By Inna Lazareva |The Guardian
Metres away from passengers awaiting their flights in the departure lounge of M’Poko airport in Bangui, tens of thousands of people shelter inside old jumbo-jets, under hangars or in ramshackle tents.
Marie Valentine, 66, is one of them. She remembers vividly the bullets flying in all directions as she fled her house in the capital of Central African Republic, in December 2013.
Behind her, throngs of people screamed and shouted as they scrambled to grab a few essential belongings before making their getaway, while militants armed with knives, guns and machetes chased after them.
“I managed to avoid someone stabbing me,” she says. “I can’t even count the number of near misses I’ve had. It’s God who saved us.”
As the latest round of violence in CAR exploded in the capital that year, more than a hundred thousand people, including Valentine, her two children and six grandchildren, fled to the only place they thought to be safe – the airport, close to the international peacekeepers’ base.
But one evening several months later, Valentine realised her safe haven was not so safe after all. “It was around 8pm,” she says, as the rain beats hard on the rusty sheet of metal she has fashioned to make the roof of her shelter. “I was tired and wanted to have a lie down. But then I heard some sounds outside.”
As she describes what she saw when she rushed outside, her eyes fill with tears. “I saw the Sangaris [the French peacekeeping force] soldiers gathering the children around them, making them … Aaaye!” she cries, as she describes seeing several children performing sexual acts on the peacekeepers. “It was awful to see it. I started throwing rocks at them. I shouted, ‘What are you doing to these little children over there?’”
The children – girls and boys, aged between eight and 14 – had been promised food rations by the soldiers in exchange for sex.
Valentine took the young people to their parents and told them what had happened, explaining that they needed to go to a health centre.
“But the parents didn’t want to talk about it – they didn’t even want to hear that their girls were raped,” she says, adding that the stigma of being found out to be involved with a foreigner was more terrifying than injury, disease or an unwanted pregnancy.
She managed to persuade the parents to take their children to doctors at a Médecins Sans Frontières clinic. She then gathered the children in her tent so they could give their testimonies to the journalists who had gathered in M’Poko and to NGOs.
Valentine was among the first to sound the alarm bells of the abuse being carried out by the French Sangaris forces, which led to an international outcry and resulted in an independent review that criticised the UN for its handling of the abuse cases. It emerged that UN forces stationed in the CAR had also abused children.
But this was only the beginning of Valentine’s activism. She set up the Organisation des femmes déplacées – Organisation of Displaced Women – “to lend a hand to those who really needed it”, she explains, in particular older widows whose children were far away.
Members of the group run small businesses together to earn money. They come up with ideas of what people might need, then pool their funds and set about producing and selling the goods required, whether it’s home-made soap, birthday or wedding cakes, or simply cups of tea and coffee.
“Afterwards, we put our earnings together and share it equally between us,” says Valentine.
The initiative, now in its second year, has created a following in the camp, with at least 10 more groups springing up. Valentine says she’s pleased but not surprised. “Working only for yourself, surviving only by yourself here, it doesn’t work,” she says. “You need to work together.”
More than 20,000 people still live at the airport camp. About 370,000 people are displaced elsewhere in the country, and more than 470,000 others have fled to neighbouring countries.
The violence across the country has rendered 2.3 million people – almost half of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.
Grassroots community groups are common in the M’poko displaced persons camp, says Pascale Serra, a film-maker from CAR who has spent months making a documentary about the lives of the residents. She says that the women’s groups not only enable people to earn a living, but also help to make life more bearable.
“You will find groups which do dance classes, women who teach children choreography, youths who have sent up ‘cinema’ style rooms to showcase films, and even home-made gyms, with basic exercise machines made from scrap.”
People have also “tried to instil an organisational system that they had previously in their own quarters where they lived”, says Serra, with the camp divided into 13 zones, each with its own chief. However, there remain serious hygiene and health concerns at the camp, which lacks basic facilities.
In August, the country declared an outbreak of cholera for the first time since 2012, and concerns are growing about the disease, already in Bangui, spreading to M’Poko. In the camp, there is little external food assistance, with locals relying on small plots of land to grow fruit and vegetables. Cases of malaria, particularly during the rainy seasons when the camp turns into a muddy swamp, are numerous.
Security problems, too, remain. One part of the camp is still occupied by the militants from the anti-balaka group, a majority Christian and animist militia who fought the rival Muslim-majority Seleka group. Locals say they are still armed.
In June, the country’s newly elected president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, outlined plans to relocate “at least 2,400 households deemed most vulnerable” at M’Poko to a transit site.
Although life at the airport is hard, Valentine dreads such a prospect, and worries that she will lack the means to rebuild her life in another temporary location.
And she will miss the women’s group. “We support one another,” she says.“We’ll all be so far away from each other.”
When the fighting is over she dreams of living in “the field of my father, where I was born”, 15km away. “I will go there and build a small house, there in my field, quietly. If I stay in this town, my head will continue spinning with all the terrible things that took place here – all that I saw, all that I lived through. It’s not good for me,” she says.
- Inna Lazareva was a 2016 fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Africa Great Lakes Reporting Initiative