CRS Staff Describe Harrowing Escape from the Central African Republic

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“There were moments throughout the day when we were not sure we would survive,” said Maribeth Black of her last day in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic. “Grenades and bullets were whizzing by outside the gate and angry looters were banging.”

Black and other members of Catholic Relief Services’ staff were seeking safety from the fighting and chaos that was engulfing Bangui as rebel troops entered the city. They had joined other humanitarian workers at the compound of the International Rescue Committee.

“At first, we hid in the safe room, hoping that it would all be over soon,” Black, a CRS program manager for operations, said. “But seven hours later, the fighting continued.”

She was speaking from the safety of neighboring Cameroon after she and other members of the CRS staff were eventually safely evacuated. But even as they are thankful for their safety, they are extremely sad to leave behind this shattered country they were devoted to helping.

“Nothing in life was more difficult and frightening than that trip to the airport,” said Black of driving in a UN convoy on their way out of the country, saying she was sad to be leaving “some of the kindest people on earth.”

Dermot Hegarty, CRS’ Communications and Technology Manager, echoed her feelings. “I wish I could give you a better sense of the melancholy that filled us all,” he said of that trip to the airport. “Saying we felt sad just feels so inadequate.”

But the staff had no choice as Bangui was the scene of hours of firefights between the rebels and government troops and then of gangs roaming the city, taking advantage of the chaos to loot and steal. The day before the rebels arrived in the city, panic started to spread as CRS staff feared the imminent arrival of the rebels.

“Driving around Bangui that day – public transport had stopped and everyone was walking, evacuating from the town center, leaving their office jobs, stores were closing, and everyone on foot,” recalls Renee Lambert, CRS’ country manager in Central African Republic. “A feeling of panic was setting in.” Lambert described the feeling after trying to make travel arrangements to leave the country, and just before settling into the makeshift safe room at the International Rescue Committee compound. “We all knew that the rebels were advancing on the city, and while we hoped it would be a peaceful arrival, most of us knew that it likely would not be,” she said.

Hegarty said the next day, Sunday, began when he was awoken at 7:20 by the sound of gunfire. The fight for Bangui began,” he said.

With his cellphone dying, Hegarty would venture into the courtyard of the compound, trying to make a call. “I huddled in the corner at one point as I could not even hear the dial tone because the shooting was so loud.”

Guards negotiated with the crowds of looters that gathered at the gates. “It felt as though we were up against the clock and as every 5 minutes went by it felt like an eternity as [the looters] were all waiting outside for us to go so they could come in and loot the building,” Hegarty added. “We just wanted to get out of there with our lives.”

Eventually the United Nations said help was on the way, but when it arrived it was an already crowded 4 x 4 vehicle. There was no room for luggage. The CRS staff had to leave all their personal belongings behind for the looters who awaited their departure.

At the UN compound, water was scarce for those gathered seeking safety – it had to be sterilized with tablets to make it safe to drink. Meal tickets were handed out, good for one cup of rice per day.“ The humanitarian community was essentially creating its own humanitarian refugee camp,” said Black. In all, CRS along with IRC staff and others spent days behind the walls of the UN compounds in Bangui, while intense fighting continued outside. Eventually, they headed to the airport for a flight to safety in neighboring Cameroon. As they drove in a convoy to the airport, they got a glimpse of the danger, destruction and despair filling the streets of Bangui.

“The sadness we felt on Sunday arriving in the compound was eclipsed by the sheer misery of what we saw leaving the city,” explains Hagerty. “It was dusk and the streets were still covered with looters and [rebels] and the city simply looked even more broken now than before.”

“The drive across town was both startling and a chilling wake up call for just how quickly our sleepy capital city had turned into an active war zone,” said Black. “We passed youth toting AK-47s, buildings destroyed and looted, and streets virtually empty of signs of life, save for pick-up trucks full of [rebels].” Speaking from Cameroon, where they are waiting to travel back to the U.S., the CRS staff recount with sadness the condition of the city and the people they had come to help – and to love.

“All petrol stations have been destroyed. All main stores looted. Vehicles have been stolen. The local economy has certainly taken a huge hit and it will be weeks, perhaps even months, until it functions again as normal,” said Black.

“The humanitarian consequences are immeasurable – the country was already classified a forgotten crisis before this situation. I can’t even begin to imagine how it will be classified now,” added Lambert. “Infrastructure – the little there was – has been destroyed, businesses looted, government offices taken over, hospitals have been destroyed, schools have been taken over by the rebels, the list goes on and on.”

While the situation remains dangerous and volatile, Black and her colleagues hope that CRS will be able to soon return and continue to help the people as they rebuild.

“The Central African Republic will need dedicated assistance and more to rebuild, and I hope that CRS will be at the front line of those efforts,” she said.

CRS has been working and supporting projects in the Central African Republic since 1999, and currently manages agriculture and other community-based programs.