Prospèr Honagali's plight encapsulates the tragedy of his country. The 50-year-old priest from the Central African Republic lost half of his family -- 15 people -- between 2007 and 2009. Their lives were claimed by violent crime, political conflict and disease, all of which are rampant in this war-torn and deeply impoverished African country.
"Two of my relatives died in attacks by the Zaraguinas," Honagali said, referring to marauding criminal gangs who have taken advantage of the country's political chaos to pillage and abduct children for ransom. "Three were killed by anti-government rebels and the rest died of disease."
Large swatches of the Central African Republic lack clean water and adequate food supplies, while suffering from high infant and maternal mortality rates, soaring rates of HIV infection and inadequate health care. The diseases Honagali's relatives succumbed to, malaria and diarrhea, could have all been treated by doctors and cheap drugs. But in the Central African Republic, there are few doctors and limited access to medicine.
A member of a local self-defense group, armed with a home-made rifle, patrol Loura's roads. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC.
Honagali lives in the village of Loura, located in the remote northwestern corner of the country near its borders with Cameroon and Chad. The area, a patchwork of dense bush and the occasional dirt track, is just recovering from the effects of a three-year civil war that killed thousands and displaced 300,000 people before a 2008 peace treaty ended the fighting. The war is just the latest episode in the country's tragic history. After the disastrous rule of the self-declared emperor Bokassa in 1979, the Central African Republic has endured decades of military coups, lawlessness and unrest, making the Central African Republic one of the poorest countries in the world.
Despite the end of civil war, large areas of the country remain outside government control. In many parts of the country, roving criminal groups and skirmishes between armed groups are still forcing people to flee their homes. Fighters from the Ugandan rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), who have entered the Central African Republic from its military base in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, are terrorizing villages in the southeast of the country.
"The bandits, the Zaraguinas, were the first to arrive in our village," Honagali said, as he sat in the shade of his parish church, a small clay structure with crooked wooden branches serving as benches. "Then the APRD (Peoples' Army for the Restoration of Democracy) came, to liberate us from the Zaraguinas. But soon they began to behave just like the bandits."
Prospèr Honagali lost half of his family to violent crime, political conflict and disease, all of which are rampant in Central African Republic. Photo: Peter Biro/The IRC.
After years of escalating terror, the entire population of Loura -- around 3,500 people -- finally fled. Some sought shelter in the bush far from the village while others crossed the border into Cameroon and Chad.
"Maybe it was crazy but I decided to stay," Honagali said. "Just myself, my wife and the local midwife were left in the entire village. It was very hard. The town was in ruins and we survived on forest leaves, mangoes and other fruit."
The village was so quiet, Honagali added, that he could feel the ghosts of the dead. Even the APRD rebels, who camped on Loura's outskirts, avoided the village -- especially after dark.
Today, the village is slowly coming back to life. People began to return last March and Loura's young men, organized into self-defense groups armed with home-made rifles, patrol the village roads. But even though the past decade has been particularly bad, villagers say that life has hardly improved. Their clothes are torn and their children's bellies swollen with hunger. There are no animals grazing, no sound of roosters crowing, no diesel generators chugging. The area has not a single doctor -- there is only one for every 15,000 people in the country as a whole -- and the nearest hospital is a day's walk away.
"Even if people could reach a hospital, most cannot afford treatment," said Gisele Tchuinguem, a Cameroonian doctor who runs the International Rescue Committee (IRC)'s health programs in this part of the country. "A doctor's visit would cost less than two U.S. dollars but people simply don't have the money."
To give people an alternative, the IRC is renovating health posts, providing medicines and clean water, and training local people to treat common diseases.
"It is a start," Tchuinguem said. "But far from enough."
Leland Montell, the IRC's director in the Central African Republic, said that the many threats to people's lives and safety coupled with a lack of basic human services have created a perpetual humanitarian crisis in the country.
"The population here is actually no better off than people living in better known crisis areas such as Darfur," he said. "What is needed to save Central African Republic is the world's immediate attention and long-term aid."
For Prospèr Honagali and the people of Loura, help can't come soon enough.
"We have suffered so long," he said as he walked out into the bright sunlight outside his church. "We need all the help we can get. We want to start living again."
For more information about the work of the International Rescue Committee, please go to theIRC.org.