Central African Republic: The world must act decisively to avert a catastrophe

I have just returned from a week in the Central African Republic (CAR). I was shocked by what I witnessed.

Dead bodies littering the streets. Children shot and injured in the fighting. Hundreds of thousands of families driven into the bush by fear, living out in the open with no food or shelter. In the capital, thousands huddled around a monastery, frightened for their lives. I will never forget the fear in the eyes of the children I met.

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Justin Forsyth with some of the victims of the violence in the CAR

The French deployment following the United Nation Security Council’s decision to give a new stronger mandate to French and African troops could not have come soon enough. As CAR descends into further chaos, the question is whether it will be enough to stem the violence and create stability and protection. We need to urgently pull the country back from the brink.

For the families I met last week, it is their main hope. As we drove through ghost villages on the road north of Bouar, a remote town nine hours from the capital, we knew something was wrong. But it wasn’t until we stopped in one village that the full scale of what had happened hit home. Slowly villagers emerged from the bush, where they had been hiding. Whole families living out in the forest, vulnerable to malaria, pneumonia and other dangers.

Forced to flee into the bush

One mother told me how marauding militia burned her house and shot her husband, forcing her to flee into the bush with her four children, the youngest only six months. Another family described their terror as over 130 houses in their village were burnt to the ground, leaving them destitute.

I saw first-hand the impact of this terrible conflict on children. At the Save the Children-supported hospital we met Celine,  a little girl aged 6, who had been shot in the arm fleeing an attack. Sadly, she was so badly injured her arm had to be amputated. Another little boy, Serge, had been shot twice, his mum and three brothers and sisters killed. He was three. Both children were so traumatised they hardly spoke.

This is just the tip of the iceberg – 600,000 children are now in dire need. CAR is the world’s forgotten emergency. 400,000 people are displaced, 70% of children are out of school and one third of the country doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. It is on the edge of even worse catastrophe. But the world can still act.

The world must act

The decision to deploy a larger African Union and French force is a vital first step. But they must deploy outside of Bangui, to the remotest regions where so much of the violence goes on unseen. They must protect the children of the Central African Republic and help ensure conditions to enable the safe delivery of humanitarian aid to populations in need.

The world must also be more generous. CAR faces a $109million funding shortfall. World leaders can do more to support the French and African forces and ensure enough aid is provided.

Recent history shows that when the world acts decisively it can avert catastrophe. When it dithers, lives are lost and suffering continues and worsens. We mustn’t ignore this poor country and its children in their hour of need.

This blog post first appeared in the Huffington Post UK

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