World Bulletin/News Desk
An early start to the rainy season in Central African Republic has worsened the plight of hundreds of thousands of people sheltering from religious violence in makeshift camps, raising the risk of malaria and dysentery, aid workers said on Tuesday.
The former French colony has been torn apart by violence that has killed thousands, mostly Muslims as attacks intensified in December when Christian militias stepped up reprisals.
With French and African peacekeepers powerless to stem the violence, the U.N. refugee agency says at least 700,000 people have fled their homes, many of them living wild in the bush or in shambolic camps dotted across the poor, landlocked country.
Six months of heavy rains typically begin in early April but on Sunday a downpour struck the riverside capital, Bangui.
In the city's largest camp, where 70,000 people are packed together beside the runway of M'poko International Airport, residents waded through up to 30 cms (12 inches) of muddy water.
Most of the displaced have makeshift shelters made from tarpaulins and palm leaves on the swampy soil.
"The area is flooded and we cannot sleep properly. The children are getting sick and the elderly too are getting sick," said Pierrette Yagossa, a student living there. "We aren't getting any aid to build more tents."
The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) said it was seeking sites in the capital where the soil is more absorbent.
"All the conditions are favourable for puddles and standing water, which is always a risk for waterborne diseases like malaria and acute diarrhoea." said Judith Leveillee, the deputy head of UNICEF in Central African Republic.
MACHETES AND GRENADES
Aid workers are encouraging people to return to their homes but many are reluctant, citing the risk of revenge attacks, especially against Muslims. At its peak the airport camp of M'Poko housed close to 100,000 people.
The United Nations on Monday proposed a nearly 12,000-strong peacekeeping force to stop the country sliding towards what a top U.N. rights official called "ethnic-religious cleansing". The force is not expected to be operational before late summer.
The Red Cross said it collected 11 bodies over the weekend from across Bangui, some hacked to death with machetes or blasted apart by grenades.
"Those who say the violence is calming down are living a lie. We are the ones who collect the bodies and I can assure you it is not," said Pastor Antoine Mbao Bogo, the local Red Cross president.
Amy Martin, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Bangui, said the rains would make it much harder to reach isolated parts of Central African Republic. Thousands of Muslims sought shelter in the remote north, creating a de facto division of the country.
Close to 300,000 people have also fled to neighbouring Chad and Cameroon. Many face food and water shortages and have no shelter, aid workers say.
"These vulnerable people continue to suffer after surviving the carnage we are witnessing in CAR. We urgently need more resources to help them," said Thomas Gurtner, Humanitarian Coordinator for the United Nations in Chad.
Meanwhile, people fleeing conflicts in Central African Republic and South Sudan are growing increasingly sick and hungry with children particularly at risk, United Nations aid agencies said on Tuesday.
Among the latest deaths were 15 malnourished children who "died before they could be saved" at the weekend, having crossed from Central African Republic into Cameroon, said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.
"I think 'tip of the iceberg' is a very appropriate way of putting it," UNICEF spokesman Patrick McCormick told a news briefing in Geneva, referring to the 15 children.
Violence in Central African Republic and neighbouring South Sudan has displaced about 1.8 million people across the region.
"We're really noticing a trend in all refugees that they're in very poor physical shape. Some are suffering from malaria, diarrhoea, respiratory infections," Fleming said.
"Many have been hiding in the bush for up to even one year in the Central African Republic, which has significantly impacted their state of health. Also, very disturbingly, many children up to the age of 5 are showing varying degrees of malnourishment."
Fleming said the poor state of health of the 15 children who died in Cameroon was "an indication of what's probably worse inside the country".
Many of those fleeing from South Sudan into Ethiopia are also malnourished. UNHCR said medical screening showed 11.1 percent were suffering from severe acute malnutrition and another 16.6 percent from moderate acute malnutrition.
The World Health Organization says that the fatality rate for under-5s suffering from severe acute malnutrition typically ranges from 30 percent to 50 percent.
In South Sudan, a power struggle between the president and his deputy whom he dismissed last July triggered fighting that has killed thousands in the past few months. Despite a ceasefire Jan 23, the violence is worsening, McCormick said.
"South Sudan's dream, the newest country in the world, risks becoming a nightmare for the country's children," he said.
The U.N. humanitarian appeal for South Sudan is more than $1 billion short of a target of $1.27 billion by June. A U.N. strategic response plan for Central African Republic has received only $112 million of $551 million needed this year.Last Mod: 04 Mart 2014, 21:34