If your only knowledge of the existence of the Central African Republic as a country is from the TV quiz show, ‘Pointless’, then you are in the same boat as many of the audience who heard Catherine Mahoney speak at St Georges, Derby recently. Catherine, CAFOD’s Regional Emergency Coordinator for West Africa and the Great Lakes, spoke with great passion and knowledge about the ever-worsening crisis in the Central African Republic, which few people have even heard about.
CAR is roughly the size of France and Belgium put together and has a population of about 4.6 million people. A former French colony, it gained its independence from France in 1960 and its people have suffered through a turbulent history of coups, corruption and civil unrest. A beautiful country in many ways, with stunning natural scenery, CAR is rated as one of the poorest countries in the world. If you are born there, your average life expectancy is a mere 49 years and along with the majority of the population you will struggle to feed, clothe and educate your family. Bangui, the capital, is the only urban area and the location of the only hospital in the country.
Today, the situation has unravelled into what UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon calls “a state of anarchy”. Inter-communal violence has left thousands dead and more than half of the population is now in urgent need of humanitarian aid. Rebel factions move lawlessly throughout the country, looting, lynching and committing crimes of sexual violence. Though the current round of violence did not start out as being religiously motivated, with Muslims and Christians previously living peacefully in integrated communities, increasingly violent attacks are taking place along sectarian lines.
It is estimated that 350,000 people have fled the country, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, and many of those who remain have resorted to hiding in the bush for safety or sheltering in makeshift settlements with little access to the basics they need to survive – such as clean water, food and medical care. Because of the pervasive insecurity, aid agencies and UN agencies have been unable to provide sufficient humanitarian aid to many parts of the country.
CAFOD is responding to the crisis with local partner Caritas CAR and US sister agency in the Caritas family, CRS (Catholic Relief Services). Vulnerable communities throughout the country are being provided with access to health care, shelter and education supplies. Farming families are being helped to help themselves through the distribution of seeds and agricultural tools so that they can plant their food crops during the rainy season and provide for themselves in the difficult months to come.
The faith leaders of the Catholic, Muslim and Evangelical Christian Churches have taken a strong stance in condemning the violence and promoting peace. CAFOD and its partners are supporting the Interfaith Platform in CAR, working to promote tolerance and social cohesion and supporting peace-building activities between different faith groups across the country.
CAFOD is also taking an inter-faith approach as, along with other leading aid agencies in the UK such as Islamic Relief, they are speaking out to ask for increased action on this neglected crisis.
You can help by spreading the story of what is happening in CAR. Make sure your MP is aware of the situation. Could you e–mail or write to him/her? The more MPs who ask questions, the more the UK Government becomes aware of people’s concerns and more likely they are to use their influence as a member of the UN Security Council, for example, to ensure that the promised peace-keeping force for CAR is large enough and correctly equipped to make a difference.