Central African Republic: Clashes Reach Zemio, Displacing Thousands and Blocking Access to Health Care

SOUTH SUDAN © Valérie Batselaere/MSF

ZEMIO, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC, JULY 5, 2017—More than 15,000 people have been displaced—with many wounded and unable to reach medical care—following clashes in Zemio, a town in eastern Central African Republic (CAR) where the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) runs an HIV program. Zemio had been spared from much of the conflict raging in other regions of CAR until last week, when fighting broke out. 

"The neighborhood next to our base has been burned down, as have other parts of the town," said Mia Hejdenberg, MSF's head of mission in CAR. "We were able to work this weekend to provide medical aid and logistical support to the most vulnerable, but the fighting started again yesterday. We want to remind all the combatants of the need to respect humanitarian space so that people who are not involved in the conflict can receive basic necessities."

MSF chartered a plane on Saturday to bring medical equipment, drugs, and non-food items such as plastic sheeting, portable latrines and soap. However, people are in urgent need of water, food, shelter and medical care. So far, only eight people wounded in the violence have made it to an MSF-supported health center in Zemio.

Of the people who have been displaced, more than 4,000 sought refuge at the health center, 5,000 at the Catholic mission and between 6,000 and 11,000 others fled to different sites around the town. MSF has distributed water to many of the displaced.

"The inhabitants of Zemio had no time to take anything with them when the shooting started last Wednesday morning," said Claude Bitaronga, head of MSF medical activities in Zemio. "At the health center, they grouped together in all the inpatient and consultation rooms, in storage areas and behind any wall they could find to shelter from the bullets. After a few hours, children started crying because they were hungry."

While MSF activities were temporarily suspended when the fighting resumed this week, the medical team set up mobile clinics and conducted 70 consultations on Sunday and Monday, mainly for malaria. Staff also distributed food supplements to children who were beginning to suffer from hypoglycemia.

MSF, which manages 12 projects in CAR, has worked in Zemio since 2010, currently running an HIV/AIDS community-based care project with 1,400 patients.