Between January and June, Dramane Kone was the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) project manager in Carnot, in the western region of the Central African Republic (CAR). MSF has been working in Carnot’s city hospital since 2010. Here, Kone discusses the stream of armed groups operating in CAR today that have passed through Carnot, the violence that accompanies them, and the changing situation in a city that had been spared the violence that currently wracks other parts of the country—until recently.
“A year ago, in March 2013, when the ex-Sélékas arrived in Carnot, there was no significant violence and no direct impact on the population or on our projects. Later, in December 2013, the situation worsened and MSF teams began to see gunshot victims. Most of them came from Baoro, a city in the northern part of the sub-prefecture of Carnot. At the same time, just as Carnot’s Muslim population began leaving the city, the residents of Baoro arrived.
The context changed dramatically over the course of my mission. On January 20, 2014, the ex-Sélékas left Baoro, where they had protected the Muslim population, and headed for Carnot. That’s when the thefts, looting, and summary public executions began. This had an immediate effect on the population and a kind of psychosis set in. Both Muslims and Christians left their homes to gather at sites, such as the city hospital where MSF works, seeking protection. It is considered a neutral area. Some of our Central African staff had to hide their families in abandoned diamond mines. Carnot has not been calm since that time.
After the ex-Sélékas left Baoro, the anti-Balakas extorted and harassed the Muslim populations, who no longer had protection, for a full week. Because the Muslim residents could not meet the anti-Balakas’ demands, the latter attacked on January 22 and 23. Many people died. The population fled and a new wave of displaced persons arrived in Carnot. On January 30, I went to Baoro to evaluate the situation after the attacks. Houses had been burned and charred corpses were strewn on the ground. These images were extremely difficult and violent. Everything had been pillaged and destroyed. Shooting was still occurring in the city. We went to the church, where 5,000 people had taken refuge. There were wounded people among them, but it was impossible to transport them to Bouar, where MSF manages a medical-surgical program, because the anti-Balakas had set up blockades along the road and would not have let them pass. Instead, we took them to Carnot. We saw streams of hundreds of people along the road, fleeing Baoro for Carnot—especially women and children. Many then headed to the Carnot train station, hoping to find any means of transport to get out of the country and flee to Chad.
On the night of January 30, the ex-Sélékas came back from the south, heading toward Berberati, and passed through Carnot. They pillaged and stole along the way. They were interested primarily in vehicles they could use as they withdrew. They arrived in Carnot in the evening and looted in the area of our base at around 7:00 PM. At two o’clock in the morning, they were at our house. They wanted our vehicles. We didn’t resist. We had weapons pointed at our backs. We were afraid but we remained calm. In the end, did our behavior save us? Or was it because two days earlier, we had treated one of their wounded and evacuated him to our surgery project in Paoua? Or because we would go to see them every other day to remind them who we are, what we do, what our mandate is? In the end, they finally abandoned their plan to take the MSF vehicle they wanted. They told us, “MSF—we know that you treat everyone, Muslim and Christian alike. Will you forgive us?” And they left—with money, of course, but that was all. We managed to limit the damage. On the morning of January 31, all the ex-Sélékas gathered about 5 kilometers from the city and then left. People who had remained hidden in their houses until then began to come out. We thought calm had been restored.
But the next day, February 1, new and very violent anti-Balaka groups from Baoro and Bozoum appeared. On February 2, 3, and 4, they began executing people, killing people, taking people hostage. They began to threaten the Muslims who had taken refuge on the church grounds. On February 6, 30 MISCA troops arrived and deployed at the church. That didn’t stop the anti-Balakas from shooting around 100 Muslim refugees in the courtyard of a house. That was February 7. We went there and I counted about 10 bodies. More than 86 people were prisoners there—mostly women and children. They were sitting there, with tears in their eyes. But we weren’t authorized to bring them out. It was too dangerous for them and for us, too. There were several wounded and ill people. The anti-Balakas let us take them with us. There were some people still alive among the bodies, but they would not allow us to take them. “If you keep insisting, we’ll beat them in front of you!” Outside, a child had a knife wound. He was among the 14 people that we were able to evacuate. Along the way, we were surrounded by armed men several times. Our patients were threatened—“These are our prisoners. You have to take them back.” Finally, we contacted the MISCA troops, who managed to get the 86 prisoners and take them to the church, where all of the city’s Muslims had gathered. The Christians who sheltered or hid Muslims in their home and were accused of “collaboration” by the anti-Balakas had taken refuge there, too, out of fear of reprisals.
On February 8, after clashes between the anti-Balakas and MISCA troops, we treated 12 wounded people at the hospital. On February 12, the anti-Balakas attacked the MISCA forces again. One of the soldiers was seriously wounded. We had to evacuate four wounded Muslims by plane to our program in Paoua. The plane landed and was waiting for us. Just as our ambulance set off for the landing strip, some 50 men, who were very worked up and edgy, blocked us near the church. We had to engage in a lengthy negotiation with them and remind them that two days' earlier, we had treated and evacuated two of their wounded. Once again, the fact that we treat everyone saved the day for us and we managed to continue on. One of our doctors remained on site to treat the MISCA soldier. Fifty minutes later, the plane came back to get him. He had a fractured leg and his femoral artery was affected. He was close to death but he survived in the end. We were very frightened that day and everyone was quite shaken. The entire team realized that the context in Carnot had changed dramatically.
Between January 21 and February 8, we treated 70 wounded people. On March 1, after new clashes, the mobile surgery team came from Bangui to treat the new wounded patients on site and refer others to the capital. On March 11, approximately 200 displaced Muslims from the church were able to leave for Cameroon, but 900 people are still shut up in the site. They could be lynched if they leave. We launched emergency medical operations at the site. In February, our teams held 950 medical consultations there. We continue to go twice a week and hold 65 consultations each time, primarily for malaria as the seasonal spike is approaching. We are also carrying out logistical work to improve living and sanitary conditions. We are supplying water and distributing basic necessities (including blankets, soap, and mats). We set up the plans for treating and managing the influx of wounded patients at the hospital. All of Baoro’s Muslims have fled and the rest of the population has taken refuge in the bush. MSF is considering organizing mobile clinics for people who lack access to medical care.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in Carnot. The Sangaris troops are going to leave. MISCA is supposed to be strengthened, but the situation could degenerate again at any moment.”
March 28, 2014: the last Muslim refugees still in the church of Carnot left CAR for Cameroon aboard six trucks escorted by MISCA troops.