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September 16, 2013
This article is part of the Summer 2013 issue of the MSF Alert newsletter.
Central African Republic 2013 © Ton Koene
When MSF financial administrator Kami Lee agreed to an assignment in CAR, the project was described to her as a “family post,” a context stable enough that some felt comfortable bringing their families. Then the Seleka rebellion began the day she arrived. Lee recalls her experience—and her decision to stay even longer—here:
When I was offered the position, CAR was considered one of the more stable African countries where MSF works. I flew into Boguila on December 10, 2012. That’s generally considered the day that the conflict between the government and the Seleka rebels began.
On our first night, we had a security briefing. Our project coordinator explained about the safe room and the evacuation protocol. Nobody was too worried then. It was happening far from Boguila. We did our jobs in the office, worked on weekends when necessary. Mostly it was business as usual.
Mid-morning Saturday, I was at the living quarters for staff in Bangui when those who had gone to the office suddenly came back because things were starting to get really tense. We didn’t really understand what was happening, but we nevertheless started preparing food and water in case we had to utilize the safe room.
Every MSF project has a “safe room,” but in my experience it’s rarely an actual room. It’s always the place in the building that has the most walls between it and the outside, so it usually ends up being a corridor. In this case, it was the corridor right off most of our bedrooms. We put our emergency supplies in a little alcove on the end.
A DAY OF CHAOS
I was up very early the next morning and drinking coffee with colleagues when a gunshot rang out. It sounded distant, but Luis, the acting head of mission, shouted “safe room!” right away. We dropped what we were doing and made for the corridor. We spent the next eight hours there, listening to an increasing number of gunshots and then machine-gun fire. From calling different NGOs and different MSF sections in the area, we learned that the Seleka rebels had reached the city and were taking the presidential palace, not far from us.
We heard the first mortar at 8:22 AM. That was scary. It was so loud. The walls of the house shook. I coped by writing furiously in my journal, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how pissed my kids would be if something happened to me.
About 11:00 AM there was loud yelling and pounding on the gate and armed Seleka got in—our guards were told to let them in and not to resist. They wanted our cars. Luis had to go down to give them the keys and talk to them. I can’t imagine what that was like. In the safe room, all we could do was wonder if they were going to come into the house, but they took the cars and left, breaking the gate
That afternoon, about 5:00, it felt like things might be over when gunfire started again. A few minutes later there was more pounding on the door. Before we knew it, two armed Seleka men were in the house, at the entrance to our safe room. One shouted, “argent, argent!”—“money, money.” We’d all been given security envelopes for exactly this situation; they took personal cash as well as most
We were shaken up. We’d already heard that looting had started, too. Luis told the two guards and our driver that he was relieving them of their responsibilities and that they could go home to their families, but they refused. They wanted to stay. Maybe they thought they were safer with us, even though we weren’t armed and didn’t have cars.
We learned that people were gathering at the UN compound closer to the airport. Shortly after dark UN security sent cars to pick us up. We passed four Seleka tanks loaded with armed men as well as a truck that followed us for a while; otherwise the streets of Bangui were deserted.
Inside the UN compound, there were hundreds of cars packed full of people waiting to go in convoys to the airport, which was supposedly protected by the French army, and where Red Cross and UN planes were waiting to leave the country. Around 11:30 PM wordspread that we didn’t have the mandatory French army escort so the convoys couldn’t leave until the next day. Everyone settled down—most in the cars—for the night.
TO STAY OR GO?
The next morning, somebody managed to buy rice and they cooked up a huge batch for the 300 or so people in the compound. Convoys started leaving in the afternoon. We were happy when we heard that some MSF people had made it to the airport.
I didn’t know if I should stay or leave. At first I thought, “if there’s nothing I can do, I guess I should go.” We learned that our office in Bangui had been looted. We later saw that it had been absolutely destroyed. Computers, desks, chairs, and more had been stolen. Our papers and files were thrown all over the place. The toilets had even been pulled out of the walls. As soon as we heard, though, I knew there was still work to be done. I flew back to Boguila to help rebuild and re-organize, and ended up extending my mission by a month.
I would never willingly go into a situation like what happened in CAR, but once you’re there, you just do what needs to be done. I was very proud of MSF because we continued to operate. Now that it’s over, I’m glad I stayed and glad I extended my mission. Of course, I was also glad when it was over. I’d made it through. Now it’s good to be home and safe.