Separating … To Be Safer?

How can a family stay together in the face of turmoil and violence?

In the Central African Republic, the response over the past few months has largely been to spread out. Rather than staying holed up at home, the inhabitants of Bangui, the capital city, have developed a different strategy. Half of them, almost 400,000 people, have left their homes. Why such displacement? Why such separation? There is the fear of collateral damage, of fighting and food shortages, but fear is not their only reason.

The ATD Fourth World team in Bangui, who are still in the city in spite of the violence, are themselves living surrounded by families who have joined them in the ATD Fourth World courtyard. Other members of ATD who visit tell them that the number one motivation for families to disperse is for security reasons. Mothers and young children may go to a refugee camp or to stay with relatives, while fathers and sons will seek shelter elsewhere.

In so many cases, dispersing seems to be the best strategy for survival. Asking for a place to stay for a few people in the home of one of their relatives is easier than asking for fifteen people all together. What is more, scattering to different places makes it easier to access local and international aid (water, food or bedding) from the Unnited Nations and Doctors Without Borders, and to earn money in the new markets that have sprung up in the camps.

The people of Bangui are today compressed into half of their usual space. These gathering places allow people sometimes to find those they have lost, to meet new people, to share news, but also rumors. The main reason people left home was the rival armed militias. News of murders, of public mutilations, of burned homes, keep people from returning home, however much they hope to do so.

In their new living places, many of the mothers, in an incredible show of resilience, immediately start organizing themselves. They stay busy – keeping up their small business, pounding corn into flour, or preparing drinks – all with the few tools they managed to carry away in their flight. They re-build their social and economic networks, and this small-scale economy allows them to subsist and to survive. It is thanks to these efforts that they and their children manage, because there is not enough aid, and it rarely reaches them.

Even dispersed, family members don’t lose track of one another. They stay in touch by phone or by visiting. Even having fled their homes, they keep watch over them to make sure they are not pillaged or burned. Taking turns, fathers and sons stand guard. Sometimes they have to change homes each night in function of where the latest fighting has broken out.

To limit the damage in case of fire or looting, people will gather possessions and store them in a safer place with friends or family so that not everything will be lost.

The key reason for this dispersing is indeed safety. It is done with a combination of the creativity used among many people to keep in touch, and the awareness that the family is the strongest protection in such an uncertain context. By dispersing, by spreading connections and networks, they are less at the mercy of the winds of war, making sure all are not “in the same boat.” Each one can better remain a source of strength for others. And then, in their new places of refuge, each family member keeps the hope alive that one day they will return home and be reunited at last.

For the moment, every life lost is a source of suffering—suffering worsened because each death deepens the gulf between compatriots whose highest aspiration is to end the conflict, heal wounds and work toward reconciliation.

Solidarity does exist. Bravely if discreetly and despite fear, people of different religions do find ways to support each other. Some of the most vulnerable people have been protected by neighbors, for example through the loan of clothing so they can be less easily recognized. Some people have been working to repair the broken door of an older neighbor’s house. The old man has nothing, everything was lost when his house was pillaged – but now they’ve found him a pot and a stool. A teenage girl managed to find words in another language to calm the aggression of armed men hunting her aunt, who was hidden in another room. Boys took into their dug-out canoe a man who was being chased by a mob who mistook him for a militia member. Everyone demanded that the boys hand the man over, but instead, they refused and rowed him safely across the river. Even when they have nothing to their name, many Central Africans are risking their lives to stand against hatred between communities.