The UN has warned that the recent kidnapping of two aid workers in the northeastern town of Birao in Central African Republic will have a highly damaging impact on humanitarian activities in the remote, impoverished Vakaga region.
In an interview with IRIN in Bangui, OCHA’s Head of Office in the Central African Republic (CAR) Jean-Sébastien Munié, said NGOs had a crucial role to play in sustaining the population in the northeast, particularly in terms of assisting early recovery programmes and catering to the needs of hundreds of displaced persons.
“Our presence is much more than symbolic,” Munié stressed. “It is heavily demanded by the population itself.” But Munié also warned that security problems had to be taken seriously. “There is a kind of trauma amongst the humanitarian community when you see your colleagues disappearing like that.”
The two aid workers, both working with the French organization Triangle, were seized late on a Sunday night by a raiding party, which made off with three NGO cars and a motorbike. A third hostage, working for the NGO Comité d’Aide Médicale (CAM) was reportedly released after internal discussion among the abductors.
Diplomatic sources in Bangui have warned against rumours and speculation concerning the kidnappings, stressing that few clear details have emerged of the whereabouts of those kidnapped or the identities of the Birao raiding party. Media reports from Sudan, based on satellite phone contacts with those claiming to be responsible for the abductions, have highlighted the role of the “Aigles de la Libération de l’Afrique”, or Eagles of African Liberation, a little-known group that claims to be targeting the French government.
The Eagles first came to prominence in April 2009 when they kidnapped two women aid workers, French and Canadian nationals working for the French NGO Aide Medical Internationale, from Ed el Fursan in eastern Chad. The women were released after 25 days in captivity. The Eagles denied asking for a ransom. Their stated objective at the time was to pressurize France into taking stronger judicial action against the French organization Arche de Zoé, accused of trying to organize the abduction of dozens of children from Chad in October 2007. The Eagles say they also have in custody Laurent Maurice, an agronomist with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), abducted on 9 November in eastern Chad. The ICRC says it has had regular phone contact with Maurice, but is unclear on his abductors’ demands. Maurice’s abduction led to a suspension of ICRC activity in eastern Chad.
A senior rebel with forces operating in the northeast dismissed the Eagles’ claims. “This is a fictitious organization,” he told IRIN. “One is talking about opportunists and bandits, people without any principles, not a movement of any kind.”
A senior diplomat following events from Bangui also voiced scepticism. “One just does not know at this stage if the Eagles’ reported involvement is a credible part of the story or not,” he told IRIN. “It might be possible. It might not be possible. It is much too early to say.”
Photo: Anthony Morland/IRIN
Humanitarian operations, such as this food for work programme, provide an essential lifeline for many people in CAR (file photo)
Storm after the calm
The Vakaga region lies more than 1,000km northeast of Bangui and is very sparsely populated. Birao is the provincial capital and hosts a contingent of troops, mainly Togolese nationals, from the UN Mission in Central Africa and Chad (MINURCAT). Relief officials have expressed amazement at the “ineptitude” of MINURCAT’s response to the raid on Birao, with soldiers arriving long after the alert had gone out and the vehicles had departed.
The events of 22 November come after a period of comparative calm in the region. Long-standing tensions between Gula and Kara communities led to serious outbreaks of violence in June, forcing hundreds of villagers to flee their homes. The rebel Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), which has strong support from within the Gula community, has worked with the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) in helping to stabilize the region and leaders from both ethnic groups have been involved in mediation attempts. The kidnappings are not being linked to the Gula-Kara rift.
Humanitarian activities in recent months have focused on getting a mainly rural population back to the fields after serious disruption of agricultural production after the events in June. Triangle, CAM and the International Medical Corps (IMC) have all suspended activities in Birao.
Munié says local communities suffer as a consequence. “When you see an event in a town like that when people think they are protected, it puts a lot of questions on the table,” Munié told IRIN.
Relief operations have also been disrupted in Ndélé, provincial capital of Bamingui-Bangoran, which adjoins Vakaga. As in Birao, there is a substantial NGO presence in Ndélé, with French organizations Solidarités and AMI among those providing medical support. Fighting between the FACA and forces from the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) on 26 November left the government in control of the town. But many residents who fled the clashes are reportedly still in the bush.
The CPJP has yet to sign the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed by other rebel movements and the government. The movement’s 300 troops are not part of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme being undertaken by other factions. The CPJP formed in December 2008, a splinter group from the UFDR.
Its nominal leader, Charles Massi, is a former cabinet minister and presidential candidate. Massi was arrested earlier in the year by the Chadian authorities while supposedly on a mission to Chad to secure President Idriss Déby’s mediation between the CPJP and the CAR government of François Bozizé. Massi’s whereabouts are not known. The CPJP’s platform is unclear, but Massi and his supporters have protested against changes in diamond legislation in the CAR, arguing that the clampdown on diamond collectors and attempts to regulate the sector have penalized artisanal miners and their communities. The CPJP reportedly derives strong support from within the Runga community and it is the Runga part of the Ndéle population that has been slowest to return to the town.
Other rebel leaders dismiss Massi’s leadership of the CPJP as a sham, suggesting he took on the movement simply as a bargaining tool with Bozizé and that CPJP field commanders operate autonomously.
The kidnappings in Birao and the battle for Ndélé do not appear to be linked, but have triggered warnings that there could be a new cycle of violence now that the CAR’s rainy season is over.
“In the dry season there are more opportunities for bandits, poachers, zaraguinas and other groups to operate,” Munié told IRIN. But while describing the episodes of violence as “worrisome”, he warned they should not detract from tangible progress being made elsewhere. “We have a strong peace process going on,” Munié stressed, arguing that arrangements for DDR were in hand and should not be overshadowed by the events in the north.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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