Civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR) find themselves at the centre of a humanitarian catastrophe spiralling out of control. The effect of indiscriminate and seemingly unstoppable violence on the entire population has reached shocking levels, and has taken on deeply disturbing intercommunal overtones. Current efforts by the international community are woefully insufficient in the face of this mounting crisis.
I am deeply concerned. The deteriorating situation can be read on the bodies of our patients: the gunshot and mortar wounds my medical colleagues treated last year have been superseded by deep cuts from machetes, an indication that we've moved to a new kind of violence, one between neighbours that once coexisted peacefully. Many of history's greatest intercommunal humanitarian atrocities were known and often publicized in advance. There are chilling parallels here for anyone taking notice.
Following a coup last March, close to one million people have been displaced and subjected to months of violence between rival militias. Increasingly though, this conflict is unfolding along religious lines within communities.
Accused of having supported the brutal Séléka militias that brought former president Michel Djotodia's government to power last March, CAR's Muslim minority is now coming under repeated attack by the majority Christian population. Entire Muslim communities are constrained or are forced to flee the country, in some cases under the auspices of peacekeeping forces. Thirty thousand Muslim refugees have already crossed the border into Chad, while 10,000 have reached Cameroon.
When I visited 'École Liberté' camp in Bossangoa a few weeks ago, the Muslim residents feared revenge attacks and could not imagine a return to normal. Despite the protection of African Union forces and nearby French peacekeepers, my Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) colleagues watched on the morning of Jan. 30 as most of the 7,000 displaced Muslims living in 'École Liberté' loaded their families and possessions on a fleet of hired trucks, and fled the country in terror. There wasn't enough room for everyone; more than 1,000 of them were left behind.
Elsewhere, retreating Muslim militia continue their brutal attacks on the Christian population, thousands of whom still live in poorly assisted, overcrowded camps. Two women I met from the Christian community living in 'Evêché Camp' in Bossangoa – Sabine and Monique – shared two small tents with 15 family members. They told me they hoped to return home to rebuild their burned-out houses and tend to their fields. But they couldn't envision doing so without an improvement in the security situation, and without help to rebuild their lives.
Some Central Africans I spoke to expressed hope that a new president and international peacekeeping forces would bring change. Sadly, the recent spikes in violence and evacuation attest that any hope is gone for the foreseeable future. Civilians' only recourse now is to pray they will be spared future reprisals.
These people are MSF's patients. Our teams have been bringing care to all communities throughout this tragedy. But the ongoing violence and forced exodus make a mockery of our efforts. While MSF can dress victims' wounds, protect them against disease outbreak and provide them with clean water, our presence cannot ensure their survival.
This is not the first time the alarm has been raised. Since March, MSF has called for an urgent increase in funding and aid efforts from the international community. There's an even greater urgency to our calls today.
The UN has finally deployed seasoned staff to CAR responsible for scaling up assistance. The European Union and other institutional donors have pledged more aid. But the response is slow to arrive and woefully insufficient. Humanitarian needs today are enormous, and needs will only increase as intercommunal reprisals continue.
After months of inaction, there are now other witnesses to the crisis in CAR. The time for half measures has passed. I have a moral responsibility to bear witness and act according to the mandate I've been given. It's time other international actors who are present do the same. There is still time to prevent CAR from plummeting into a much darker place.
Stephen Cornish is executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Canada