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Church Shelters Those From Central African Republic Violence


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm David Greene.

We're learning more about an unfolding tragedy in Africa. The Central African Republic descended into chaos in March when a mostly Muslim alliance called the Seleka staged a coup. The rebel alliance splintered into groups and they're now battling Christian militias. France is preparing to reinforce a small military contingent there and African peacekeepers are on the way.

Innocent people have been targeted, sometimes savagely. And let's hear about one of the many desperate scenes in the country. It's a Catholic mission in the town of Bossangoa. Thousands of refugees have found a precarious sanctuary there.

We reached Bob McCarthy, who has spent time at this cathedral. He's emergency coordinator for UNICEF in the Central African Republic.

BOB MCCARTHY: We have the better part of 35, 36 thousand people concentrated in this fairly large church compound, which is maybe the area equivalent to an American football field. They are cooking their food. They've made shelters. United Nations agencies, UNICEF, along with several NGOs, are providing assistance in terms of shelter, health care; the World Food Program is providing food assistance.

You can only put in so many latrines alongside, you know, where people are living. We have pointed out the value of maybe some limited relocation outside of the church compound, to areas that we can try to ensure are going to be more secure and more safe. But the sense we get is the population is not ready to do that.

GREENE: Have you been able so far to keep the violence out of this compound?

MCCARTHY: I think there has been a demonstration of goodwill from the religious leaders in Bossangoa, from the head of the mosque, from the head of the church. They have come together. There's an active reconciliation process. And there have been several occasions when the ex-Seleka forces here have threatened to enter the church, and the regional peace support mission here has actively tried to prevent that from happening.

So they are maintaining a thin line of protection for the displaced people in the church compound. But they are beleaguered and their resources are limited. We need greater resources, greater capacity.

GREENE: And how long do you think this many people can take refuge at this cathedral?

MCCARTHY: I think in some respects, the planning, the organization of the assistance has improved. But we just have the problem of sheer numbers - too many people, and these kids need to be in some kind of learning environment that is also a challenge. The men have nowhere to go. There is alcohol being manufactured and produced there, as it probably would be in many situations. And, you know, that raises concerns about drunkenness or the possibility of riots or criminal activity, if you will. But it's just not tenable.

GREENE: I just wonder if - you know, we're talking about thousands and thousands of people, what moments or what pictures sort of stay with you - a family event or person you've come across in recent days?

MCCARTHY: Well, when I was here a few weeks ago, we came up and we found people who seemed as though they were new arrivals. They had just arrived - you know, physically fatigued, their clothes tattered. Some of the adults appeared malnourished, which is rather unusual to observe. And I was told that these are people who had come from a church some distance outside of Bossangoa, where the poor, the destitute, the mentally retarded have been given sanctuary and shelter.

And the situation there got so bad that they had to abandon that location, and had since come into the church here in Bossangoa, and there they were. These are really the least appreciated, least seen, least heard from, and it was for the best that they had come in because they could be given assistance.

But to me, it was an indication that the crisis is really touching everyone, it is touching the worst of the worst.

GREENE: Bob McCarthy is emergency coordinator for UNICEF in the Central African Republic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.