Central Africa’s forgotten war

Inhabitants of makeshift war camps in the Central African Republic tell the story of displacement.

Published : Jun 08, 2023 16:33 IST - 3 MINS READ

A man repairs his roof inside Central African Republic’s largest displacement camp in Bria. One person in five has been displaced by conflict.

A man repairs his roof inside Central African Republic’s largest displacement camp in Bria. One person in five has been displaced by conflict. | Photo Credit: Barbara DEBOUT / AFP

Ruined, bullet-pocked buildings line the stony track leading to the PK3—a makeshift camp housing tens of thousands of people that bears witness to one of the world’s forgotten conflicts.

A decade ago, civil war broke out in the Central African Republic (CAR), one of the poorest and the most volatile countries in the world. Over the years, the fighting has evolved and become less bloody but remains a catastrophic backdrop as rebels and Russian-backed troops battle for control.

The PK3 lies in Bria, more than 600 kilometres (375 miles) north of the capital Bangui—“Sparkling Bria,” as the town was once known, when it was the prosperous hub of the CAR’s diamond mining industry.

A sea of tarpaulin roofs, sheltering flimsy homes built between channels dug out by tropical rains, greets the visitor. “Around 32,000 people live in PK3,” said Adama Banaon of the British-based charity Oxfam, whose work in the camp is part of an EU-funded project.

More than half of CAR’s population of six million are short of food and need help and protection, according to the UN’s humanitarian affairs agency OCHA. One person in five has been displaced by conflict, either internally or fleeing to neighbouring nations.

‘Everything changed’

Pauline Abrou, a woman in her fifties sitting outside a minute dwelling of two square metres (20 square feet), recalled the day when “everything changed”. Handicapped since early childhood when an accident deprived her of the use of her legs, Abrou was living in Bria, where she had a house and a tricycle that enabled her to get around and run a business.

In 2016, the town found itself in the centre of bloody clashes between rival militias, eager to get their hands on the local gold and diamond mines. Four-fifths of the residents fled to ground close to a UN peacekeepers’ base three kilometres outside of town.

This grew into PK3—the biggest displacement camp in the country. “There was gunfire everywhere. The houses were being looted and people were getting killed. I couldn’t walk because of my handicap but I had to flee because everyone had forgotten me in the panic,” Abrou said.

During her flight, she had to abandon her precious tricycle and crawl to safety using her elbows. Still deprived of mobility, she has to crawl today, even to reach the camp’s filthy latrines.

Abrou, wearing plum-coloured nail varnish and pretty golden earrings, had a mischievous smile, even though she admitted she saw no parting of the clouds that darken her future. “I would like to get my old life back, but I’ve got no money and no home—what can I do?” she asked.

Also Read | Central African rebel commander faces war crimes charges


Government troops, supported by Russian Wagner paramilitaries, wrested control of the mines from the militia groups in 2021.

Today, most of the mines are being run by companies that are reputedly linked to Wagner—an association that chimes with accusations by the UN, NGOs, and western countries which say President Faustin Archange Touadera has traded the CAR’s mineral wealth for the Kremlin’s support.

Work opportunities in the mines for people in the camp are meagre, and the forests and fields in the region are dangerous as they are used as boltholes by the rebels.

Despite help from international organisations, life in the camp is grindingly hard, said Banaon. Water, sanitation, food and schools are all lacking, and “rape, violence against women and girls, drug and alcohol abuse” are chronic, he said.

Underpinning the concern is lack of money. After being considered a global priority in 2013, the CAR slipped down the pecking order and today has been overshadowed by “new” crises such as Ukraine and Sudan, Banaon said.

A UN “humanitarian response plan” for 2023, which aims at supporting 2.4 million of the most vulnerable people in CAR, has so far only attracted a quarter of the needed budget, OCHA said last month.

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