More than 15,000 people were displaced in CAR’s Haute Kotto region when two rebel movements began fighting in September 2011. OCHA’s experience in negotiating access with military authorities and scattered guerrilla movements was critical in gaining commanders’ confidence and winning approval for emergency relief work to begin.
Bria, the regional capital, was at the centre the conflict. More than 6,000 people from the town’s northern district of Bornou were forced from their homes. Most headed into the bush or sought shelter in other parts of the city.
“We had daily phone contact with the Regional Health Director who tried to manage the situation … the doctor kept requesting more drugs, surgical material and body bags,” said Dr. Christian Mulamba, Head of Mission for International Medical Corps (IMC) in CAR.
“We absolutely needed to go there to make a precise assessment of needs, and support the hospital with materials and staff,” Mulamba said. “But first we needed to access the place.”
OCHA immediately started organizing an assessment mission, comprising UN agencies and NGOs, to see what action was needed. But without a firm ceasefire in place, and with a high risk of counter-attacks, this was not straightforward, explained Jean-Sébastien Munie, OCHA’s Head of Office. “The truce was actually very fragile and tension between the parties was high.”
The mission was postponed twice as safety assurances were sought. Liaising with the rival rebel movements was complicated as their commanders were far removed from the conflict zone and the chain of command was unclear, Munie explained. “We doubted the guarantees stated by both leaders of the rebel groups. Direct contact with local commanders was necessary to reach acceptable levels of confidence.” After a week of negotiation, OCHA finally got the go-ahead on 30 September.
Needs become clear
The mission findings were grim. Thousands of residents were displaced. Half of the Bornou district had been destroyed and rebels occupied the remaining houses.
The displaced people talked of the need for shelter, safe drinking water, medical care, education and protection, but food was the most immediate concern. Their stocks had been taken and crop fields were either destroyed or off-limits. Families hosting them said their own stocks were running low.
Authorities had not contacted those in need, and there were complaints about the lack of security provided by the Government’s army. People’s biggest fear was that violence could erupt without warning.
To immediately address these concerns, the OCHA-led mission met rebels to highlight the importance of safety guarantees for ordinary civilians and humanitarian workers trying to help them. “We told them that their responsibility was to enable the safe delivery of the assistance to those in need, whatever their community of origin,” Munie said.
“Faced with their responsibilities, the rebels controlling Bornou agreed to open the barriers and let civilians move freely,” Munie explained. OCHA’s mission findings were circulated to humanitarian partners, and while security concerns remained, relief agencies were able to resume and even expand their activities.
Improved water supply and well rehabilitation topped the list of actions required. Patrick Laurent, a UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist, took part in the assessment explained: "People said wells had been polluted by dead bodies [and] the fear prevented people from drawing water.”
Informed by the assessment, and with renewed confidence to operate safely, humanitarian partners were able to provide displaced people with an improved water supply, rehabilitated wells, and non-food items such as cooking utensils, blankets and shelter material. WFP provided food for more than 10,500 people in and around Bria.
Most displaced people have since returned to Bornou, and IMC is again supporting health services at the hospital.