(BANGUI, March 3, 2004) Cotton farmer Faustin Bagaza, 55, wears the cloak of poverty around him even tighter these days. Despite harvesting his crop for two successive years, he has made no sales. The reason? A rebellion in northwestern Central African Republic (CAR) that has devastated the country’s agriculture, health, education and other services.
“I have kept the cotton I harvested in 2002 and 2003 in my house and nobody has come to buy it,” he told IRIN on 26 February. Bagaza lives in Sibut, Kemo Province, 185 km northeast of the nation’s capital, Bangui. He has been able to keep his three children at Sibut Secondary School, despite his meagre earnings and despite not having planted cotton in 2004.
Bagaza’s situation is not unique. Poverty seems to be the experience of most people in the northwest, an area that bore the brunt of a six-month rebellion waged by former army chief of staff Francois Bozize against President Ange-Felix Patasse. The rebellion ended on 15 March 2003 when Bozize overthrew Patasse.
History of civil strife
The country has undergone several armed conflicts since the mid-1990s that badly affected the population. But unlike the 1996-7 mutinies and the May 2001 coup attempt by former leader Andre Kolingba, which affected a section of Bangui residents, Bozize’s October 2002 to March 2003 rebellion wrecked havoc in five provinces: Ouham, Ouham Pende, Nana Grebizi, Kemo and parts of Ombella Mpoko. Thousands of people abandoned their homes for the bush or for neighbouring Chad.
As a result of the rebellion, most peasant farmers lost two planting seasons and have had no buyers for their last cotton harvest; health and educational facilities were looted, exposing people to diseases and epidemics; and insecurity increased in villages as armed robbers acquired modern guns and ammunition.
So far, an estimated 41,000 refugees remain in southern Chad, afraid to return home because of continued insecurity, the collapse of infrastructure, and destruction of villages.
To assess the situation and to prick the conscience of the international community to the plight of people living in the northwest, a mission of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) arrived in the country on 22 February for a two-week evaluation tour.
Headed by Special Humanitarian Adviser Ramiro Lopes Da Silva, the mission toured the provinces of Kemo, Nana Grebizi and Ouham from 26 to 28 February. Besides other OCHA officials, those from the UN Children’s Fund, the UN Development Program, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN World Food Program (WFP) accompanied Da Silva.
Plight of cotton farmers
The UN mission found that despite the adverse impact of the rebellion on the cotton-rich northwest, farmers had been picking their cotton – their major source of income – since 2002. Unfortunately, the cotton factory in Bossangoa, 305 km north of Bangui, was looted during the rebellion and its equipment taken to Chad by former rebels loyal to Bozize. Consequently, the Société Centrafricaine de Developpement des textiles (Socadetex), which was the only taker, was unable to buy from the farmers.
“Together with Socadetex, we began in January a campaign among farmers to encourage them to resume cotton farming,” Jean de Dieu Sepokode, the deputy governor of Sibut, told IRIN.
He said Socadetex would rehabilitate its factories and could buy this year’s cotton harvests.
On 3 February, CAR Prime Minister Celestin Gaombalet set up a committee to coordinate the rehabilitation of cotton factories in Bossangoa and Bambari, 385 km northeast of Bangui.
In villages along the road from Sibut to Kabo, a town 260 km north of Sibut in Ouham Province, farmers like Bruno Gona dumped cotton on the road for lack of storage room in their homes.
“The cotton I have in my house is worth up to 300,000 francs CFA [US $580],” Bruno Gona, a 25 year-old cotton farmer from the village of Patcho, 60 km south of Kabo in Nana Grebizi Province, told IRIN on 27 February.
In 2003, when an oil and soap firm, the Huilerie, Savonnerie de Centrafrique (Husaca) learnt of the cotton farmers’ plight, it urged them to switch to maize and pledged to buy their crops. However, when the maize was harvested, the firm failed to keep its promise.
“We have stored our maize harvests in one of the village chief’s houses as we wait for a buyer,” Gona added.
Health care beyond the reach of many
Due to the extreme and widespread poverty resulting from the destruction of cotton factories, people in the northwest have opted for traditional medicines when ill, given that they are cheaper and more readily available than modern medicines in hospitals and pharmacies.
Since the end of an emergency medical aid programme in December 2003, implemented by the Roman Catholic Association des Ouevres Medicales des Eglises en Centrafrique (Assomesca), drug prices have soared beyond the reach of the average citizen.
Paul Nganda, a medical assistant in Sibut Hospital, one of those previously covered by the Assomesca’s program, told IRIN on 26 February that the number of patients reporting to the hospital had decreased 50 percent since January.
He said that during Assomesca’s program, an adult paid 600 francs CFA (US $1.17) and a child 250 francs (49 US cents) for consultation, medication and hospitalization where necessary.
“Now all depends on the type of treatment the patients needs or on the duration of his hospitalization,” Nganda said.
He added that the cost could increase from 3,000 to 5,000 francs ($5.89 to $9.83). Most patients in the hospital complained of malaria, parasites, respiratory infections and tuberculosis (TB).
A laboratory technician at Sibut Hospital, Raul Abrou, told IRIN six patients had tested positive for TB in February and that they were being treated free of charge.
Cheap and dangerous drugs
The increase of health care costs has pushed people to rely on unauthorized street-side drug sellers. These drugs, though cheaper than those sold in hospital, pose a danger to consumers.
Felicite Kodromoundjou, a mother of five selling cassava in Sibut market, said she could not afford modern medicines and her children’s schooling from the 300 to 600 francs CFA that she earned from daily sales.
Gona said in order to seek medication at the Patcho health center, 50 meters from his house, he had to sell a basket of cassava or maize.
“If nobody buys it, as it is usually the case, then I take the traditional medicine made out of a mixture of roots and leaves,” he said.
Moreover, several villagers have returned home with tropical ulcers after spending months hidden in the forests. The disease starts with bacteria and then other parasites entering the body, causing a painful and itchy pimple on the skin that, once scratched, erupts to expose a grotesque sore.
“If not treated on time, it provokes gangrene and necessitates amputation,” Dr. Joseph Foumbi, a UNICEF representative, told IRIN on 27 February.
He added that malnutrition offered a fertile breeding ground for the disease. In Nana Outa village, 480 km northeast of Bangui in Nana Grebizi Province, the disease appeared in early January and affected mostly children. One parent told IRIN that 42 of 269 children in the village’s primary school had been sent home for treatment and to avoid risks of contaminating others.
“The only treatment we offer is to wash the wound with eau d’Aquin [a disinfectant],” Clement Kakodamba, a nurse running the village’s health center, told IRIN.
Serious cases are referred to the larger health center at Ouandago village, 12 km to the north. The only medical assistant at the Ouandago health center, Desire Badapou, said he received an average of 10 to 12 patients daily with the ulcer but was able to heal them with a combination of antibiotics. However, he said, his drug stock was almost depleted while the number of patients continued to increase.
Schools lack stationery
On the education front, school activities in the northwest resumed in June 2003, three months after the end of the rebellion. The school year 2003-2004 began in December 2003 with children and teachers starting classes without notebooks and pens.
One of the two teachers at Patcho Primary School, Appolinaire Assana, said that UNICEF had donated three notebooks and a pen to each of the 302 pupils in October 2003 but that the school had since run out of stationery.
The school was among those that had been receiving food from the WFP since December 2003, under the agency’s school feeding program in four war-affected provinces. This, Assana said, had encouraged children to attend class and prompted those still in hiding to come home.
However, despite the gains in education and agriculture, insecurity has persisted in the country. The phenomenon of armed highwaymen roaming the country on horseback has existed since the early 1980s but has intensified more recently with modern arms and more ammunition in circulation due to war. The most affected provinces are Nana Grebizi, Ouham and Ouham Pende and others in the east, where roads are impassable or non-existent.
On 23 February, six highwaymen on horseback armed with AK-47 assault rifles raided the village of Donzi, 255 km north of Bangui in Ouham Province, and wounded two villagers after stealing their property. In response, the village youth have formed a self-defense vigilante group of 27 volunteers, armed with hunting rifles.
One of the volunteers patrolling the village round the clock is, Jean Mamadou. He told IRIN on 28 February that during the Donzi attack there had been a battle of a few hours before the robbers overwhelmed the villagers. It was the fourth on the village since November 2003, he said.
“All the activities have ceased and nobody can go to his farm or to other villages’ markets,” Mamadou said.
He added that the volunteers only had three bullets remaining. Following the attack, seven government soldiers were sent to the village to support the volunteers.
In Kabo, 446 km north of Bangui and 60 km from the Chadian border, cattle herders returning from exile in Chad are reportedly armed with modern guns and were letting their cattle invade villagers’ farms.
A former rebel waiting for integration into the army and now on duty in Kabo, Desire Jassara, told IRIN on 27 February that security forces had recently arrested a cattle herder with an AK-47.
The insecurity is an extra burden to the villagers as their homes were burnt during the war in Kabo District. In fact, increased insecurity is one of the reasons why refugees are still reluctant to return home. Before the rebellion Kabo District had an estimated 22,700 residents. The district’s secretary, Come Sama, told IRIN that now there were 18,000 people in the district, the rest having fled to refugee in camps in southern Chad.
Nearly a year after Bozize’s coup, the populations in the northwest are still grappling with the impact of the rebellion. With time, they hope normalcy will return to their lives once again
IRIN is a United Nations humanitarian information unit. This article may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. All materials in this article copyright by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004. This article first appeared on IRIN at http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=39802