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A Burundi soldier on the edge of Bangui airport
A Burundi soldier on the edge of Bangui airport
Cyril Bensimon

BANGUI – Bibiane had a dreadful night. As torrents of rain came beating down on the capital of the Central African Republic, this 28-year-old mother, her two children, her parents and her seven brothers and sisters tried in vain to gather under a single canvas sheet, pocked with holes.

Still, compared to the 35,000 to 40,000 people who took refuge in Bangui's airport, Bibiane and her family might almost be considered privileged.

Some managed to find enough space under the wing of a plane carcass or in an abandoned depot, but here, most people have nowhere at all to take shelter.

"I stood there under the rain, without sleeping. I have no words. This place is nothing but suffering," says Pierre who's been living here since Dec. 5. Another man, of an honorable age tells us: "57 of us came from the Baya-kilometer 5 neighborhood to avoid being killed by the Seleka," he said, referring to the government's militia that have been in power since March.

These people didn't wind up here by chance. The site is protected by the French military, which has their base in the airport. The location is strategic: on top of its civil functions, this is where all French helicopters take off from, where the Antonov planes and their cargo of materials land – it is also the entry point into the country for a major part of the contingent of French and African soldiers of the operation "Sangaris" to reinforce the African Union troops already in the country.

The camp is overpopulated, but people keep pouring in. According to the United Nations, a total of 159,000 people have fled their homes in Bangui. Ullrich, a doctor, left Miskine, one of the neighborhoods where the tensions are the highest, and came to the chaotic airport for protection.

"This morning, a colonel from the Seleka killed a taxi driver, and after that young people rebelled. They took machetes and attacked his house," Ullrich explains. "Then a group of young Muslims came to defend the colonel. There was a battle, with guns firing everywhere, even rockets. About an hour after that, the French army intervened."

Sanitary conditions in the camp are appalling. After weeks of occupation, latrines are going to be dug just now. People wash as best they can, with the trickles of water that come out of the pipes. Last week Doctors Without Borders, one of the only organizations on the ground, denounced the lack of action from the UN.

Lindis Hurum, who is in charge of coordinating the NGO's program in the camp, explains that "the situation is very serious, on the edge of catastrophe, and the United Nations can't simply act as if they didn't know what was going on. Women are giving birth under the pouring rain, with nothing...It's absolutely unacceptable that there's no water, no canvas sheets, no blankets and no toilets."

Food first

The statements made by Doctors Without Borders have not gone unanswered by the UN. "I don't want to get into polemics, but we sent food aid to 65,000 in Bangui last week," replies Guy Adoua, Deputy Country Director for the UN's World Food Program.

For the first time since the camp was established around the airport, the agency distributed enough food for three days to 33,000 people. Although the UN wanted the distribution of rice, peas and oil to go smoothly, it ended in chaos.

Tired of waiting for hours, the beneficiaries of this aid decided to take the food themselves. Besides, the location chosen for the distribution was significant: it was done about a kilometer away from the site, away from the French military base.

A power struggle is taking place between humanitarian groups and the Central African authorities over the assistance to the people who have been displaced. "We must stop giving food to those who during the day go and rampage shops belonging to Muslims and help the anti-balaka.," says a counsellor to the president's office, referring to the violent Christian militias.

Under pressure, the UN is now pushing to get the sick and wounded away from the airport. "We didn't distribute canvas sheets, that way we're not settling them there," admits a representative of the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees. But the people from the camp might not approve of these tactics. They reckon that only the close presence of the French army can protect them. In fact, that's why they chose to huddle together in this sprawling cesspool that Bangui's airport has become.

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