The brutal crisis in the Central African Republic has gone on largely unnoticed internationally except, maybe, for this one iconic image: a sea of displaced people huddled in the hulls of abandoned, rusty planes. This was M’poko international airport, in the capital Bangui. At its peak, 100,000 people lived in this camp. Those who couldn’t shelter in the ruins of old aircraft piled up in empty warehouses, or built a roof over their heads with whatever scraps they could gather.
Three years later however, the international flights that land in Bangui do so next to empty land. Bulldozers came and went, and most of the 20,000 people still living in M’poko have returned to where they came from.
But this closure still matters. Here’s why:
1. Because it’s not over
The closure of M’poko is good news: it is a sign of stabilisation in the Central African Republic, a country where even the oldest citizens cannot remember more than very brief periods of relative stability. But this closure remains largely symbolic. The displaced people have little to return to: precarious safety, poor to non-existent infrastructure, destroyed houses still riddled with bullets, and 150 euros in cash for families of six to re-start their lives from scratch. Countrywide, one in four people still displaced – either inside or outside of national borders.
The camps’ closure had officially been a priority for nearly to three years. For example, in September 2015, after a year of relative calm in Bangui, the camp’s population had dwindled to 6,000 people and MSF was preparing to close its hospital and clinics. But just a few days before the scheduled reduction of MSF activities, the conflict flared up. Yet again, thousands ran to the relative safety of the airport, and our hospital was flooded with people: the number of consultations rose from 250 to 400 a day.
So, whilst there is some cause for cautious optimism, what the history of M’poko camp tells us for certain is that tomorrow is uncertain in the Central African Republic.
2. Because it was not (all) doom and gloom
The Central African conflict that caused the camp to spring to life in the first place reached horrifying levels of violence, with atrocities committed by both sides. MSF’s teams, who started providing medical support in M’poko just one day after the first families arrived, witnessed horrendous acts such as dismemberments.
The living conditions in the camp were difficult for the traumatized thousands who seek refuge there. But like anywhere else in the world, life and death happened side by side. For three years, families did their utmost to maintain a minimum of dignity despite everything; 5,807 babies were born in MSF’s field hospital of M’poko.
Moreover, the presence of the camp provided some services even beyond the displaced people living there. At the time of the camp’s closure, two thirds of the patients in MSF’s hospital in M’poko were coming from outside of the camp; some were walking for hours to reach the hospital because there were no other free and reliable medical services accessible to them. Now that the hospital closed though, they will need to rely on the weak offer of public services in Bangui. Indeed, the Central African Republic has not solved its deep-rooted problems.
3. Because it was an international matter (kind of)
On 4 December 2013 the UN Security Council, and, a few hours later, France separately, vowed to take action to stop what was already intolerable levels of violence during the wave of conflict that had started in 2012. One day later, Bangui, where some fighting was already taking place, fell into all-out war and the first people fled to M’poko – seeking protection from the UN and French troops based at the airport. International troops have been central in the recent history of the Central African Republic, for better and for worse: still unresolved accusations of sexual abuse by French and UN troops in the country remain an ineffable stain on their reputation.
Outside the mobilisation of military resources however, the Central African Republic remains at the bottom of the list of international priorities. Despite the huge, glaring needs of a population in distress, there is not much appetite to provide basic services in such a dangerous and tense environment. For three years, except for MSF’s permanent medical presence there was little services in the camp and M’poko was mostly a squalid place to live. M’poko and indeed the Central African Republic never saw the mobilisation of international aid at levels similar to other displaced people or refugee camps in the world.
4. Because it was, in a limited way, a trigger to action
Squalid, yes; forgotten, yes; but still – M’poko camp was the entry point for the coverage of the terrible humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic. The displaced people lived right along the tarmac of the landlocked country’s international airport. It was, quite literally, the first thing you saw when you arrived in the country. Traveling across the country is difficult at the best of times, with precious little decent roads; not to mention highly dangerous during the crisis. So, for visiting reporters and their readers and viewers around the world, M’poko became the image of underreported Central African Republic’s crisis that may have been completely ignored without this iconic image.
Today, M’poko has closed. The symbol representing the huge needs of the Central African people has disappeared, but not the country’s problems. Without it, how can the goodwill of donors, the public and private sector, continue to be mobilised to help half of the country’s population that still rely on humanitarian aid to survive?
5. Because you did something good (if you’re an MSF donor)
M’poko was a special project for MSF. All teams still remember the extraordinary challenge of building a full 60-bed field hospital in a matter of just a few days, on a piece land where there was nothing, and at the peak of an extraordinarily brutal conflict. Our teams worked there every day, for a thousand days – international professionals alongside our courageous Central African colleagues. All our Central African colleagues had suffered with their loved ones the worst of the conflict, some of them even living in the displaced persons camp as they had lost everything. Together they provided 440,000 consultations, 46,000 medical interventions in the emergency room, and 11,000 hospitalizations in the temporary structure of wooden planks and tarpaulin.
All this was made possible by the donations from private donors all over the world who support Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
On behalf of all those patients: Thank you.
The crisis in Central African Republic is not yet over. MSF remains one of the main health actors in the country, with 17 medical projects across the country, including a surgical program and a maternity in Bangui.