Women in Bangui, Central African Republic © Daniel Dal Zennaro
A forgotten country – that's what Caritas International calls the Central African Republic. Kim Kerkhof was on the scene and reports on a region where 125.000 people come to see a doctor and the mood can tip at any moment.
Interviewer: They were traveling in the border region with Congo. What can be seen and experienced on the ground?
Kim Kerkhof (Caritas International): We were still in the capital Bangui for the first two days. In Bangui there are tarred roads and electricity. Relief organizations are bustling about there. In Kouango, in the border region you mentioned, there was really no one except Caritas. There are no asphalted roads, there is no electricity. There is no running water, there is no sewage water. There is really nothing.
At first sight, you always had the feeling that everything was peaceful. It almost seems a bit Africa-romantic. As soon as you get closer, you realize how badly off people are. Hunger plays a big role – not necessarily malnutrition, but mainly malnutrition. We are very concerned about the health situation there.
Interviewer: The situation has been really dramatic since 2013, when the president was overthrown by rebels. Since then, different groups have been fighting for power in the country. You were in a region that is controlled by militias. Do you notice anything about it?
Kerkhof: The moment you leave the capital, you realize very quickly that you are no longer in a government-controlled area. We also had to go to the UPC militia, which is currently ruling the region. There are no state representatives left, no police, no state health care. It is very clear that as soon as you leave the capital, you are no longer in government territory.
Interviewer: And that's where you, as Caritas, come in. There are many aid organizations leaving the country. They deliberately say: we will stay. Among other things, they visited a mobile hospital that provides psychological first aid. What does this first aid look like??
Kerkhof: A distinction must be made. We were in a hospital in Kouango that is not run by Caritas. We visited the only doctor there. It's for 125.000 people the only contact, the only doctor! The situation there was really terrible. He told us that he has to use the same gloves for operations because he does not have enough of them. Malaria is a huge problem. Caritas has a mobile clinic: a team of five colleagues travels by jeep – sometimes by boat – to very remote villages and runs a basic health care service. The most urgent problem is malaria.
Psychological first aid has now been added because most people in the Central African Republic are traumatized by the war. Many have been displaced, many have lost loved ones. In the end, movement is very limited. The women often have to travel certain distances to get to the fields. And many are victims of sexual assault and rape, not only during the height of the conflict, but even now. And in the situation the country is in, the perpetrators do not have to fear that they will be prosecuted in any way for their actions.
Interviewer: In 2015, Pope Francis visited the country and opened the Holy Year there. Recently, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the country has consulted. The bishops say that the situation is getting better and that there are fewer supply problems. News agencies report rather the opposite. How do you assess the situation?
Kerkhof: Compared to the peak of the conflict four or five years ago, the situation has probably improved. We were told on the ground that Bangui and the entire country are a volcano that can erupt again at any time. That is exactly how we perceived it. During the eight days we were in the country, it was actually very quiet. In between, you could almost forget that you were in a country in crisis.
Then suddenly it was hit and miss. On the last day of our departure, when we left our accommodation in the morning, the picture was completely different: the streets were full of weapons, military. UN blue helmets were out, and police and various groups we couldn't place were driving around the city on pickup trucks with heavy weapons.
People responded accordingly. The atmosphere changed and all this during a few hours. No one could tell us what exactly triggered it. We were only told when asked: it is sometimes small things, proverbially a stone that is thrown. The situation is building up and suddenly this volcano threatens to erupt again. And we're told it's not just for the capital, but for the entire country.
Interviewer: They have been back for a week. What stays in your mind?
Kerkhof: Many images have impressed themselves on me. What is certain is that I will have to gnaw on it for a while, even though I was only able to look into this country for a week. The inconceivable poverty and lack of perspective of the people in the countryside is certainly something that moves me the most. It's often just little things – a syringe, a malaria tablet – that sometimes make the difference between life and death. These are not big things, but it is difficult to bring these things to the people. That, and knowing how many are there where no mobile clinic can get by, sticks.
The interview was conducted by Renardo Schlegelmilch.