At a monastery in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), a FRANCE 24 team find religious authorities struggling to cope with a humanitarian disaster as French and AU troops attempt to secure the conflict-hit nation.
Wrapped in a tiny woollen jumper that’s nevertheless way too big for her, little Ségolène sleeps peacefully, oblivious to the trauma she's endured since her birth two weeks ago.
Her mother arrived at this Christian monastery in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), just days after Ségolène’s birth.
Like hundreds of thousands of others in this sparsely populated nation of 5 million people, Ségolène’s mother fled the brutal violence in her Bangui neighbourhood for the safety of this monastery.
In a room packed with women and their young children, a mother of infant twins lists her struggles to find the most basic necessities.
"We need milk, clothes, medicine, skin cream but also soap to stay clean," she says resignedly.
An international intervention is in full swing in the CAR a week after a US Security Council Resolution approved a military operation to secure this impoverished, conflict-hit nation. About 1,600 French troops have been deployed to the CAR and an African Union (AU) force is expected to increase to around 6,000 troops.
But violence persists in the capital city as well as the countryside. Earlier this week, two French soldiers were killed in a firefight near the airport in Bangui, underscoring the challenges confronting the disarmament process in the CAR.
The CAR’s latest crisis erupted earlier this year, when thousands of mostly Muslim rebels – including fighters from neighbouring countries – from the Seleka rebel alliance swept down to the capital from the impoverished North, ousting the Christian president.
As the rebels went on a pillaging spree in Bangui, Christian militia groups rose to protect their communities, setting the stage for an increasingly sectarian conflict in this Christian-majority country.
‘It’s nearly unbearable’
While French and AU troops are working to secure the CAR, the humanitarian situation has turned critical in a country where more than 100,000 people have been displaced.
At the Bangui monastery, Sister Flore has arranged for the mothers of young children to have a quiet place to rest.
INTERVENTION IN THE CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
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Leading the FRANCE 24 team down a corridor, the Christian nun stops at a locked door and opens it to display a clean, sparsely furnished room.
"Here's the sisters' sitting room, where 15 people sleep at night...pregnant women along with the children," says Sister Flore.
But outside the monastery’s gardens, the sanitary situation is awful.
Thousands of families are camped in the gardens. Women prepare flour for a meal, grinding edible leaves to supplement their diets.
The priests and nuns are swamped and desperately trying to cope with the humanitarian situation.
The first refugees arrived here barely a week ago. Their numbers went from 2,000 to 15,000 in just a few days. Religious authorities have now simply stopped counting.
Brother Yeelen makes his way past the teeming garden, his face etched with worry.
"It's nearly unbearable, we’re at our limits. You see some of these people who arrived, they're forced to sleep where they defecate in the fields, they're not afraid of the snakes any more so they just lay down their mat and sleep there,” he says. “On Friday, it rained during the night and they had no choice but to stay under the rain and sit in the mud...it’s mind-boggling."
Old wounds fester, new ones get a sticking plaster
Most, if not all, the refugees here are Christians. They believe the former Seleka rebels are responsible for their suffering – even thought the Seleka alliance has officially been disbanded.
FRANCE 24 EXCLUSIVE
All the refugees here blame interim president Michel Djotodia, the former Seleka leader who ousted former president François Bozizé in March.
"We can only leave this place when Djotodia has left the country. Then, we can go back to our neighbourhoods and live peacefully,” says a young woman as a crowd gathers around her in the monastery gardens. “We saw those Seleka rebels come to our neighbourhood and make us suffer, we saw them kill us, the Selekas, they hurt me," she says the crowd around her shouts their agreement.
In other areas of the city, the CAR’s Muslim civilians have amassed from across the country, fearing reprisals by Christians who blame the community for the Seleka rebels’ excesses.
The uprising in the CAR’s north was sparked by economic and grievances in the remote part of the country. Rebel leader-turned-transitional president Djotodia complained about decades of disenfranchisement in the north, cut off from the rest of the country and the world due to a lack of roads and basic infrastructure.
But those historic grievances will probably not be addressed in the near future as international troops try to put a band-aid on a new wound that threatens this unstable nation.
Date created : 2013-12-12