Aid agencies are reporting widespread displacement and looting of villages in areas under control of the Seleka rebel coalition in the Central African Republic. An assessment mission by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and U.S.-based Mercy Corps last week to the central town of Bambari found a situation of utter desolation.
The first mission to the region since last December's takeover by the Seleka rebel coalition of major cities in the north and center of the Central African Republic, the findings do not bode well for the stability of the peace agreement signed between the government and rebels last month.
According to a press release quoting U.N. refugee agency spokesman Adrian Edwards, "Villages along a 100-kilometer stretch of road between Grimari and Bambari were almost completely deserted, with most residents hiding in the bush."
"The villagers we managed to speak to reported aggression by armed groups who seek fuel, money and food," he said. "These visits are sometimes accompanied by violence against men and women, including beatings with electric cables. A village chief reported being flogged on 3 February by rebels who were trying to get him to reveal where villagers were hiding their possessions."
Edwards says a camp near Bambari housing some 2,000 Sudanese refugees was also not spared. "Community facilities, the distribution center and the warehouse of an NGO partner, have all been looted," he said. "Solar lamps that were used to light the camp have also been taken away.
"In Bambari, there has also been widespread looting, including of UNHCR's own warehouse," he added. "Offices of UN agencies, including UNHCR and international NGOs, continue to be looted and ransacked."
Armed rebels launched an offensive against the government in early December, accusing President François Bozizé of breaching the terms of peace deals in 2007 and 2008. In a matter of weeks, the rebels seized most of the country's major towns and cities.
As the rebels approached the capital, Bangui, President Bozizé agreed to form a government of national unity with the rebels.
The Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world, with some of the highest rates of child mortality and child malnutrition. The U.N. Children's Fund reports nearly 1.8 million people are affected by the recent conflict, with almost half in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
UNHCR spokesman Edwards says aid agencies would like to help those people, but the situation on the ground is too dangerous for aid workers to move around safely.
"Access for humanitarian work in CAR remains very limited as a result of the lack of security guarantees, for both humanitarian workers and for people in need," he said. "In this context, it remains difficult to deliver assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons, and conduct activities for their protection."
"UNHCR is appealing to the government and the Seleka rebels to facilitate better access for humanitarians to populations in need," the group's press release said.