Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) deputy head of mission Rene Colgo is currently coordinating the emergency response in Bangassou, Central African Republic, where MSF is currently calling for a ceasefire after conflict escalated. Here, he describes the situation.
Two weeks ago, as we were on our weekly visit to the health center of Yongofongo some 25 kilometers from Bangassou, we came across people fleeing the village. They told us that an armed group had taken over the village, killing three civilians in the market. A fourth person who tried to flee was caught and murdered. And then there was the incident last Monday between the same armed group of Yongofongo and the United Nations forces (MINUSCA) that left five UN soldiers dead and 10 wounded, as well as a dozen wounded on the opposite side and an unknown number of deaths.
So when the shooting started in Bangassou on Saturday morning [May 13] around 3:00 a.m., I cannot say I was surprised. Ready? Sure, we were ready to treat the wounded; we had put in place a contingency plan at the hospital. We had set up a tent with 18 extra beds to accommodate the wounded.
But how to prepare for panic and chaos? For that feeling of hopelessness that comes over you when you know that there are people out there that need your help but that you cannot reach without putting your life at risk? When you know so many lives are at risk? How to prepare for the fatigue that grips you as a result of the constant strain? I’m not sure these are things you can ever be prepared for.
Everything went very quickly. When gunshots started in the Tokoyo neighborhood, the Muslim area of town, people scattered in all directions, running into the night to find shelter where they could, at a friend’s place, in the church, in the mosque, in the grounds of the hospital . . . A tide of people and then nothing. The city remained empty for two days. Only armed men ventured into the streets. Not a sound except for gunfire.
"We Are the Only Organization in Bangassou That Is Able to Provide Emergency Medical Care"
At the hospital we received 22 wounded on Saturday, and four more on Sunday morning. And then some 500 people trickled in and settled in the yard, in the corridors, hoping that the fighters would refrain from attacking a medical structure. They are scared. Some are thoroughly traumatized, such as the woman in her thirties from the Tokoyo neighborhood who came with her husband in a state of shock, her eyes still full of the violence she had witnessed: neighbors being mowed down by gunfire or machetes, houses being looted or set on fire.
Our psychosocial team offered immediate support and she eventually managed to recover a little. She’s now waiting together with her family in the yard of the hospital to see what will happen next. We live in the present moment, ready to react. We are the only organization in Bangassou that is able to provide emergency medical care.
As we speak we are especially concerned for the men, women, and children who sought refuge in the mosque in Tokoyo. We are assisting people who have sheltered in the hospital, the Catholic mission is helping those who are in the church, but those who are now in the mosque are completely cut off. For two days they have had no access to water or food, while the temperatures rise up to 30 degrees [around 86 degrees Fahrenheit].
Among them there are wounded people, as well as bodies of people who were brutally murdered on Saturday morning. On Sunday evening the bishop of Bangassou managed to escort a few women and children from the mosque to the church and a few others, traumatized or wounded, to the hospital.
We finally reached the mosque today, where we were able to provide some emergency health care. Out of 25 wounded patients we treated ten; five more needed surgery. But then the gunfire went off again all around us and we had to flee, leaving 250 refugees behind in the mosque.
The city of Bangassou is unrecognizable: armed men are shooting guns everywhere, helicopters are flying over our heads. We fear for the worst if effective long-term measures are not put into place to ensure the protection of civilians.