I had arrived in Bangui—the capital of a country at war with itself. The people in the camp were internally displaced due to the violence that has been occurring throughout the country, and the World Vision team was on a mission to document their plight.
The camp surrounding Notre Dame Fatima church in Central African Republic looked like a market, full of people selling local doughnuts, fruits, peanuts (groundnuts) and soap among other items. Some children were playing, while most adults were organising their belongings, getting water from the temporary well or attending to the smaller children. The morning sun was offering a warm and yellow light as well as a sense of peace. It was the month of March.
I had arrived in Bangui—the capital of a country at war with itself. The people in the camp were internally displaced due to the violence that has been occurring throughout the country, and the World Vision team was on a mission to document their plight. We were part of a small group of staff who had arrived from various parts of the Partnership to begin the response.
The streets had been divided into narrow paths between the old mattresses, tarp and fabric covers and old suitcases holding what remained of the residents’ possessions.
As we carefully walked along the paths, people invited us to hear their stories. Most of them wanted to do it anonymously or did not want to give their surnames. “We are too scared of being caught in revenge attacks,” one person explained. One woman, Henriette, started yelling at us to make sure we could hear her message: “We are unhappy – unhappy in our own country. Who is coming for us? Help us; it is a tragedy.”
Each family sheltering around the church has a tiny parcel of the street.
Francis was quiet, surrounded by his family: his wife and two grandsons, and he waved at us. We approached him and he invited us to sit next to their mattress, “our most important possession at the moment.”
Francis explained that he was an electronics technician and that he had previously lived less than six kilometres from this camp where he now survived. His house had been destroyed during the violence and he had to run with his family away from death. “We are ‘refugees’ in our own city; I live so close but I am too scared to return.” Francis made clear that the only thing that he and the other people camping around the church wanted was to regain peace and a sense of normality.
It was time to leave and we made a promise. The promise was to return several days later to attend the church’s Sunday service and to share with the people the photos and videos we had recorded of them.
A few days later, we were informed that a fatal grenade attack had taken place near the church.
Our security officer had to deny our request to return – we had to break our promise due to serious security concerns. A few days later, I had to return to regional office in Dakar, and I have lived with my broken promise ever since.
Personally, I am finding comfort knowing that World Vision has a dedicated and expert team in place and we will be able to keep our promise to thousands of survivors. With a little bit of luck and strong faith, I might still be able to attend a church service with Henriette and Francis someday in their own neighbourhood.
PS: Yesterday, the 28th May 2014, at least 15 people have been killed and several others wounded during an attack in the camp. Gunmen hurled grenades and shot indiscriminately. I think of Henriette, Francis and his family… I hope they are still alive.