Tag Archives: Emergencies

Central African Republic: a lost generation

Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalaing of Bangui and President of Caritas Central african Republic. © Xavier Schwebel/SC

Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalaing of Bangui and President of Caritas Central African Republic. © Xavier Schwebel/SC

Read this in French

Central African Republic has descended into anarchy after rebels seized power in March. The situation has recently deteriorated with popular militias being formed to defend the local population against the rebels, sparking a cycle of retaliation. Marina Bellot of Secours Catholique (Caritas France) spoke with Caritas Central African Republic President Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalaing of Bangui about the crisis in his country.

In June, you said that Central African Republic was slowly dying. What is the situation today?

On 24 March, President François Bozizé was overthrown by a coalition of rebel forces called Seleka. Many of the rebel forces come from outside the country, from Chad and Sudan. The coup d’état came with promises of freedom and peace, but that was quickly replaced by disillusionment among the people.
We have never witnessed such widespread looting. There have been rapes and execution in full sight of everyone. We are accustomed to coups here, but normally they last for two or three days and the leaders of the ousted regime are the only ones who suffer. The current crisis has been going on for four to five months and the whole country is in pain.

It was saddening that rebel fighters looted and vandalized our churches. In some dioceses, all our vehicles were stolen in front of the bishop and priests, who were helpless to prevent them. Now, our pastors have no transport to reach the population.

We’re not surprised that people are fighting back in what I call a “revolt of the poor”. They are desperate, they have lost their parents, their children and their homes. What else do they have to lose.

The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF has expressed concern about the use of child soldiers.

Young people are suffering the most in the crisis. There have been no schools since December. Teachers with links to the former government have been hunted down. They have fled, leaving the children to fend for themselves. Some have been recruited as child soldiers, swapping their pens for Kalashnikovs. How will we be able to get them back to school? This is a lost generation.

The population seems deeply divided…

The Seleka rebellion has broken down our civil order. The rebels have sought to exploit religious difference in the country. Many of the fighters, especially those from Sudan and Chad, are Muslim and speak only Arabic. They speak only with our native Muslims, giving the guns and inciting them.
People equate Seleka with Islam. But that is dangerous thinking. This is not a religious conflict but a political crisis. That different faiths live side by side is a reality of this country. Our history of co-existence and soial cohesion should not be destroyed. But today everyone lives in fear of the other.

What role can the Church play?

Muslim, Protestant and Catholic national religious leaders work together to defuse tensions and explain that the crisis is political. We also train grassroots mediators to reduce conflict in communalities.

The Catholic Church provides aid to those in need. Caritas gives food and clothes and has provided seeds for replanting.

Do humanitarian agencies have access to people in need?

Most aid agencies are unable to leave the capital Bangui because of the danger. In September, two aid workers were killed. We need secure humanitarian corridors so that we can reach all the people.
What can the international community do?
The African Union peacekeeping mission MISCA must be strengthened. Some African countries would like to participate but don’t have the financial means to do so. We want the UN to strengthen its presence. We need security so that people don’t live in fear and can go about their daily lives.

Can the crisis be dealt with by the national government?

The president’s authority is weak. His support is not strong. His generals don’t obey him. The soldiers obey their generals. This is anarchy.
The government has no money. Civil servants haven’t been paid for three months. There aren’t chairs or computers in offices. How can they do their jobs?

Elections must be held in within 18 months. We must do everything to ensure this happens.

Caritas Central African Republic needs further support to carry out its humanitarian work.

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A refugee remembers Syria

The business of Karim, a shoemaker, was destroyed during bombings in Syria. He, his wife, Zahaya, and their year-old son also lost their home to the violence. The family has been living in this tent in Lebanon since late June 2013. Photo by Sam Tarling for CRS

The business of Karim, a shoemaker, was destroyed during bombings in Syria. He, his wife, Zahaya, and their year-old son also lost their home to the violence. The family has been living in this tent in Lebanon since late June 2013. Photo by Sam Tarling for CRS

By Caroline Brennan,

A family photo album. “If only I could see it,” says Zahaya. “Only then could I get the fuller picture.”

Zahaya, 21, is talking about her family and  life in Syria that was so recent—just a year or so ago—that might as well have been another lifetime.

We are sitting in her tent in the summer heat in a growing refugee settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Many refugees have come from their neighbouring tents, and they all want to talk about the Syria they remember. They are taking me back in time—all the way to 2010. They serve coffee, though they have nothing. It is the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, so they are not drinking. They insist and, after some time, there is no way to refuse their offer.

The nostalgia for what Syria was – and the effort to convey that  longing to others – seems to be for so many refugees the last grip on a normal life, to keep themselves from losing their minds. What is happening to their country is simply beyond comprehension. Many of them echo the same message: “We were the country that helped so many people in need. We were the stable ones in the Arab region.” Says Mona, a young woman in the group, “We are humiliated.”

Zahaya keeps referring to the lost family album. It’s not just a book to her—that is clear. It’s not just the loss of something in a move—that can happen to any of us. The album is central to her identity and is now a crucial document in her search for help.

She and her husband, Karim, lived in Ras Al-Ayn, a town near the Turkish border. They were safe for some time during the first year of the civil war in Syria, a conflict that began in March 2011 with a peaceful protest in the south that gradually escalated into a deadly fight for the country. Estimates put the number of people killed in Syria from March 2011 to July 2013 at about 93,000 to 100,000 people. Millions of people have been uprooted inside the country, and at least 1.6 million people having fled into neighboring countries to seek help.

As the indiscriminate violence began to transform sleepy middle-class towns and urban neighborhoods, Zahaya’s family started to feel the creep of danger.

Two events were pivotal to Zahaya’s decision to flee.

Zahaya’s mother, who was suffering from cancer but had already fled to Lebanon when violence engulfed her village, tried to return to Syria for chemotherapy that she couldn’t afford in Lebanon. The bus she was traveling on was hit by a bomb. No one survived. Zahaya still has trouble talking about it today.

Around the same time, Zayaha’s neighborhood started to shake from bombings at night. Community members decided to sleep outside to keep each other safe. One night in April 2013, after waking up, she and her husband walked back to their home and saw that it had been demolished.

“When we saw the house, a house we had worked so hard to physically build, we would have preferred to have died in our house than to see it that way,” Zahaya says. “We had nothing, only the clothes we were wearing. We knew it was time to leave.”

The family tried to go to Turkey, because it was close by, “but even that was too dangerous with bombings and insecurity,” says Zahaya.

So they made their way to Lebanon. Zahaya, Karim and their 1-year old son took several buses and made attempts to cross at three different borders. They were turned away each time because they didn’t have their papers or proof of identity—all destroyed in their house—and because they didn’t have any photos. “No albums?” they were asked when prompted to prove that Zahaya was in fact the mother of her son.

This affront to their identity seems to be the deepest wound many Syrians have endured. Their country is a living nightmare. Their homes and livelihoods are gone. Their families are torn apart. They have nothing to show for everything they lived and worked for.

“It is very difficult to live here in a tent. We live here because we have no money to pay for rent. We have no shower or bath here. We have no running water or electricity,” says Zahaya. “As a mother, it is difficult to manage my family here. Even when I want to bring water to clean clothes, my clothes get dirty with the process of collecting the water.”

The refugee families clutch memories shared in these tents and a hope that they will one day return and rebuild Syria as they remember it. For now, they try to create a semblance of home in another country, in living conditions far below their standards, awaiting news on the safety of loved ones.

“We want all countries around the world to know how we live in this very bad situation,” Zahaya says.” Our children have asthma, illnesses, allergies that we are struggling to care for here. Our life was good before. We were not afraid before.

“Even if I have to live in a tent in Syria, I will go back home the moment it is safe,” she adds.

Her mind goes back to Syria. Without photos of her family to show visitors or to convey what her country means to her, Zahaya hopes that words can do her justice.

“The characteristics of Syrians are generous and helpful. In [previous conflicts in the region] people came to Syria for help. We opened our schools and homes to them. We welcomed them.

“We hope people will be kind to us.”

Editor’s Note: Caritas Lebanon provide critical food, shelter and living supplies to Zahaya and her family. Caroline Brennan is a CRS senior communications officer. She is based in Chicago.

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Relief efforts start in India after Cyclone Phailin leaves trail of destruction

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Credit: Caritas India

Hundreds of thousands of people in India need help after Cyclone Phailin flattened their homes and destroyed their livelihoods.  Many people remain marooned with their villages cut off due to high flood waters.

It was the strongest storm ever to make landfall on India, crashing into the eastern coast at the weekend. The cyclone caused great swathes of damage in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states. As many as 9 million people are said to have been affected in 13 districts.

A mass evacuation effort – described as the biggest in India’s history – kept the death toll relatively low, but needs are still great as people return home.

“Even though many people had gone back to their own villages, they came back to cyclone shelters due to the fear of mud slides or drowning,” said Babita Alick of Caritas India. “Families are living in the open crowded buildings, some in the back of trucks  covering with  plastics.”

Caritas India says families are at risk due to poor hygiene and drinking untreated water.

Caritas India is supporting SWAD (Berhampur Social Service Society) and Balasore Social Service Society with immediate relief in camps and villages where government aid has not reached. Caritas India will provide food, non food essentials and medical aid to address possibilities of risk.

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Caritas India on Cyclone Phailin

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Recovery efforts after cyclone slams India

Cyclone Phailin swirls over the Bay of Bengal, covering an area larger than France. Creative Commons

Cyclone Phailin swirls over the Bay of Bengal, covering an area larger than France. Creative Commons

Spread of disease is one of the biggest concerns as relief efforts gear up after Cyclone Phailin hit eastern areas of India at the weekend. Initial government estimates estimating 8 million people have been affected and 200,000 to 350,000 homes damaged or destroyed.

Caritas India staff and their local partners are assessing the damage in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa states. Caritas ground personnel say that a majority of the impact is on property, assets, telecommunications and the disruption of the natural environment.

Caritas India says people have started slowly moving back to the villages from cyclone shelters. The water has entered many villages leading to possible hygiene concerns. Efforts are underway to contact laboratory testing units, to ensure outbreak of disease can be controlled.

Prior to the cyclone making landfall, the local government and many aid agencies coordinated the country’s biggest evacuation in 23 years with more than 900,000 people moved from low-lying coastal areas to nearly 250 emergency shelters in schools and government offices. This massive evacuation helped keep reported casualties low thus far.

CRS, the American Caritas member, was involved in the evacuation efforts. John Shumlansky, CRS’ country representative in India, said that, “While reports of casualties are low, we shouldn’t underestimate the scale of this disaster. There are millions of people who will need support to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. CRS, the local Church, our sister Caritas agencies and other partners will work with the government to determine how we can help the poorest families as they begin that process.”

Kirti Mishra, Catholic Relief Services India’s operations manager based in Bhubaneshwar, spent the night in her home about 35 miles from the coast. “This morning when I left my home, it looked so devastating,” she said. “I could see roads blocked with uprooted tree and response teams clearing the roads. Houses made of mud and bamboo were the worst hit and homes in the slums have completely collapsed and roofs are blown away.

“Tomorrow I’ll be in the field helping with assessments and determining how CRS can best help. I’m looking forward to visiting some of the people who we help through long-term development projects and seeing how they fared in the cyclone. Catholic Relief Services and the local Church will walk with them through this emergency and continue the important work we’re doing in our ongoing projects.”

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Central African Republic road movie

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On the road in the Central African Republic

Fr Aurélio Gazzera is the local diocesan Caritas director in Bouar in Northern Central African Republic

Read this story in French

Scene from a Western

These days I had been in Bangui for meetings. Coming back Thursday, we arrived at the ‘PK12’ roadblock, the gateway and exit to the capital. Men belonging to Seleka forces, the rebel group who seized the country in March, asked to search the car. I told them that they had no authority to do so, but if the police want to do the search then fine. There were policemen on the other side of the street.

One of the rebels fighter insisted on carrying out the search. Again, I refused and we left. After 500 m, I saw in the mirror a rebel with a machine gun on a motorbike coming up behind the car. I was motioned to stop, and I did. The rebel pointed the gun in my face and told me to return to the checkpoint.  He started to shoot at the tires and then in the air, expecting me to reverse.

With bullet holes now in the tires, I explained to him that I couldn’t move the car. A stray bullet had also hit a woman passerby. I was trying to calm the situation down, when luckily a joint patrol of Central African and Congolese soldiers came by. They tried to get the rebel soldier to relax and then we changed the tires of my car.

We went to a police station and called the local chief of police.  The rebel who had shot at us was arrested. The rebel chief asked for a search of the car again and so the police chief asked what was inside and we told him 4 pots of paint. He was satisfied.

Scene from thriller

After buying two new tires, we were back on the road again heading for PK12. A government minister had now joined us and insisted on coming along (for our protection).  A land cruiser with blacked out windows was waiting now at the roadblock. We passed it by.

But then further up there were two more pickups with rebels waiting on the road. We feared they were out for revenge or wanted to take one of us to bargain for their arrested colleague or were just angry because PK12 is a big source of income and we were threatening that lucrative sideline. We did a U-turn on the minister’s suggestion.

The rest of Thursday and Friday, we tried to get out of the city. But we needed to organise an escort and that was difficult to find. There was a UN plane, but not until next week and not to Bozoum. We could drive another way, but that would be long and wouldn’t be safe either. We resigned ourselves to wait.

Scene from a spy story

On Saturday morning , it rains for 4 hours. After prayer and Mass , I said to my companions that we could take advantage of the weather to try to pass.  All agree. We pick up Joseph, our driver, and his wife and we hit the road. I get in the back, disguised in dark glasses and a sweater.

We arrive at PK 12. Joseph goes to sign the necessary paper work ( and pay the 1000 f cfa bribe). Then Seleka revels says they want to search the car. But before the search can start, the police stop the rebels, saying that NGO or Mission vehicles are only to be searched by the police.

After ten minutes waiting in silence in the car, with the windows now fogged up, we hear someone shout to Joseph if he has Fr Aurelio with him. It’s a policeman who had been at the seminary. It’s a moment of terror.  Luckily, he sees Fr Stefano and they greet each other. Finally we leave.

Scene from a tragedy

Why all this? It is absurd that the entrance to the capital is left in the hands of the rebels who act like cowboys. It is absurd that people should continue to support all these atrocities and injustices . It is absurd that the government fails to do its duty and allows an armed man to shot in broad daylight in one of the busiest places in the capital city.

I hope and believe that speaking about the risks involved in this work can be used to change something …

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Calais : le Secours Catholique soutient les réfugiés syriens

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Credit: Secours Catholique

Alors qu’une cinquantaine de réfugiés syriens sont regroupés  sur la passerelle menant au terminal ferry du port de Calais pour dénoncer leurs conditions de vie en France, Noémie Bourdet, bénévole au Secours Catholique de Calais, fait le point sur la situation.

Vous êtes auprès des réfugiés depuis le début de leur sit-in. Quelle est la situation sur place ?

Il s’agit d’un sit-in pacifique, les réfugiés syriens ne sont pas du tout violents.

La nuit s’est déroulée dans le calme. Nous avons eu des duvets par Médecins du Monde, et le Secours Catholique a fourni des couvertures. Ce matin, des bénévoles ont apporté du thé et du café pour les femmes et les enfants. Les hommes, eux, ne mangent pas depuis hier 14h.

Actuellement, il commence à pleuvoir donc on est en train de négocier avec la police le droit de monter une installation de bâches qui ne gêne pas le passage. La police espère que la pluie va les faire partir mais ils sont très déterminés. Ils ont vu que leur appel prenait un peu d’ampleur, avec notamment la présence de quelques médias ce matin, et ils comptent donc poursuivre le sit-in, d’autant que le directeur du port ne souhaite pas porter plainte pour l’instant.

Pour nous associations c’est important d’être là car les policiers sont plus respectueux, on joue les intermédiaires. Hier par exemple, la police ne voulait pas qu’une femme enceinte et une femme âgée puissent accéder aux toilettes du port…

Que réclament les réfugiés syriens ?

Leur espoir est de passer en Angleterre, où les demandes d’asile sont beaucoup plus rapides qu’en France. Ils dénoncent leurs conditions de vie en France et cherchent à établir un dialogue avec les autorités britanniques pour obtenir un moyen légal d’entrer dans le pays, sans mettre leur vie en danger. Beaucoup d’entre eux ont pris des risques en passant la frontière dans des camions frigorifiques ou transportant des produits chimiques.

Quelles sont leurs conditions de vie à Calais ? Qu’attendent les associations des autorités françaises ?

Ils sont à la rue, dès qu’ils trouvent un squat ils en sont expulsés et sont donc obligés de s’entasser jusqu’à dix dans des tentes de quatre places. Nous demandons au minimum une amélioration des conditions d’accueil, l’arrêt du harcèlement policier et la prise en compte des principes d’humanité.

Pour être avec eux depuis hier après-midi, je peux vous dire que certains policiers tiennent des propos méprisants voire racistes. Les réfugiés nous disent que quand on n’est pas là c’est encore pire, cela va jusqu’aux coups.

Propos recueillis par Marina Bellot

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