Over 1mn CAR children in dire need of aid – UNICEF ahead of Pope visit

© Siegfried Modola
Nearly three years of shockingly brutal religious conflict in the Central African Republic has left more than a million children in state of humanitarian disaster, the UN body announced, hopeful that the Pope’s Sunday visit to the country will bring some relief.

“The violence that has plagued this country has had a devastating impact on the lives of children,” said Mohamed Fall, UNICEF representative in the Central African Republic (CAR), a mostly Christian state of some 4.6 million people.

Almost half of all children aged five and under are malnourished after CAR descended into chaos in 2013 when former president Francois Bozize was overthrown during a coup. As a result of the political unrest, Muslim Seleka and Christian anti-balaka militias engaged in brutal violence that left thousands of people dead and created hundreds of thousands of refugees.

UNICEF estimates that some two million children are feeling the direct impact of violence as 1.2 million kids now need urgent aid. The agency says 400,000 people have been displaced within the country, while at least half a million have fled to seek shelter in neighboring states.

In the meantime, the World Health Organization (WHO)’s latest survey, released Thursday, says that a quarter of the country’s medical facilities are dysfunctional. Others are only partially functional, as they lack health professionals and proper medical equipment.

“About 139 children out of every 1,000 live births die before their fifth birthday. In Central African Republic, there are only 250 medical doctors, that is one doctor per 20,000 people, almost four times less than the African average,” WHO said.

“The humanitarian needs are overwhelming, to meet them we need access and we need greater international support,” Fall said, adding that aid cannot be delivered to those displaced as convoy trucks suffer constant attacks.

Furthermore UNICEF’s humanitarian effort in CAR is underfunded, leaving it with with a budget of $37 million of the $70.9 million necessary to save children’s lives.

UNICEF hopes that the Pope’s visit on Sunday might bring about a period of reconciliation between warring factions in the country.

“We are hopeful that ... the Pope’s visit will promote reconciliation in a country that is in desperate need of peace,” Fall said.

Pope Francis is now in Kenya where he started his first-ever visit to the continent. He is to visit Uganda before his arrival in the Central African Republic on Sunday.

Ahead of his visit to CAR, in a video message sent to the Catholics of the Central African Republic, Francis appealed for peace.

“Your country has known for too long a situation of violence and insecurity where many of you have become innocent victims,” he said. “My aim is to bring you comfort, consolation and hope in the name of Jesus. A bientot, see you soon.”

The Pope will have his hands full trying to convince the natives to stop the bloodshed. Just as UNICEF appealed for Francis’ support, a leaked United Nations report claimed that rebels in the country kidnapped, burned and buried alive elderly women that they deemed to be “witches.”

The torture carried out allegedly under the auspices of Christian anti-balaka fighters took place between December 2014 and early 2015.

The report by UN human rights officers, seen by Reuters, records instances where victims were either offered the choice of paying money for their release ($75) or face being burned to death.

“Sorcery is firmly entrenched in (Central African Republic) and ... the absence of state authority creates a breeding ground for a sort of popular justice twisted by anti-balakas to its benefit,” said the researchers.

As for now, millions of Catholic in CAR remain hopeful that the Pope’s visit might offer a few peaceful days and potential stability in the future.

During his visit to the war-torn country the Pope will serve two masses, one at the Cathedral of Bangui and one at a 20,000-seat Barthelemy Boganda Stadium. According to the Holy See Press Office, Francis will also visit Bangui’s central mosque.