As you descend through a mysterious thick cloud of dust into Central African Republic’s capital Bangui’s M’Poko International Airport, displaced people living adjacent to the airport wave to arriving passengers. This area was the only refuge for many after communal violence erupted in 2013 and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes across the country. On Dec. 5, 2013, Christians fled Bangui in fear of retaliation from the predominantly Muslim Seleka forces after a major attack by the Christian Anti-Balaka. Those fleeing saw the area adjacent to the airport as a safe haven due to the hundreds of French forces previously stationed there to protect French interests. At its peak, M’poko held up to 70,000 people during the height of the crisis and holds around 20,000 today.
An informal market provides small amounts of food from the city or grown in private gardens in the camp. Most people have been able to grow basic staples, but an unprecedented three-month-long drought has made efforts fruitless, and many are beginning to worry. Water is delivered, but little to no food aid is distributed in the sprawling camp. Aid organizations virtually eliminated food aid in order to discourage people from settling in the area, forcing the displaced to find other ways to provide for themselves.
There is little to no security in the camp or the surrounding area, leaving the most vulnerable exposed to abuse. In late 2013, reports began to surface of United Nations peacekeepers and employees, as well as international forces, exchanging food for sexual acts with children as young as 9. Since 2014, 42 cases of sexual abuse or exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers have been officially registered in the Central African Republic, the organization said. Other accusations are being investigated, and many believe the number of victims is much higher.
Despite the harsh conditions, life has continued within this camp of makeshift tents and structures, surrounded by dilapidated planes and unused hangars. People travel to the city for work every day, women braid each other’s hair in the shade, and many attend church services. Children run freely, stopping only to greet visitors, with smiles and handshakes, their curiosity diminished as many journalists have visited the camp over the last two years. School has only recently become an option, with newly opened UNICEF classrooms in the camp’s center giving parents some relief as two years of no education weighed on their minds.
Most of those displaced are reluctant to return home, if it still stands. During recent clashes in September 2015, those who had gone home quickly returned as fighting in the capital escalated once again. For now, this insecure camp with little international aid is their safest and only option.