23 May 2008 A surge since the start of the year in the number of attacks by armed bandits across the north of the Central African Republic (CAR) is forcing tens of thousands of people to flee their homes and has brought economic activity to a standstill in large parts of the already impoverished and strife-torn country, the United Nations relief wing reports today.
As many as a third of the estimated 300,000 people who have become displaced have done so because of banditry, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement.
Groups of between 10 and 30 armed men – known locally as “coupeurs de route” or “zaraguinas” – are roaming the northern CAR, killing or assaulting villagers and travellers, kidnapping both children and adults, looting property and burning homes.
In a particularly disturbing recent trend, the bandits have burned down entire villages, often as punishment for resistance by village self-defence groups. The villagers have fled to the bush or to neighbouring towns.
UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Catherine Bragg spoke out against “the indiscriminate and predatory attacks” and the impact they are having.
“They are driving tens of thousands of people to the edge of survival,” she said. “We need to make sure that victims have access to protection, shelter and health services.
Toby Lanzer, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in the CAR, said many farmers and traders are now afraid to travel to sell their wares in towns and villages.
“People rely on aid agencies to provide seeds and tools, which are no longer available in the market,” he said. “We also provide soap, basic household goods and clothes to victims who have lost everything in an attack.”
OCHA estimates that one million people in the northern CAR have been affected by either civil conflict or the banditry, with nearly 200,000 internally displaced and another 108,000 fleeing as refugees to neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Sudan. In March and April, more than 14,000 refugees entered Chad.
Although the UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have launched a $96.8 million aid programme to deal with the displacement and suffering, they have received just over a third of the necessary funding.
UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador and actress Mia Farrow, who has just completed a week-long visit to the CAR, said many of the people she met had no access to clean water or medicines, and yet were still trying to ensure their children attended “bush schools” and received an education.
“The desire of parents to give their children education is inspiring,” she said, warning however that more and more Central Africans are living in fear because of the banditry. Ms. Farrow added that rape and other forms of sexual violence were also widespread.
UNICEF’s Regional Director Esther Guluma called on both the Government and the international community to spend more to help those in need.
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