Unrest Paralyzes Humanitarian Effort in the Central African Republic

Aid workers struggle to reach thousands of displaced as U.N. peacekeepers square off against militants.

BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC - SEPTEMBER 28 :  Demonstrators gather in Bangui demand the resignation of interim president Catherine Samba Panza in Central African Republic on September 28, 2015. (Photo by Herve Cyriaque Serefio/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC - SEPTEMBER 28 : Demonstrators gather in Bangui demand the resignation of interim president Catherine Samba Panza in Central African Republic on September 28, 2015. (Photo by Herve Cyriaque Serefio/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

BANGUI, Central African Republic – Days of sectarian clashes and criminal looting have brought the capital city of the Central African Republic to a standstill, drawing U.N. peacekeepers into direct confrontation with militants and making it impossible for aid workers to reach tens of thousands of people displaced by the fighting.

At least 39 people have been killed and more than 100 wounded in what has been the worst five-day episode of violence in over a year. Another 27,000 have been forced from their homes, more than doubling the number of internally displaced people in Bangui, according to the United Nations.

The unrest prompted Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza to cut short a visit to New York, where she was attending meetings at the U.N. General Assembly. She is expected to return to the capital on Wednesday and to meet with all parties to the conflict in a bid to restore order. “I appeal to you, my compatriots, for calm. I ask you to return to your homes,” she said before leaving New York.

Efforts to clear the airport road in advance of the president’s arrival resulted in heavy fighting on Tuesday between U.N. peacekeepers and Christian militiamen known as Anti-Balaka. At least three Pakistani peacekeepers were wounded on the outskirts of Bangui when they came under fire from suspected Anti-Balaka militants, according to U.N. officials. The peacekeepers had deployed from the northern city of Kaga Bandoro to reinforce security efforts in the capital, which have struggled to rein in the violence.

The clashes between peacekeepers and militiamen came one day after Rwandan blue helmets reportedly opened fire on armed demonstrators, who were advancing on the presidential palace. Agence France-Presse reported that three people were killed in the incident, but U.N. officials have denied that the Rwandans were responsible.

Violence erupted over the weekend after the body of a Muslim taxi driver was discovered near the airport. Youths from one of the last remaining Muslim strongholds in Bangui retaliated by attacking a nearby Christian neighborhood, sparking fears of a return to the kind wholesale sectarian violence that exploded across the country in late 2013. Back then Anti-Balaka fighters rose up against the Seleka, a largely Muslim rebel coalition that had seized power nine months earlier. The Anti-Balaka had formed as a response to the Seleka’s abuses, but ended carrying out an ethnic cleansing against the country’s Muslim minority.

In the last two and a half years, at least 6,000 people have been killed and 800,000 displaced.

The inability of peacekeepers to keep a lid on the violence has prompted some to call for a strengthening of the U.N. mission, known by the French acronym MINUSCA. The Economic Community of Central African States, a regional trade bloc, has urged the United Nations to authorize a more robust mandate in order to ensure that elections take place by the end of the year.

But analysts say that MINUSCA has been low on the agenda at the U.N. General Assembly meetings this week in New York and is unlikely to see an influx of resources any time soon.

“Given MINUSCA’s track record of abuses and indiscipline to date, the [U.N.] Security Council could fear that giving the force an offensive mandate could easily backfire,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Even if the Security Council agrees to give MINUSCA a tougher mandate, it could take the U.N. months to deploy additional forces to reinforce the operation.”

The renewed violence in Bangui has effectively shut down humanitarian operations in the capital and made it impossible for aid workers to reach the newly displaced. Thousands have taken refuge at a camp near the airport, where they are huddled in and around decaying fuselages and other unused aviation parts.

“People are shocked and under threat. They are very worried,” Aurélien A. Agbénonci, the resident U.N. humanitarian coordinator told Foreign Policy. “They are desperate because our humanitarian NGOs and U.N. agencies cannot access them because of the security situation in the city.”

Efforts to serve those affected by the crisis have been further set back by several nights of looting, during which the offices of numerous NGOs and humanitarian agencies were targeted. “Many organizations have been looted. The [U.N.] World Food Program warehouses were looted,” Agbénonci said. “This means that thousands of people will not be fed.”

Yves Habumugisha, the West Africa emergency director for World Vision, a religious humanitarian organization focused on children, described his operation in Bangui as “in hibernation” for the time being.

“The renewed violence has forced us to halt operations and hibernate our staff,” he said. “If the attacks continue, humanitarians will be unable to reach those who need us the most.”

Photo credit:  Herve Cyriaque Serefio/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images