Chapter I: Airport


Welcome to Bangui. The first thing you see on landing in the capital of Central African Republic is a scar of its never-ending war – an open wound from a conflict which flares up at intervals, each time forcing people to flee their homes, keeping thousands trapped in the cycles of violence.

The first thing you see on landing in Bangui is a camp for displaced people.* Some 20,000 people live there. It’s not just that it can be seen from the air or that it’s close to the airport buildings: it’s right there when you land, next to the runway and in and around the aircraft hangars. On one side, large commercial aircraft and small planes belonging to NGOs and the UN wait their turn to use the runway; on the other side, separated only by a small ditch and some undergrowth, are 20,000 people who are barely surviving.

* This report was written before the closure of M’Poko camp by the Central African government in December 2016; MSF’s hospital in the camp is also closed.

How did this happen?

At the end of 2013, fighting broke out in Bangui between the Muslim Séléka coalition and the Christian anti-Balaka militias. Christians living in neighbourhoods affected by the violence fled en masse. Where did they go? To the airport. Why there? Because French troops were deployed there and it was the only place they believed would be safe. To begin with, 100,000 people gathered there; little by little some have returned to their homes, but many have resisted returning.


People put up their tents under the wings of aeroplanes. | Anna Surinyach

We’ll stay in this camp as long as is necessary,” says Luis Arias, project coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) at Bangui's M’Poko airport. “We’ll stay as long as there are people who need help.”

In the middle of the camp, MSF has set up a large field hospital where its teams provide basic healthcare, emergency treatment, maternity care and psychological support. Some 300 to 350 patients pass through its doors every day. Not all of them come from the camp itself: the capital’s healthcare system is in such a poor state that many people from outside the camp come here too. “Seventy percent of our patients come from outside the camp,” says Arias. “They come because they know that the hospital is fully managed by MSF.”

A mother and baby wait to be seen at MSF’s hospital in M’Poko camp. | Anna Surinyach

It’s an astonishing scene. There are tents covered with plastic – not the classic plastic tarpaulins given out by the UN’s Refugee Agency, but ordinary rubbish bags. Everything about the camp looks temporary, but the camp continues to exist. People shelter from the sun under the wings of abandoned light aircraft that are scattered throughout the camp. They hang their clothes from the fuselage. “At the start, some people were even living inside the aeroplanes,” recalls Reims Pali, MSF’s deputy project coordinator.

Looking around, in the middle distance there is a plane getting ready to take off. “When a plane starts up its engine, I have to hold onto this post so I don’t fall over,” says Marcel Beorofeï, leader of one of the camp’s neighbourhoods, as he watches a Tupolev aircraft preparing for take-off. “The noise is tremendous and it’s really hard for the babies.”

An aircraft hangar provides some shelter to people fleeing violence in Bangui. | Anna Surinyach

Some families live almost on top of the runway. Minutes before a plane takes off, people are still riding mopeds down the runway and crossing it on foot. UN forces patrol the runway, asking pedestrians to move away and advising them that the plane is about to take off. People crowd along the edges of the runway, excited, as if this is the first plane they’ve ever seen; others turn their backs, tired of the sight. The plane accelerates, the turbines roar and the camp shakes for a few moments as the plane takes off, leaving a trail of smoke that lingers in the air.