Chapter IX: Camp


In every war, there’s always one town that suffers disproportionately or finds itself at the very centre of the violence. In Central African Republic, that town is Batangafo.

In recent years, every rebellion, every armed group heading to Bangui to take the capital, has passed through Batangafo. It’s located on an imaginary line that roughly separates the Christian west from the Muslim east. In Batangafo, the two main protagonists are the Christian anti-Balaka militias and the Muslim Séléka coalition. But that's not all, as rival Séléka factions have also been engaged in clashes in the town. 

In June 2014, fighting between the anti-Balaka and Séléka militias resulted in chaos that forced 20,000 mainly Christian people to seek refuge in the hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières in Batangafo. Yes: 20,000 people in one hospital. After the fighting had ended, they didn’t dare return home, so they moved to a camp for displaced people which is partially protected by the UN’s Blue Helmets.

The camp grew in size until 30,000 people were sheltering there, not only from Batangafo but also from neighbouring areas. Some have now left, but the majority have remained. Currently, there are around 25,000 people living there, most of whom have been there for many months.

Some 25,000 people live in the camp for displaced people in Batangafo. | Anna Surinyach

People like Patrick Defake, aged 45. “The Séléka faction linked to the Peul people attacked us,” says Patrick. “Our small village was attacked for hours. Three people died and three were injured and they burnt down 80 homes in the village.”

One of Patrick’s children was injured by a bullet during the attack and was referred by MSF to the capital, Bangui, for specialist medical treatment. He’s better now.

“They launched a surprise attack on us,” Patrick says. “We couldn’t do anything, so we fled, we ran, and it took us four hours to get here. Now we’re here, there seems to be some safety because the UN is here, but the conditions are deplorable and, in reality, people can’t really leave the camp because there are killings.”

Many people won’t dare leave the camp until the militias are disarmed.

Emmanuel Kossi lives in another part of this enormous camp, in the Catholic section. He tells how he and his neighbours escaped from Batangafo before the Séléka coalition arrived.

“There was looting, torture and murders,” says Emmanuel. “Many people were killed and injured. Our homes were destroyed. There is no guarantee of safety there, so we’re staying here for the moment. The problem is that the situation is so desperate in the camp that some people have even returned to Batangafo town.”

Pierre Ngaïguende and Louise Ndjoa talk to MSF staff at the camp in Batangafo. | Anna Surinyach

Among those who temporarily sought refuge in MSF’s hospital are Pierre Ngaïguende and Louise Ndjoa and their five children.

“We were working the fields when we were attacked by the Séléka,” says Louise. “We hid in the hospital and then we came here. Now we depend on food aid from humanitarian organisations. But at least there’s a little safety here. We don’t want to go back home if there’s no peace. What’s more, we would have to rebuild our home.”

The children play in the camp. The market is bustling with people, but the scars of violence are still fresh in Batangafo and they have yet to heal.

The camp’s marketplace bustles with people in the early morning and late afternoon. | Anna Surinyach