(CNN) – One of the poorest places on Earth just got poorer.
According to the United Nations, the number of people in the Central African Republic (CAR) who rely on aid to survive rose to 2.9 million in 2019 from 2.5 million the previous year.
That’s around two-thirds of the country’s population. But aid agencies on the ground say they have received less than half of what they need to help those most at risk.
This African crisis is on a par with those in Yemen and Syria but gets much less attention than either — perhaps because CAR, a landlocked country of abject poverty and endemic violence, has never seemed as geopolitically significant as those other cases.
After a visit to CAR this month, the UN’s Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Ursula Mueller said the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate. “Spikes of violence in areas of the country that were not previously affected by the conflict are creating new displacement and humanitarian needs,” she said.
Fighting — along ethnic and sectarian lines — has wracked CAR since 2013. The government controls less than a quarter of the country while myriad rebel factions contest the rest. At least 1 million people are displaced, and aid agencies struggle to care for them in a country that has a limited road network and a scarcely functioning police and army.
In February, amid pressure from the African Union, the government and 14 rebel factions agreed a truce. It is the eighth truce reached since 2013. All the others have collapsed, and this one is now struggling to gain traction.
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A UN experts’ report in July said several groups were violating the accord; some had even attacked the UN peacekeeping mission.
Rebels continue to traffic arms from neighboring Chad and illegally exploit CAR’s mineral wealth, according to the UN report.
And atrocities against civilians continue. In May, more than 50 villagers were corralled and shot dead in attacks by one of the rebel factions in the remote north-west. The security situation in parts of south-east CAR has also worsened in recent months.
Yet there are faint glimmers of hope.
One of them is the remarkable resilience of people in the CAR, which CNN has witnessed on visits to the country this year. There is a deep longing for peace in a country that has been traumatized by violence — much of it aimed at civilians — for the last six years.
Aid agencies say they can reduce the number of people in urgent need of help by as much as a quarter if the peace agreement takes hold. But so long as people are too terrified to return home and plant crops, huge camps such as the one at Bria that CNN visited in May will remain full.
There is also an unresolved tension at the heart of the truce agreement. It involved painful compromises, with several rebel leaders whose groups are accused of committing atrocities given government positions.
“Nothing illustrates the peace-versus-justice dilemma more than the inclusion in government of leaders from three of the many armed groups tormenting the country. They are now special military advisers in the prime minister’s office,” wrote the Institute for Security Studies.
A protest in the capital Bangui in June against the inclusion of these groups in the government was broken up by security forces.
Striking a balance between investigating and punishing those accused of atrocities and the need to restore security is down to CAR Justice Minister Flavien Mbata. He told CNN the government would pursue those accused of human rights abuses — to “heal the wounds of war while fighting efficiently against impunity by preventing new cycles of violence.”
“Fair trials are not only a duty to the victims who suffered atrocious crimes but will also send a strong signal indicating that grave crimes will not be tolerated anymore,” Mbata said.
A Special Criminal Court has been set up but is short of funds and staff, according to human rights groups. One local activist told Human Rights Watch that gathering evidence was very difficult when “the victims and the tormentors live in the same neighborhood. It takes tremendous courage for the victims to dare to bring a complaint and turn to justice.”
Even if the practical issues of gathering evidence and finding resources to prosecute alleged offenders can be resolved, there is still the overriding problem that pursuing powerful rebel figures for their crimes could quickly consign the latest truce to the same fate as the previous seven agreements. And that would leave millions of Central Africans in the same desperate plight they endure now.
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