From “coquette” to “roquette”- how it´s like to work in Bangui

Bangui, the capital and the most populous city of Central African Republic has chanced enormously during the past year. Photo: Catianne Tijarena

Only a couple of years ago it was known as “coquette” , the cosy, a holiday destination for families in the region, and a family-duty station for staff of international organizations. Now, the expats have renamed Central African Republic capital Bangui as “roquette”, the rocket, referring to heavy firing.

From coquette, Bangui has become a fragile city with a curfew and all security measures for an acute emergency, according to the UN parameters. In recent months, the media has widely displayed horrific images of the violence that struck Central African Republic and its population.

Bangui has become the epicentre of sectarian clashes and manhunt targeting Muslims and Christians alike. FCA opened an office in CAR in the autumn of 2013, and has been present in the country during the whole conflict. What is it like to work in middle of the crisis, and how does ordinary life in Bangui look?

Forgotten by the international community

The start was little bumpy. After only a few months presence in Bangui, the FCA staff had to temporarily leave its locations following the peak of violence in December and January.
Romain Monsieur, FCA Humanitarian Coordinator in CAR, recalls:

“The events of December were the consequences of what happened in CAR during several months without any consideration from the International and humanitarian community. The hatred between different groups, and not only between Muslims and Christians, accelerated when different Ex-Seleka factions overthrew the government in March 2013 and committed unsanctioned abuse on the local population from March to December 2013. As a result, people coming from different villages started to gather together and commit atrocities as vengeance.

“Nevertheless, FCA team came back only few weeks later to intervene both in the camps and schools in Bangui, to first provide temporary education to displaced children, and then prepare the back-to-school initiative.”

Stable but fragile

Even if the situation is now, in the beginning of June, becoming more stable, living and working in Bangui and CAR in general, still poses a number of risks. Despite the fact that humanitarian organizations have not been directly targeted during the crisis, few carjacking and lootings of premises have occurred and overall criminal activity is on the rise.

While CAR security forces are unable to provide security to a large extent in Bangui and the country overall, international forces cannot cover the city and all major areas extensively, thus aid workers have put in place strict security measures to minimize risks and prevent accidents.

“The situation is stable but fragile, and accidents can occur at any moment also during daytime. We have contacts that inform FCA staff of what is going on in the areas of Bangui where we work. We have also established information-sharing networks with other NGOs and stakeholders”, Andrea Trevisan, Country Manager for FCA in CAR says.

“In general we tend to avoid areas which are arenas for open confrontations. At night we have a curfew at 21.30p.m., in order to prevent any incidents of crime. An aspect, where we invest a lot of time, is the establishment of good relations with beneficiaries’ communities that accept Finn Church Aid interventions, and give values to our work, so that we can have some sort of protection and a safe working environment.”

Focus on education during crisis

The FCA is currently carrying on Emergency Education in three sites for internally displaced people. At the same time, FCA supports purchases of school equipment and community mobilization in assisting the children in returning to school.

“It was an audacious project for FCA to intervene both in the sites and the schools. We believe that education can save lives for children, who have seen or experienced atrocities. This complementary approach was intended to help children in the camps, and prepare the return of displaced people to their place of living”, Romain Monsieur says.

Finn Church Aid maintains in Bangui Nicolas Barre’s school that is targeted for the children living in surrounding refugee camps. Photo: Catianne Tijarena.

Finn Church Aid maintains in Bangui Nicolas Barre’s school that is targeted for the children living in surrounding refugee camps.
Photo: Catianne Tijarena.

FCA has gained concrete support and strong recognition from the government, local authorities and international agencies, to continue its work and the re-opening of public institutions, such as school premises and the support to Parent Teacher Associations.

The main challenge will be in continuing the work in different regions, taking into account that the situation is still volatile, and armed groups can easily target schools that have been rehabilitated.

“Albeit the small increase in the number of humanitarian workers this operation is still underfunded.  To this date, only 3 percent of education activities are funded, and some of the largest actors traditionally involved in education in emergencies are still not active. Central African Republic needs much more funding for education to overcome the trauma experienced here and to keep children, adolescents and youth in school. Too many of them have been involved in the atrocities seen these last months and weeks”, says Nicolas Servas, Education Cluster Coordinator seconded by Finn Church Aid to UNICEF

Never seen before in Bangui – the traffic jams

At the moment Bangui is slowly becoming alive again; traffic is increasing and roadworks are on their way. But at dusk, everybody rushes home to stay close to their family. Also, most businesses close their doors at dusk, apart from a few bars and restaurants, which are popular among expatriates in the city center.

For Nicolas Servas, many things have changed in the course of his stay in Bangui:
“What used to be a “dead city” with empty streets, few open stores, and no traffic, apart from pickups loaded with militiamen, has completely changed: now we see many more people walking in the streets, buses and cars, which seemed to have disappeared last year. Sometimes there are even traffic jams.”

For Loredana Usai, GPE Project Officer, who just recently arrived in Bangui, the first impressions have been positive.
“During a visit to a school damaged by the conflict, hundreds of kids immediately surrounded me to shake hands and said ‘Bonjour’. It has never happened to me before in the countries where I had been working. The situation is better than I expected, and during the day we are quite free to move around town.”

Despite the conditions, the work continues

Central African Republic, and Bangui as well, remains in a fragile, quickly changing situation, where amidst threats and violence, Finn Church Aid staff is providing valuable relief.
“We believe that education is an essential tool for peace and development, and we are all engaged in this challenge with passion. Work and professional problems occur on daily basis, and tensions are a part of the work, but we all share a common goal, and we strive to move forward to provide the best relief possible for our beneficiaries”, Andrea Trevisan says.

Finn Church Aid programme in Central African Republic is implemented with the contribution of ACT Alliance, the MFA of Finland and FCA private funds.

Text: Satu Helin and Andrea Trevisan