The convoy set off from Bossangoa early in the afternoon on 25 February destined for Markounda, a remote town in the northwest of the Central African Republic. Inside were three members of a local non-governmental organisation called Bangui Sans Frontières, two officials from the country’s Ministry of Education, and a consultant working for UNICEF.
They were travelling on a road that countless humanitarians had used before, on their way to perform work that should have guaranteed them safe passage: educating children displaced by conflict. But roughly 18 kilometres from their destination, they were ambushed by an armed group, marched a few hundred metres into the bush, and executed in cold blood.
“The only weapons they had were chalk, a blackboard, and a notebook,” said Paulin-Germain Dobot, brother of Gabriel Ole, the UNICEF consultant. “What did they do in order to deserve this?”
The six educators were the latest victims in a wave of violence by armed groups against humanitarian workers in CAR, a conflict-torn nation where half the population of 4.7 million is in need of assistance and one in four people is either internally displaced or living as a refugee in a neighbouring country.
Between January and September last year, 265 security incidents involving NGOs were recorded, from physical attacks on personnel to looted compounds and vehicles; a total of 14 humanitarians had lost their lives by the end of December. During the first quarter of 2018, there were 63 incidents targeting aid workers, including the one that left Ole and five others dead.
“At the beginning, rebels respected humanitarian actors,” said Lewis Alexis Mbolinani, director of JUPEDEC, a leading Central African NGO. “Now, we have become the target.”
This violence against humanitarian workers is a byproduct of increased armed conflict throughout CAR, a country one and a half times the size of France. The lack of an effective, functioning state and the failure of the UN’s mission, MINUSCA, to keep the peace makes it incredibly difficult for aid workers to provide even basic services to civilians.
That task has become even harder as the conflict has spread into new, less accessible areas and the number of armed groups has proliferated. Needs have grown, even as access has shrunk.
Elections in 2016 had raised hopes of a resolution to the violence that swept through the country in 2013, when rebels from a predominantly Muslim alliance called the Séléka took power in a coup, sparking a backlash from a mostly Christian militia known as the anti-balaka.
But, in 2017, violence broke out again, with the rebels splitting into competing factions and fighting for control over CAR’s resource-rich territory. The previously clean battle line has since been replaced a dozen times over by an ever-expanding and unpredictable array of armed groups.
The last couple of years have seen a proliferation of armed groups as the initial conflict between Séléka rebels and anti-balaka militia has splintered into more localised fighting over natural resources and territory. Various peace accords and mediation efforts have failed to stem the violence as this ever-expanding cast of armed actors drives record levels of displacement and suffering across the country. The main groups:
Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (FPRC) – Hardline ex-Séléka group led by Nourredine Adam and former Séléka leader, Michel Djotodia. Has forged an alliance with the anti-balaka since 2015.
Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) – Ex-Séléka group led by Ali Darassa and formerly headquartered in Bambari. The UPC claims to represent the interests of CAR’s Fulani/Peuhl community. Fought against the FPRC throughout 2017.
The Patriotic Rally for the Renewal of Central Africa (RPRC) – An ex-Séléka group formed in the diamond-mining town of Bria in 2014. Led by former Séléka commander Zacharia Damane and one-time parliamentarian Gotran Djono Ahaba. Dominated by members of the Gula ethnic group.
The Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC) – Another ex-Séléka faction formed in 2015 as a split from the FPRC. The group split, itself, in mid-2017, forming a new faction called MPC Siriri.
Revolution and Justice (RJ) – Formed in late 2015 in northwestern CAR under the command of Armel Ningatoloum Sayo. RJ has recently fought with rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Central African Republic (MNLC) around the town of Paoua.
Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R) – Led by General Sidiki Abas, this group is based in northwestern CAR near the border with Cameroon and is dominated by fighters from the Fulani/Peuhl group.
Anti-balaka – Loose group of Christian and animist militias with localised structures around the country. Main factions are led by Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona and Maxime Mokom, whose group is supported by former president François Bozizé and has been in alliance with the FPRC since early 2015.
“Auto-defence” – In 2017 a new generation of self-proclaimed “auto-defence” groups sprang up in the southeast. The groups, which are loosely connected to the anti-balaka, have launched a series of attacks on Muslim communities and UN peacekeepers.
As the conflict has fractured, so have the lines of communication to armed groups – which can be deadly for organisations trying to deliver aid across increasingly murky zones of rival control.
“If there are only a couple of factions, it is easier for us to know who to talk to and to explain our neutrality and our impartiality to,” explained Paul Brockmann, Médecins Sans Frontières’ head of mission in CAR. “But, with the constant splintering of groups, it is hard for us to find the interlocutors and establish relationships of trust.”
Hear more from Paul Brockmann from MSF.
Even when NGOs have well-established contact with armed groups, regular dialogue becomes difficult in times of conflict. When violence erupted last December in Paoua, a remote town in northwestern CAR, staff with the Danish Refugee Council found themselves unable to move over several routes leading in and out of the city, even though the group had worked in the area since 2007.
“If [the armed groups] are there and not fighting, they are reachable,” said the NGO’s country director, Martine Villeneuve. “But when there is a conflict it becomes very difficult. If something happens, there is nobody we can call to take care of us.”
Hear more from Martine Villeneuve from the Danish Refugee Council.
“If I don’t receive treatment I will die”
As the conflict in CAR spreads, a growing number of Central Africans have been forced to take refuge in increasingly remote locations beyond the reach of humanitarian missions.
NGOs have also been forced to suspend programmes and withdraw from several heavily populated regions, aggravating an already dire humanitarian crisis.
Last November, MSF suspended its activities in Bangassou, a mid-sized town in southeast CAR that has become an epicentre of violence since the emergence of new “self-defence” militias. MSF, which suffered 40 attacks by armed groups in CAR last year, had set up a mobile clinic in a camp for internally displaced Muslims who militias keep from accessing a community health centre.
“For a long time, we have received no medical assistance,” said the camp’s coordinator, Ali Idriss.
“Most of the people are sick and cannot go to the main hospital. They are going to die here.”
Nearby, a man rolled out from underneath a threadbare mosquito net, bullet wounds visible on his inner legs, chest, right arm, and testicles. He had been shot by members of a militia armed with hunting rifles a week earlier, after searching for firewood outside the camp. The antibiotics a local nurse had given him had run out.
“If I don’t receive treatment I will die,” he said.
Displaced Muslims who now live at a Catholic seminary in Bangassou
Militia violence means they can't access aid, and aid groups can't access them.
The few, mostly local, NGOs that have remained in Bangassou face almost daily harassment from the militia, which has also launched an unprecedented number of attacks against UN peacekeepers deployed in the region. During five days IRIN spent in the town in early April, a vehicle used by the International Organization for Migration was ambushed, a JUPEDEC land-cruiser was stolen, and an INTERSOS warehouse was looted.
In addition to depriving civilians of food, medical care and other services offered by NGOs, Villeneuve said increased violence leads to the suspension or relocation of projects, which will affect funding for NGOs.
“Suspensions impact on your quality of programme delivery,” she said. “Donors will be less willing to fund you the year after to do the same type of project, which might be what is needed to stabilise the area and stop the increased power of armed groups.”
The less NGOs have to give – CAR’s 2018 humanitarian response plan is just 16 percent funded – the worse their relationship with the local population becomes, creating even more challenges for staff in the field, according to Henri-Noel Tatangang, country director at Plan International, an NGO that promotes children’s rights.
“You explain that this is the little you can offer, but they are very unsatisfied with what they receive,” he said. “They might need five kilos of maize, but I can only give them two. I explain to them that this is what I received from the donor, but they don't believe it. They feel that [international NGOs] are feeding off their backs.”
Hear more from Henri-Noel Tatangang from Plan International.
Increased violence in CAR has also intensified ethnic and religious tensions, as armed groups seek to manipulate local populations to advance their political and economic agendas. Humanitarian agencies said that staying neutral and impartial has been extremely challenging.
For example, aid groups lost access last year to a Muslim district in the northern town of Batangafo because of a perception they were biased towards Christians, who constituted the majority of displaced people in the town and therefore received a greater share of food during distribution programs.
“They said we distribute oil and food but some don't benefit,” said Tatangang. “They were complaining that because they were not in the camp for internally displaced people they are not receiving aid.”
The unease in Batangafo escalated further last September when Solidarités International mistakenly hired a man with alleged links to a local militia. He was spotted by ex-Séléka rebels and executed as he was travelling to Kabo, a nearby town, to distribute food and other goods. The militia then held the collective international NGO community in Batangafo responsible for supposedly exposing him to harm.
“The militia were saying openly ‘we will deal with (in a bad way) these humanitarians, they have taken one of our brothers to his death,’” said Tatangang.
For the next three days, the militia attacked a Danish Refugee Council compound where a number of international NGOs were based, using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Ninety humanitarian workers were eventually evacuated to the capital, Bangui, escorted by a MINUSCA helicopter that scouted the route for ambushes.
“If MINUSCA were not there I don't know what would have happened,” said Tatangang.
Such security incidents mean NGOs are now increasingly dependent on MINUSCA for support, from protecting compounds and distribution sites to providing armed escorts. But this creates its own problems as local people and members of armed groups become confused about who is representing political, military, and humanitarian groups.
Villeneuve said that two Danish Refugee Council vehicles were attacked last year on the road near Bocaranga, in the west of the country, by fighters who mistook them for MINUSCA.
“The line between humanitarian actors and MINUSCA is very thin,” Villeneuve said. “The more attacks there are against humanitarian workers, the more you will have the presence of MINUSCA and the more you will have the confusion between us.”
Behaviour of staff
Country directors and humanitarian workers also cited sexual misconduct by staff in Bangui and the field as factors that impede the work of NGOs by adding to security concerns, sullying the groups’ reputations and reducing acceptance by local people.
“There are many, many cases,” said Tatangang. “When you engage in those kind of relationships, people feel you are abusing them, using your money or authority.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that in January it hired independent investigators to probe concerns about staff members paying for sex and engaging in exploitative and abusive behaviour in CAR.
"Such behaviour is a clear violation of ICRC’s Code of Conduct in any country and at any time,” an ICRC spokesperson said.
A UN worker in Bangui with knowledge of the case also told IRIN about a French aid worker who was reported by colleagues to the senior management of a prominent NGO for repeatedly using the organisation’s vehicles and compounds to sleep with “potential prostitutes and even minors”. The person left the organisation but was hired two weeks later by a UN agency working in CAR.
“It is just one case among many cases that pretty much every NGO in CAR is dealing with,” said the UN worker, before adding: “Everyone was really paranoid [the Oxfam scandal] would break out in CAR.”
The UN’s humanitarian coordinator in CAR, Najat Rochdi, said there is a lack of information-sharing between NGOs and the UN mission regarding sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers.
“When it comes to a peacekeeper, [the complaint] goes to a central Conduct and Discipline Unit,” she said. “The protocol is very clear and immediately there are measures taken. When it comes to humanitarians and NGOs, the protocol is that each one is reporting to its own headquarters. I have been in CAR for one year and a half and have had only three cases reported to me. I did not get the information through the NGOs, I got it from the victims directly.”
Read More in This Series: Inside mission impossible
Hotspots, and aid blank spots
Despite access being challenging in conflict-torn areas in the centre and east of the country, NGOs said the majority of funding is still being directed towards these so-called “hotspots”, leaving other, more peaceful parts of CAR, particularly in the west, critically underfunded.
“In the humanitarian response plan, there are three zones: emergency zones, transition places, and recovery places,” explained Eric Batonon, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council. “That was not good for us, or donors. When we focus only on hotspots and cannot provide assistance in calm zones, then those calm zones may soon become hotspots."
"The whole of CAR should be seen as an emergency place.”
Representatives from all the NGOs IRIN spoke to said that establishing trust and strong communication with local communities remains the best way to keep humanitarian workers safe while meeting the needs of civilians.
“When we want to go and do something, we try and get acceptance,” said Batonon. “When we want to set up a project, we explain what we want, who we are targeting, and the selection criteria.”
Hear more from Eric Batonon from the Norwegian Refugee Council.
But with conflict still raging in CAR, most humanitarians accept that they have to take risks if they want to deliver aid. It was a calculation the UNICEF consultant, Gabriel Ole, made. Three years ago, the devout Christian retired after decades as an inspector in the Ministry of Education in Bangui.
Seeing children affected by conflict was not something the 64-year-old could ignore. Before his death in February, Ole had planned to start his own NGO, Action for Education. He had big ideas about changing the country’s education system, one of his closest friends, Constantinos Hadjixiros, said, adding, sadly: “He had energy to offer more and more.”
Read part 3