from JEAN KASSONGO in Kinshasa, DRC
KINSHASA, (CAJ News) – FOR the past few weeks, Central African Republic (CAR) cities such as Zemio have evolved from battlefields for rival rebel groups to ghost towns.
Around 10 000 people fled the south-eastern town at the height of the conflict and sought refuge in the bushes or surrounding areas.
Another estimated 10 000 crossed the border over to the equally-troubled Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and are staying in a makeshift camps.
Almost everybody has left. The population has dropped from 21 000 to under 1 000.
“The only people left are those who couldn’t run away, such as the disabled,” Wil van Roekel, Doctors Without Borders coordinator, told CAJ News.
In the ever-increasing displacements of civilians fleeing their homes in the war-torn Central Africa Republic, spare a thought for people with disabilities caught up in the raging conflict battering the country.
While thousands of people walk for weeks and hide in the forests the disabled are unable to flee violence, some are especially vulnerable to attacks while trying to flee and others face unsafe and unhealthy conditions in displacement camps.
People living with disabilities may be left behind during flight, or may not survive the journey.
They are often not identified or counted in registration or data collection exercises, are excluded from or unable to access mainstream assistance programmes and forgotten when specialised services are set up.
The disabled members of the community, most who have sought sanctuary at the PK8 camp in Bambari, are often the most exposed to protection risks, including physical and sexual violence, exploitation, harassment and discrimination.
Polio is the leading cause of disability in the Central African country.
Jardina Akombe, a 34-year-old woman with physical disability caused by polio, recalls how she played dead as rebels from the Union for Peace attacked the town of Yasmine in beginning of 2017 because she could not run away.
“When the town was attacked, I hid inside my house because I did not stand a chance of fleeing. My husband and our eight children fled and I have not heard from them,” she said.
Her ordeal, while she was somewhat fortunate to live to narrate it, mirrors some of the disabled’s struggles as they are often left behind.
Violence has increased throughout the CAR, particularly between Muslim Seleka diehard factions in the central regions and between rebels and Christian extremist anti-balaka militias in the northwest. Civilians are caught in the middle, and sometimes targeted, despite United Nations (UN) peacekeepers’ presence.
The government struggles to maintain control of the capital, relying on peacekeepers for support. An estimated 461 000 people are refugees in neighbouring countries and 421 700 more are internally displaced.
“I was not able to flee like the others because I have a disability. I could not find my crutches, I stayed and protected my child until the gun fire stopped,” Geena Malala, another disabled woman said.
To add to their misery, those who make it into the displacement camps have trouble accessing basic services.
For people with disabilities, either from before the conflict or due to injuries sustained during attacks, conditions in the camps are particularly harsh. Food distributions are often chaotic and disorganized.
“During distribution of rations we always struggle throughout the pushing and shoving. The crowd is ever too tight and because of my condition, I cannot move forward,” said a man who only identified himself as Terry, whom conflict uprooted from Bria.
For people with physical disabilities the refugee camps are unhealthy and hazardous to navigate.
The sanitary conditions are not suitable.Some physically impaired refugees suffer the indignity of crawling on their hands.
Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said a peace accord the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra signed with 13 of 14 armed groups active in the country should bring a respite for civilians who have been brutalized in the conflict, especially people with disabilities who suffer violence and neglect.
“People with disabilities and other at-risk groups should get the protection and assistance they desperately need.”
Mediated by the Roman Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, the accord commits the parties to end their hostilities and to recognize last year’s presidential election results, but is in danger of futility as the conflict rages.
Ironically, in CAR, the discrimination against disabled persons is illegal.
The civil service and large firms are mandated to employ some disabled people.CAR is torn by renewed crisis since 2013 when rebel groups overthrew then- President François Bozizé. Touadéra’s administration is battling to retain order.
– CAJ News
from JEAN KASSONGO in Kinshasa, DRC