Central African Republic: Arriving in the midst of violence

20 Dec 2013
Related Countries
Central African Republic

On 5th December 2013, several hundred people were killed during armed clashes that shook the city of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR). Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) immediately began treating patients wounded in the fighting. Zoe Allen, an MSF logistician from the UK, was on her way to another MSF project in the country when she was caught up in the horrifying violence.

"I arrived in the country on 3rd December to work as a logistician, coordinating all the supplies to the project – ordering drugs, fuel, anything you can think of. The fact that it had been all over the news didn’t put me off going, because that’s the point of MSF – we go into the places that need the most help.

Initially I thought I’d fly into the capital, Bangui, and then go straight out to the project in Zémio, in the southeast of the country, and that the violence wouldn’t really affect me. But of course you can never tell, and I ended up flying directly into the eye of the storm.

Bodies in the gutter

At 6.30 the next morning, there was a knock on the door. It was the medical coordinator: 'Get out of bed, get dressed, we can hear shooting outside.' Hundreds and hundreds of people were gathered outside the main gates of the MSF hospital – it was chaotic.

In every corridor there were people lying or sitting on the concrete, holding pieces of cloth to their wounds, waiting to be treated. We set up three tents on the grass next to the hospital in order to cope with the overspill of injured patients. They were all types of people – men, women and children too.

The most impressive part was the way the medics reacted – it really was MSF at its best on that first day. In a situation like that, you don’t have a chance to take it all in, to think how awful it is – you just get on with it. That’s what everyone did despite the shooting outside; the doctors and nurses remained so calm, focusing all their efforts on treating patients.

Outside the hospital, the streets were entirely dead, it was the spookiest thing. African streets that I know are always just teeming with people, but this place was eerily quiet. There was a burst pipe churning out water and that was the most movement we saw. There were no other cars. But we did see bodies lying in the gutter.

People sheltering at Bangui airport, where tens of thousands have sought refuge since the clashes began © Camille Lepage

Pushing coffins

Patients told us of the devastation and atrocities they had witnessed. Armed groups were reportedly going door to door, looting and pillaging and raping, and people were leaving their homes collectively, moving to the airport and surrounding areas, seeking safety in numbers. We heard of lots of stories of young men just getting shot as they walked down the street.

On the second day, when we headed out, we saw women pushing coffins in the streets to take them to be buried. The women had to do it because it was too dangerous for the men to leave their houses. We drove along these empty red roads and passed women pushing big metal trolleys holding bare wooden coffins, with a palm leaf hanging out. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

We were on our way to the Don Bosco centre, a community centre where about 5,000 people were hiding out, seeking refuge from the fighting. They had arrived with just the bare minimum and there was no water or food.

With so many people living in a closed environment, cross-contamination from defecation is a big problem. So we immediately set to work building makeshift latrines where people could cleanly and safely go to the toilet. It sounds simple, but it’s so important in order to prevent the spread of diseases.

The corridors of Bangui's Community Hospital overflow with patients © Samuel Hanryon/MSF

"The needs are everywhere"

We built the latrines in a day – I don’t really know how – but we needed to get it done. We worked as a team – the three MSF logisticians, the local men, the priest and his second in command. It’s amazing how people can pull out all the stops when they need to.

We also installed a pump, and pumped out water from some existing wells into a couple of big water towers that were already in place, so everybody could have a steady stream of water.  

It was extremely hard work but everybody was so happy that we were helping to put these basic things in place. People were smiling and saying, 'thank you'. The next day I managed to get on a flight to Zémio.

As much as everything’s going on in Bangui, the needs are everywhere in Central African Republic, and you can’t just neglect the smaller projects. I was quite sad to leave Bangui, because of the very intense working environment and the fact that you can actually see that you’re physically really helping. But that’s the nature of the work: you just crack on wherever the need is."

Find out more about MSF's work in the Central African Republic