Last year one of my visits to the Central African Republic (CAR) ended in an evacuation across the river into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as intense fighting shook Bangui, the capital city where we were. The night after we crossed the river we could clearly see and hear the artillery shells and the explosions in Bangui, wondering about the fate of the people still there and the future of the country.
Recently I had the opportunity to go back to the country again. But, this time, without any shooting or shelling. This was a welcome change as the last three trips had all included some level of gunfire.
It is often said that the most vulnerable and those most in need are found in the most difficult and dangerous places in the world. CAR is one of them. It is also one of the places that is often described as a forgotten crisis. It does not make the headlines often, it has few national security implications for the West and major news stations seldom visit. It is one of those places that is easy to forget, and where providing any kind of assistance is really difficult.
Yet, if we as an international community are serious about providing for the most vulnerable and most in need, we must do so in CAR. This largely forgotten country has much more than its fair share of those in desperate need.
CAR ranks towards the bottom in most development ranking tables, but profile high up in the less desirable ones of atrocities, need and displacement. There have been numerous coup d'états in the country's short history. Thousands of children have been forced to become child soldiers. Last year you could buy a hand grenade for less than a dollar.
A fragile peace is now in place, support by thousands of UN peacekeepers and the French army. Several hundreds of thousand people have fled to neighbouring countries.
At the moment this assistance looks like a peacekeeping mission, support for local peacebuilding initiatives to restore social cohesion and substantial humanitarian assistance. Aid from World Vision and many other organisations has made a significant positive impact in the country, and it must continue. Aid be scaled up as required in the country until it is no longer needed. While elections took place in a largely non-violent manner, it is far too early for the international community to stop paying attention.
Much infrastructure and many homes have been destroyed, and there is growing fear and uncertainty on what will happen if hundreds of thousands of people return with nowhere to stay. What needs to happen now is the continuation of humanitarian assistance for displaced people, and comprehensive support for those who have been displaced and are now seeking to return.
The elections were a trembling step forwards and now this window of peaceful opportunity must be seized by the leaders of CAR. The international community must support national and local leaders to give communities the best possible prospect of rebuilding their country.
As was pointed out to me in Bangui recently: in the world of international development and humanitarian assistance this is one of those moments when we get to show that our stated commitment to help those most in need is indeed more than simply inspiring words.
The future of children who grow up to the sound of gunfire depend on that commitment.
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