Paoua, Central African Republic – When rebels attacked her village, Delphine Lokaingoto was still too weak from childbirth to lift more than one of her children at a time.
As she snatched up her four-day-old baby, she told the others – aged three, four and six – to run to the fields.
“Some of the Seleka were on horses,” she said. “We started to run away, and that’s when they shot my children and my husband.”
Lokaingoto then watched from the bush as the rebels, from the ex-Seleka led National Movement for the Liberation of the Central African Republic (MNLC), began burning the bodies and houses in her village, Beogombo IV.
Carrying nothing but her one remaining child, she walked for three days to reach Paoua town.
Forced displacement in the Central African Republic (CAR) has reached record levels as the country’s ever-expanding number of armed groups aggressively seek control of territory ahead of the April onset of the rainy season.
Paoua town is now hosting more than 65,000 displaced people since late December in rural Ouham-Pende prefecture near the Chad border, where the latest chapter in CAR’s five-year conflict is unfolding. The upsurge of violence in 2017-2018 has driven the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) up to 688,700, the highest figure since the crisis began in 2013, with another 542,380 refugees hosted in neighbouring countries, according to figures from the UN.
Analysts see the increasing frequency of attacks on civilians and clashes between armed groups as a bellwether that could signal an expanding conflict across the country and a much larger humanitarian crisis on the horizon.
“In 2015 and 2016 there was real space for optimism, there was a new government, and armed groups were decreasing their attacks on civilians,” said Lewis Mudge, a senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW). “This changed in 2017, and we are now seeing levels of violence tied to the crisis of 2013. Groups are more emboldened than ever to commit war crimes.”
“Things are moving very fast. The more area armed groups want to control, the more people are going to be displaced,” said Joseph Inganji, the head of office for UNOCHA in CAR. “And all of this is coming at a time when the government is still lacking the capacity to cater for the basic social services of its citizens.”
Yale University professor Louisa Lombard, whose research focuses on CAR, said that “the presence of a large UN peacekeeping mission will probably prevent a return to a full civil war” but that “attacks that can be quite devastating for people and that shift in terms of geography depending on which areas are not protected and/or provide other resources” are likely to continue.