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Clearing the cassava fields with their bare hands. Photo by Matthieu Alexandre for Caritas Internationalis

Clearing the cassava fields with their bare hands. Photo by Matthieu Alexandre for Caritas Internationalis

“You see, they clear the cassava fields with their bare hands,” said Bruno Zamba, an elder in a small village in the Central African Republic. “All our tools were stolen in an attack by Anti-balaka on 11 January.”

Anti-balaka are the militias originally formed in response to the violence engulfing the country when a different armed group called Seleka seized power in March 2013.

The Anti-balaka positioned themselves as defenders of Christians, while Seleka favoured Muslims. On the ground both have engaged in indiscriminate murder, robbery and general lawlessness. Both have been condemned by Christian and Muslim religious leaders.

Kpalongo is a village about 15 km from the capital Bangui, on the road to Mbaïki. The village leader is more desperate than annoyed by the loss of the community’s tools.

The young workers pullout weeds and branches with their hands. They have one machete between the group, which they pass between them.

It’s here last November that Caritas gave out tools and seeds. The seeds have been sowed and now the farmers must wait a year for the cassava to grow.

The fields lining the main road haven’t been ransacked, but without tools it’s hard for the people to maintain them.

A Muslim boy,  victim of an attack,  at hospital the Catholic hospital in Bossemtele. Photo by Matthieu Alexandre for Caritas Internationalis

A Muslim boy, victim of an attack, at hospital the Catholic hospital in Bossemtele. Photo by Matthieu Alexandre for Caritas Internationalis

Bruno Zamba was accused by the Anti-balaka militias of hiding weapons for their rivals, the Seleka. Despite there being no proof, they threatened to kill him.

“The Anti-balaka arrived at my house. They were screaming as they broke the door down. They accused me of hiding weapons,” he said.

“At first I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Then it struck me that you could be accused of something even if you did no wrong. A neighbour might make something up so they can get your place.”

After the Anti-balaka searched his house and found nothing, they became angry and threatened to kill the farmer.

“I managed to escape into the bush,” he said. “They stole all the village seeds, tools and stored food. We have nothing, though it’s a miracle I’m still alive.”

Further west is a hospital run by Camillian Fathers in the town of Bossemtele. It’s about 315 km from Bangui. A Seleka attack in the town in January left 80 people dead. The hospital still cares for injured people coming out of hiding in the bush.

“We have only 20 beds,” said one of the Camillian Fathers. “It’s not nearly enough. Since January, we have treated more than 420 patients. “We need beds and medicines. We working to make new rooms. It just takes bricks and a lot of sweat. But for our other needs, we cannot find the resources ourselves.”

The situation in Bozoum, in the northwest of the country, is slowly improving.

“Children have been able to go to school for some weeks,” said Fr. Aurelio Gazzera, the local Caritas director. “But people have not yet returned to the fields because they lack seeds and tools. They have nothing to eat.”

The area witnessed an unprecedented wave of violence following the resignation of President Michel Djotodia in January. He’d come to power when Seleka seized power last year.

Pupils attend a class in a school ran by the Catholic Mission in Bozoum. Photo by Matthieu Alexandre for Caritas Internationalis

Pupils attend a class in a school ran by the Catholic Mission in Bozoum. Photo by Matthieu Alexandre for Caritas Internationalis

Fr Aurelio Gazzera was lucky to escape. He was attacked by a crowd of angry Muslims throwing stones at his car.  It was two Seleka fighters who saved his life. They used their own bodies to shield him.

Seleka have since left the area “armed to the teeth and heading for Chad”, according to Fr Aurelio. They burned 1,300 homes in the area that left 6000 people homeless.

Fr Aurelio has made sure that the Muslims who stayed behind in Bozoum have clean drinking water and rice, paid at his own expense.

Caritas Internationalis has launched a huge recovery effort in the Central African Republic after months of turmoil have left the country devastated. Caritas aims to help 100,000 people with food, shelter, education, healthcare as well as build peace.