Posted by: Zach Younkin | March 7, 2008

Ten reasons Central African Republic should be on your radar

This is from a Reuters.com article.  Any external links found originally in this article can still be found via this article.

1. HARDLY ANYONE KNOWS ABOUT IT
Central African Republic, a small country of 4 million people located exactly where its name suggests, ranks among the least-known places in the world. It often features on lists highlighting the world’s most under-reported humanitarian emergencies, including the annual top 10 issued by international relief agency Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

2. IT’S CONNECTED TO DARFUR AND CHAD
Central African Republic is intimately linked with its neighbours. It’s sandwiched between Chad and Sudan to the north and Cameroon to the west. Below are Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Republic of Congo.

CAR’s conflict – between the government and rebel groups that want to overthrow it – is sometimes portrayed as spillover from the higher-profile wars in Chad and Sudan. Some aid workers worry this downplays the country’s own problems.

But there are significant links, and Africa analyst Alex de Waal says Chad, DRC, Eritrea, Libya, Sudan and Uganda all have interests in Central African Republic’s future. Chadian rebels based in Sudan are active in CAR, and have even recruited some of their military commanders there. Ugandan rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army have also used eastern Central African Republic as a base.

Uprooted people cross all its borders, with 45,000 refugees from CAR in Cameroon, 50,000 in Chad and 3,000 in Sudan. In the other direction, hundreds have arrived since this year’s upheaval in Chad, and aid workers say they’ve got contingency plans if more refugees – or retreating rebels – come their way.

3. 300,000 OF ITS PEOPLE ARE DISPLACED
We’re talking about a place where almost 300,000 people have been uprooted by violence, and families forage in the forests to escape anti-government rebels who raze their villages and child-abducting bandits. They raid and loot with impunity as the government has little control beyond the capital Bangui.

Aid agencies say the violence is most extreme in the northwest and northeast, where villagers are caught up in a conflict between the government and rebels, and are vulnerable to attack by both.

About one-third of those displaced have fled the country. But the rest who remain in CAR tend not to move very far from their homes. Many are camped out in the bush close to their razed villages, continuing to work their fields when they can or clearing new plots of land in the forest, as described in a November 2007 report by MSF.

It’s hard for families to recover when their seeds and emergency supplies have been burned or looted, and the U.N. World Food Programme says thousands risk starvation.

The army has come under heavy criticism from rights groups and aid agencies for brutal assaults on villages – burning down homes, beating men and raping women – but the president now seems to have reined in his forces in response to international pressure.

Two rebel groups signed peace deals with the government in early 2007, although aid workers say the peace agreements aren’t respected on the ground. But a third rebel group – the largest – hasn’t even come to the table.

4. CHILDREN, AND ADULTS, GET KIDNAPPED ALL THE TIME
Rural inhabitants also live in fear of “zaraguinas” – marauding gangs who specialise in kidnapping babies and children for ransom. Anyone in a position of authority and perceived wealth risks being abducted too, from chiefs and pastors to teachers and health workers. Aid agencies say many of the bandits come from Chad and Niger. Refugees International issued some helpful information about the zaraguinas in January.

In the north, another factor fuelling violence is the presence of armed Chadian pastoralists who cross the border during the dry season and sometimes clash with locals over access to grazing routes. Armed poachers operate in the southwest. The problems are entwined because bandits thrive on the lawlessness accompanying the political conflict.

5. IT’S GOT FOREIGN PEACEKEEPERS
Multinational peacekeepers have been deployed in various incarnations since 1997. At the moment, unarmed police from the U.N. mission, MINURCAT, are mandated to work in northeastern Central African Republic and eastern Chad, alongside an armed European Union peacekeeping force, EUFOR.

Under the same U.N. Security Council resolution, the 3,700-strong EUFOR is charged with protecting refugee camps, while the smaller MINURCAT focuses on training police and advising authorities on human rights and security threats.

6. IT’S AN ICC CASE
Central African Republic is one of just four countries in the spotlight of the International Criminal Court so far. The ICC is investigating war crimes committed by rebels from Democratic Republic of Congo during 2002-2003 violence in CAR.

7. IT’S VERY, VERY POOR
With life expectancy barely above 43 years, the country’s humanitarian statistics are among the worst on the planet, despite its wealth of diamonds and timber.

8. HARDLY ANY ROADS, LET ALONE HEALTH CARE OR EDUCATION
U.N. officials said in February they were helping the government battle a meningitis epidemic. A decade of unstable government has left the health service in tatters. Most health workers in rural areas have left their jobs because of insecurity and unpaid wages, and there’s a chronic shortage of essential drugs and vaccines. You’ll find more on this in AlertNet’s crisis briefing.

Even where health care exists, few people can afford to pay for it. The HIV/AIDS rate is one of the highest in the region, with more than 10 percent of the adult population living with the virus, according to UNAIDS.

9. INTERNATIONAL AID AGENCIES WORK THERE
There are now about 30 relief organisations operating in the remote northeast and northwest, including MSF, International Rescue Committee (IRC), Caritas, Merlin and Premiere Urgence. Some of them run “bush schools” in a zone where the official education system is non-existent.

There’s been a big increase in the aid presence since 2006, when only a handful of international non-governmental organisations worked in this isolated region. Humanitarian and development organisations in CAR run a resource-packed blog website, which is well worth a visit.

Security is so bad that most embassies and international agencies are based in neighbouring Cameroon.

10. DONORS IGNORE IT
Aid agencies say it’s hard to get funding from donors reluctant to give money to a country that’s had 11 coups in the last decade and is plagued by a history of corruption.

“It’s not only poor – it’s getting poorer,” says Toby Lanzer, the country’s U.N. humanitarian coordinator, who thinks 2008 is a make-or-break year for CAR.

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