The aid workers had driven for several hours to get to Mann in the north-west of Central African Republic (CAR) to meet displaced people and find out what they needed. But after just 10 minutes on the ground, team leader Simon Quet ordered everyone back into their 4x4s.
Men carrying machetes and guns had surrounded the village in Ouham-Pendé province, near the border with Cameroon, where militias have been fighting each other, and burning and looting homes, forcing many people to seek shelter in bigger villages and towns.
“Go faster on the way back,” Quet told the drivers as the Action Against Hunger convoy pulled out, the cars edging past armed men lining the route – members of the mainly Christian and animist anti-balaka (machete) groups.
Clashes in Ngaoundaye, just 10km from Mann, erupted recently between anti-balaka groups and Fulani herders, who were backed by mainly Muslim fighters. Traditional antipathies, often centring on rows over livestock or the routes taken by these nomads, have been exacerbated by CAR’s internal conflict, which has split the country down ethnic and religious lines.
But beyond the local grievances, the violence is rooted in decades of exclusion and rivalry that exploded in a 2013 coup by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels, unleashing atrocities by all sides in a fragile country where powerful elites had long exploited the people and resources for their own gain. In 2013, the Seleka group ousted the then President François Bozizé, seizing power and committing atrocities against Christians. This triggered the formation of the anti-balaka, who took revenge, leading to thousands of deaths on both sides and an exodus of Muslims from much of the country.
Around 6,000 people were killed and nearly 1 million – a fifth of the population – fled their homes, with many still living in makeshift camps in CAR or neighbouring countries.
Following a visit from the pope in November and the election of a new president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, in February, there was a period of tentative hope and relative calm.
But an upsurge of violence in the north-west is causing concern, with the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, Minusca, condemning the “deteriorating security situation”.
Across CAR, disease is rife, hunger levels are “staggeringly high” and 2.3 million people need aid, but the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) says the new spiral of violence is likely to cause additional needs. Unocha’s interim humanitarian coordinator in CAR, Michel Yao, warns that the increasing insecurity is hampering the work of humanitarian groups.
On 17 June, a driver for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was killed in an ambush between Sibut and Grimari, in central CAR, the second deadly attack on MSF convoys in a month. The organisation suspended non-essential operations for three days last week to protest against the violence.
A few days later, 16 Fulani herdsmen were reportedly killed in clashes in the northern Batangafo region. Meanwhile, tensions heightened around the PK5 Muslim enclave in the capital, Bangui. In mid-June, two people were shot dead during fighting on the night ex-Seleka rebels took six police officers hostage in the city.
Quet’s job is to get his rapid response team out to fleeing communities: they gather information to share with other NGOs, help organise cooking kits, mosquito nets, sleeping mats, and drilling for clean water, as well as monitoring malnutrition levels.
He says much of the violence in the north relates to long-standing tensions between settled farmers and, predominantly Muslim, Fulani pastoralists – or Peul – who migrate seasonally with their cattle.
“The arrival of the mainly Muslim Seleka militia massively increased the fracture between these communities,” says Quet. “Now we have these militias, created with a specific purpose during the 2013-14 crisis, still existing. They have weapons, and no other proper way to earn a living, so taxing and looting becomes their only way to survive.” In the village of Kellé Clair, not far from Bocaranga, Simon Pierre Randal, 40, says he arrived the previous day from the village of Bang, north of Mann. His story echoes others heard along the road – tales of sudden shooting, and panicked departures into the bush.
“I am here with my wife and three children, living in my uncle’s house. On Saturday we heard fighting. We decided to leave and went to the bush. We were walking for several days before we found someone with a motorbike who brought my family here,” he said. “Everyone in the village left at the same time, it was chaotic. We managed to take some clothes. We’ve just arrived so we don’t know yet how we’ll support ourselves. We want to go home but it depends on the situation.”
Further south, in Kosse, a village elder says they are scared the violence will come to their homes. “We are surviving by eating mangoes because we’re afraid to go to the fields and grow manioc. But it’s now almost the end of the mango season and we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
This uncertainty is a familiar theme. Back in Bangui, the country director of Action Against Hunger, Eric Besse, describes the situation as “up and down”. “People have been saying things have stabilised. We have to tell them, ‘Let’s face reality’ ,” he says. “I really think we are still in a crisis in CAR.”