husband was killed in an ambush by Seleka rebels, she was left on her own with 12 children and some grandchildren. They had just survived a year in the bush. She manages to seek refuge in a camp for another 18 months. One of her grandchildren gets killed by a stray bullet while selling briquettes in the street. After this odyssey and after the rebels have left, she picks up life where she left it. “We went home. I rebuilt my home and raised my children all by myself. I had no savings and had never inherited anything – here, daughters don’t inherit. I made money by working the land, by selling my vegetables and my moonshine liquor.”

“The Dutch Relief Alliance reached out to me”, Leonie continues. “My younger kids went to their child-friendly spaces. While they were educated and had food, I could work and earn money. And twice a week I started going to their gatherings with other women. We exchange stories, support each other. And we learn a lot. About children’s rights and girls’ rights. Before, paying school fees wasn’t my priority. Today it is. Before, I always knew it was wrong that men have all the rights and women only have duties. But I never spoke out. Today I do.”

She sits in front of her home in Bossangoa. A proud woman. Nearby, her children are roasting bushmeat. They poke fun of their mother being photographed. “I feel happy when I see them”, Leonie says. “They fill up the holes left by the loved ones who died.”

About to go home

On the other side of town, Francis Fio is about to finish his carpentry training. He will soon go home, to his village, 40 km further east. On a bicycle, a motorbike, or who knows on foot, he will carry the tools for his new trade and start a new chapter. “These people hosted me here in Bossangoa. They gave me food and offered this carpentry training. They helped me cope with my sadness and hatred”, he says. “I don’t think I will ever go back to school again. It’s too late now. But the support I got gives me hope. It’s a bit like my parents are here again. It makes me stronger. I will be able to be there for my 11-year old sister. I will improve my life. Everybody needs a bed, a table or a chair and I can make them.”

Jean-Baptiste sits under a tree. His grandchildren are having fun. They run in and out of Zoro’s child-friendly space. He reflects on the days when Christians and Muslims lived together. And he looks ahead. “I’m not God”, he says, “I don’t know if there will be other wars in the future. I can only pray there will be no more fighting.”

In 5 consecutive years, the Dutch-Central African humanitarian alliance – consisting of psychologists, sanitation experts, logisticians, community workers, coordinators, drivers and many more – reached out to more than 200.000 people who are traumatized by war, loss and extreme poverty. We did this in a country which, in terms of aid worker security, is the fifth-worst place in the world.

Watch the video, go to our photo gallery or leaf through our book ‘Faces of the Central African Republic’.

Written by Frank van Lierde
Corporate journalist, Cordaid