Central African Republic: Prisoner in a displacement camp

I have been talking to Bernard* for about an hour at a displacement camp when my phone rings. ‘Security Manager’ flashes on the screen.

The call is to tell me there’s fighting  on the road back to base. It’s not safe. We need to stay where we are and wait for more information.

The last few days have seen a resurgence in the violence in Bangui, capital of the the Central African Republic, mostly directed at the minority Muslim population.

For the first time in many weeks the number of people who are displaced from their homes has begun to rise again.

As I put the phone down, shots ring out in the distance.

“I think we might be stuck here for a bit,” I tell Bernard.

He doesn’t seem fazed. It turns out being stuck here is something he already knows a lot about.

Stuck

Fourteen-year-old Bernard has been sleeping at one of our safe spaces for children in the camp for the last few days. He’s one of 54,000 people living here who have been forced to flee their homes by the fighting.

But for Bernard life is even more complicated.

He’s effectively displaced within a displacement camp, too afraid to even leave our safe space in case he’s attacked.

“I’m stuck here because of my face,” he tells me. “Because I look Muslim. If I leave this space I get lots of trouble.

“Anti-balaka [members of a Christian militia group] intimidate me. They show me their guns and their knives.

“They told me they would come and kill me and there was nowhere I could hide. But they won’t come in here. Here I’m safe.

“One day they made me shave my hair off. It used to be long and they said I looked like one of the Séléka [a mainly Muslim militia group]. But I‘m not. I’m not even Muslim. I just look like this.

“None of my family looks like me. They don’t have the same problem.

“I can’t go anywhere. I can’t play football with my friends. I can’t even stay with my mother in this camp or go to school because they would come for me.”

A city under siege

After a few hours my phone rings again to let me know it’s now safe to return to our base. We’re told to come back via a back road that takes us by PK5, the largely Muslim district that has been practically under siege for the past three months.

It’s the first time in almost a year that I’ve been here, and the place is unrecognisable. House after house lies in ruins.

Then, gradually, in the wing mirror the destruction fades into the distance.

As we re-join the main road, the driver lets out a sigh of relief. We’re back in the relatively safe part of town.

But Bernard is still stuck, still afraid. His parting words repeat in my head:

“Being here is like being in prison – but I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Postscript: Good news

The next morning, we were able to move Bernard from the displacement camp to a much safer area of town.

He’s currently staying with a partner organisation that has taken in many children affected by the violence and is attending school again.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

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