Mamat has a two-year-old daughter in her lap and an older daughter sitting close next to her while she is speaking. She has been able to flee with six of her children from their home village Batangafo, in the north of the Central African Republic, and found safety in Gara Amou, about 200 kilometres further south.
During the last year fighting has escalated in the north and the east of the country, and spread to new areas. Clashes between the mostly Christian and animist group known as anti-balaka and the predominantly Muslim groups known as the ex-Seleka have forced thousands of people to flee their homes.
“Nine months ago my husband was killed,” says Mamat. “I was no longer able to take care of my children and I was afraid of the ex-Seleka. It was them who killed my husband. That is when I decided to flee.”
“Five of my children are still in Batangafo. I am afraid of what may have happened to them. Everyone is fleeing Batangafo now,” the widow continues.
Every story she tells brings her back to her children who are still left behind. She has not heard anything from them. All the time she is wondering, where are they now? Are they safe?
Balancing on a knife’s edge
Mamat is one of 1.1 million people in the Central African Republic who have been forced to flee their homes. That means that one out of five Central Africans are currently displaced. The number is higher than during the peak of the violent civil war which ravaged the country around 2013 and 2014.
The attacks are often brutal. Civilians are paying a high price. A special report from Human Right Watch outlines how rape and sexual violence is being used as a weapon of war in the country.
“The Central African Republic is currently balancing on a knife’s edge,” said regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council Marianne Irion in November. “If we are to avoid the whole country from sliding back into civil war, there is an urgent need for better protection of the civilian population against attacks.”
Fight over resources
The country is already at the very bottom of the human development index. Four out of ten children under the age of five are malnourished. When people are forced to flee their homes, or are cut off from assistance due to fighting, it often has devastating consequences.
"It is difficult for me now, being alone. Only God protects me. I have no money and no cows," says Mamat. She belongs to the Peuhl population, a group consisting of mostly Muslim herders.
Many of them have lost their cows in the conflict. While religion is being used by the armed groups to mobilise supporters, conflicts in the country are driven by fights over resources.
Supporting each other
In Gara Amou village, the mostly Christian host community has been welcoming the newly displaced.
“A new neighbour here has helped me build this shelter. But I need to build a house, so that my other children may also come here and stay with us,” says Mamat, sitting in her new home. It has a roof made of straw, but no walls.
She is grateful for the support from the local community, and thankful for having found a peaceful place for herself and her children.
“Here I am not afraid,” chimes in her ten-year-old daughter Aisha, who is sitting next to her mum, following the conversation. “I love Gara Amou because people here are very kind and they are my friends.”
The support from the host community has been vital. There is no large-scale humanitarian relief operation in Gara Amou. An emergency team from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has distributed hygiene kits and some essential household items, but apart from that, they have received no other aid.
The relief work in the country is severely underfunded. The UN and other humanitarian partners have stipulated that there is a need for about USD 500 million to meet the most pressing humanitarian needs in 2017, but only 37 per cent of this has been provided. The crisis is topping NRC’s list of neglected displacement crises.
But when asked about her wishes, material support is not on Mamat’s mind. What she wishes for is peace, and to get all her children to Gara Amou.
“The best thing that has happened to me, is to have my children,” she remarks.
- 600,000 people are displaced within the Central African Republic and 520,000 people are living as refugees in neighbouring countries.
- More than 2.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, close to half the country’s population.
- The Central African Republic ranks as number 188 out of 188 countries at the UN’s human development index.
- The country also tops NRC’s list of neglected displacement crises.
- So far, aid organisations have received only 37 per cent of the funding needed to respond to people’s most basic needs this year.