Hunger stalks the strife-torn Central African Republic
BANGUI, Central African Republic – Some 65 guests invited to a meal in Bangui eagerly awaited a feast of chicken bought for a song in the market, but soon many were in agony because the stolen imported meat was rotten.
"My husband was one of the guests. He was doubled up with abdominal pains and diarrhea. It lasted for three days," Beatrice Tote said in the capital of the Central African Republic.
One of the armed gangs that roam the strife-torn country had intercepted a vehicle bringing frozen chickens from neighboring Cameroon and stolen the fowls to sell them off cheap, but once defrosted they went bad.
This painful episode illustrates a broader problem of obtaining healthy food in Bangui, where conflict has caused prices to soar, while across the country many peasant farms lie barren. About a quarter of the population of 4.5 million has been uprooted for fear of brutal raids by armed groups.
The landlocked nation has become more dependent than ever on food supplies from Cameroon and its Atlantic port of Douala, which lies about 1,400 kilometers (900 miles) from Bangui by road. On CAR territory, truck drivers risk being ambushed and robbed by gunmen.
"Uncontrolled armed individuals are rampant," said Charles Mandjao, a Bangui trader who obtains his supplies via the dangerous road. "When they fall upon you, you lose everything."
The latest conflict in a highly unstable nation pits mainly Muslim ex-rebels of the Seleka alliance, who took power in a March 2012 coup for 10 months, against "anti-balaka" vigilantes formed among mostly Christian communities to avenge brutal attacks.
Risky food transport
Human rights watchdogs accuse both sides of atrocities against civilians at a cost of thousands of lives.
France and the African Union deployed about 8,000 peacekeeping troops as of last December to try to tamp down on the violence.
Some of these international forces watch over the food corridor. "They ask us to drive in convoy, but we carry perishable goods and waiting for other trucks works against us," said Ahmed Aroun, a driver on the Douala-Bangui road.
More than 30 years of misrule studded by army mutinies, coups and rebellions have left the CAR near the bottom of the UN Human Development Index, with major shortfalls in food supply, health care, security and education.
"Even before the crisis began, the food security situation in CAR was dire. A comprehensive food security and vulnerability analysis... indicates that 30% of the population was food-insecure," the World Food Programme said in a recent overview.
The UN agency added that conflict had caused a sharp decline in agricultural output, while food prices had risen in parallel with the number of cases of malnutrition. Moreover, one in three children among 100,000 refugees who have fled to Cameroon is severely underfed, according to the UN Children's Fund.
In Bangui, prices have risen for staples including wheat flour, cassava, oil, milk, meat and vegetables, residents said.
"Now you need at least 9,000 CFA francs a day (14 euros, 18.60 dollars) for two kilos (4.4 pounds) of meat to feed a large family decently, instead of 6,000 CFA francs," mother Milene Yakeka said.
"Even a bunch of onions that cost 300 CFA francs yesterday has gone up to 500 CFA francs," added Elisabeth Moina. "Sometimes at night, we settle for a soup accompanied by fritters, then we go to sleep."
Patients in Bangui's community hospital complain that meals are not regular. "One day we are fed, the next we aren't. We have to count on family solidarity," said one woman who asked not to be named.
Food for 55,000 schoolkids
Children are especially vulnerable. The number of cases of severe malnutrition in Bangui's pediatric centre has multiplied by three during the crisis, according to the WFP.
In June, the WFP introduced a project to feed some 55,000 pupils in 44 Bangui schools, sometimes providing the only meal of the day.
"You can't study properly on an empty stomach, but many of these children come without having eaten. So (the scheme) increases school attendance, but also reaches those children who need to be fed properly," WFP communications officer Donaig Le Du said.
Joseph Regapa, a headmaster, said the feeding plan had brought back children from camps for displaced people and even from high-risk zones.
In the interior, insecurity hampers bids to reach a hungry population, along with the poor state of roads, particularly in the rainy season.
Where they can, UN agencies are distributing seed and farming tools for the current sowing season. UN workers need to tell starving people that the grain is to be planted, not eaten. – Rappler.com