DAKAR — The communal clashes that broke out in the Central African Republic just over a week ago have killed more than 600 people and displaced approximately 100,000 in a matter of days. Aid agencies say French and African troops there need to do more to protect civilians if there is to be any hope of heading off a more serious humanitarian crisis.
Intense fighting kicked off in the capital, Bangui, on Dec.5. Christian militiamen clashed with the Muslim ex-rebels who had seized control of the country in March, plunging it into a chaotic, downward spiral.
The fighting has devolved into sectarian clashes in parts of the city despite the arrival of French and African troops under a U.N. mandate to restore order.
Residents have fled to approximately 30 sites around the city. The airport is now home to more than 40,000 people.
"We are doing the best we can," said Adel, who has been squatting with about 100 others at the St. Jacques church compound. "Those who have money go out in the neighborhood and buy things like manioc flour, fish or peanut paste and come back to cook meals. Sleeping is a big problem because there are too many mosquitos. Not everyone has a net and so some people just try to cover up with sheets."
Adel said he has seen French and African troops out during the day but it's the night time that's the problem.
France has 1,600 troops on the ground. The African Union is upping its deployment to 6,000.
Amnesty International says the African Union needs to provide a detailed plan on how those troops will protect civilians.
Amnesty's Central Africa research director says international troops need to do more patrols, and not just on the main roads.
"There are no security mechanisms in place to allow people to go home and sleep at night in peace," said Christian Moukosa. "Sure, it will take time to get these in place, but that is what it will take to reassure people, as some have been getting killed going home now."
Moukosa said those at risk include combatants who have been disarmed by French troops, only to be attacked by the population.
Both the Muslim ex-rebels and the Christian militias opposed to them have been accused of committing serious abuses against civilians this year.
The violence of the past week marked an explosion of tensions that have been mounting for months.
Aid agencies say they are facing serious logistical and security challenges.
Paris-based NGO, Action Against Hunger says in the northern town of Bossangoa, 40,000 Christians have fled to the archdiocese in the past two months, and the number of Muslims taking refuge at a school across town has quadrupled to more than 6,000 in the past week.
The NGO's regional operations director, Alain Coutand, says impartiality is a key challenge. It is dangerous for relief workers to appear to be helping one community and not another.
Tensions are running so high. People are tired and frustrated," Coutand said. "There is a sort of hatred that has come out. So there is insecurity at distribution sites. There are people who are armed, people who are exhausted. It is very complicated."
Back in Bangui, there are only two hospitals open where Doctors Without Borders has been treating pregnant women and scores of wounded.
MSF says hospitals have been attacked and medical staff threatened in the past week. The group's country director, Sylvain Groult, says the hospitals don't have any protection, and that armed men have been trying to force their way in.
"It's just one of those things that happens and makes the staff very afraid for their lives, especially when working at night," Groult said.
He says aid is starting to reach people squatting around the city but it is still largely insufficient.
"Right now at the airport, we have approximately 40,000 people that have no shelter living out in the open and last night around 10 o'clock and for a few hours, there was a heavy, heavy downpour, and the nights are starting to get cool."
He said water, latrines and shelter are the most urgent needs and the risk of disease - epidemics like measles and cholera - is mounting by the day.