In the east, thousands of people have crossed the border to escape further attacks; in the west, thousands more are hiding in churches or in the bush. A major humanitarian crisis is deepening in the Central African Republic (CAR) after a series of armed groups launched a military offensive and sparked new unrest in the war-weary country.
This rebel alliance wreaked havoc in the run-up to elections last month, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from voting and causing the collapse of a fragile peace deal. Last week, fighters carried out a brazen assault on the capital, Bangui, before being pushed back by security forces.
Humanitarian groups warn that rising violence is preventing them from reaching the most vulnerable in a country where armed groups control large swathes of land. In total, more than 100,000 people have been displaced – in addition to the 1.2 million already uprooted by the previous conflict – as the CAR is once again forced to face growing insecurity.
“The needs are increasing and funding is decreasing,” Hamdi Bukhari, the national representative of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), told Al Jazeera.
“We expect more unrest to occur. An escalation would have a serious impact on the population which is already in a critical humanitarian situation. “
Some of the most powerful armed groups in the country – including those who were supposed to be sworn enemies – have formed the so-called Coalition of Patriots for Change.
Among them are elements of the former Seleka alliance of predominantly Muslim rebels who, in 2013, overthrew then-president François Bozize. In the aftermath of this coup, anti-balaka militias from Christian and animist communities retaliated as the country fell into a violent spiral of revenge attacks.
The Seleka rebels have fragmented into rival factions, fighting over territory on which to extort residents and smuggle gold and diamonds.
Despite a peace agreement signed in 2019, the former Seleka and anti-balaka militias have now joined together and launched a new insurgency. Marriage of convenience between rival factions is not uncommon in the cynical power play of CAR politics, while uprisings are a preferred tactic of rebel groups operating in remote and resource-poor provinces to secure government rewards. central Bangui in exchange for the deposit of arms. .
Recent rebel attacks on towns across CAR severely disrupted the December 27 elections in which President Faustin-Archange Touadera ran for a second term.
With polling stations vandalized and voters intimidated, rebels succeeded in preventing voting from taking place in more than 40 percent of constituencies.
Monday, the Constitutional Court of the CAR confirmed Touadera’s re-election, giving the former math professor five more years in power, though political opposition continues to challenge the result given the disturbed turnout, which stood at over a third.
The combined pro-government force of UN peacekeepers, federal soldiers, Rwandan reinforcements and Russian paramilitaries is likely to prevent a repeat of the full-fledged war of 2013, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.
But attacks could continue, if not intensify, as the surge in armed confrontation overshadows calls for dialogue and mediation.
“What looks most likely for the next two months is an escalation of violence,” said Hans De Marie Heungoup, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.
“The government seems reluctant to open channels of discussion with the rebel coalition and is more inclined to launch military operations against the rebel coalition in the days and weeks to come to reduce it to its minimum capacity.
The CAR government and the UN accuse former president Bozize of fueling rebellion to regain power, which he denies.
The 74-year-old former general, who seized power in a 2003 coup, returned from exile at the end of 2019 to run against Touadera as a rival presidential candidate, despite being the highest court in the country. country banned him last month due to an international arrest warrant and UN sanctions. against him for alleged war crimes.
The uprising reached a worrying further escalation last week when several hundred rebels stormed the outskirts of Bangui on two fronts.
Amid gunfire and explosions, security forces launched a counterattack as civilians fled streets strewn with bullets.
Seven UN peacekeepers have been killed since the uprising began last month.
“We want peace, nothing but peace,” a woman café owner in Bangui told local media. “We have suffered enough in the IDP camps. We want peace. “
Touadera’s second term opens against a backdrop of clear division following an election that only served to polarize society rather than reconcile it.
Observers believe the offensive was aimed less at gaining control of the capital – clearly impossible with just a few hundred young fighters – and more at increasing the influence of the rebel coalition in future negotiations by displaying its ability to strike a city. previously considered out of reach of provincial fighters.
Beyond the corridors of power in Bangui, violence is igniting one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. “The rebellion has been an almost unbearable situation for the people here,” said Denise Brown, UN humanitarian coordinator in CAR.
Nearly 60,000 people have fled to neighboring countries since December – most crossing the Mbomou River to reach the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Last week 10,000 refugees arrived there in a single day after rebels seized the town of Bangassou, leaving many in dire need of food, shelter and sanitation facilities. adequate.
Hundreds more have sought refuge in a hospital run by the Médecins Sans Frontières (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) medical association – mostly women and children. The UN force claims to have since regained control of Bangassou; two peacekeepers were killed in a subsequent attack on Monday.
The initial outbreak of hostilities caused some 185,000 people across the country to flee their homes. Much of this exodus has been characterized as “preventive displacement” in which civilians, fearing a repeat of past violations, flee before combatants can reach their homes. While many of them have since returned, nearly a third of them – or around 58,000 people – are still internally displaced.
In the face of the turmoil, Bukhari of UNHCR said the agency faced a serious deficit and was only able to continue operations for two months.
“The funds will not last long,” he warned. “The situation is still unfolding and we must not stop our response to this emergency. The Central African population has suffered for decades of unrest and repeated violence. They are tired and traumatized. They need peace.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) warns that mounting hostilities have crippled vital humanitarian operations in several areas. Rebel activity on the main supply route from Cameroon has created food shortages, tripling some prices.
Dozens of incidents against humanitarian workers have been recorded since mid-December, including raids on buildings and the murder of an aid worker. In a country already considered one of the most dangerous in the world for aid workers, these repeated attacks have forced some aid groups to close field offices and evacuate staff to the capital.
“Obstructing our access to the country is like cutting off the lifeline of more than half of the population who depend on humanitarian aid for their survival,” said David Manan, NRC National Director.
The UN humanitarian coordinator hopes to regain access there soon. “All our efforts at this time ensure that where we have had to temporarily shut down our activities because of the armed groups, we will return to these areas – that’s what I anticipate in the coming weeks,” said Brown.
MSF doctors were faced with an influx of wounded, providing emergency care to nearly 200 of them in the first weeks of the uprising. Despite the grim tally, the violence has yet to match the widespread atrocities of the 2013 descent to war.
This reprieve may not last. The crisis is complicated by the involvement of so many different military groups – from the rebel hotch-potch to Russian mercenaries, to poorly disciplined state troops and a new obscure militia known as The Sharks, or The Sharks, allegedly operating on behalf of the Presidency.
“One possibility is that the rebellion will start to fragment, with increasingly weak command and control,” Heungoup told Al Jazeera.
“If this happens, it is likely that uncontrollable members of the rebellion will increasingly attack civilians. The more the crisis worsens, the more it could become a real humanitarian emergency. “