When armed men attacked the north-western town of Bocaranga in the Central African Republic in September, thousands fled, including women and children.
Madeleine, nine, was among them. She didn’t think of taking a toy; instead, she strapped her 15-month-old baby sister Cesare on her back and ran.
With others, she walked for three days, including a night in the bush, before reaching a village, 40km away. From there, a lorry sent by a local MP brought them to safety in Bozoum.
Madeleine is among 19 unaccompanied children who have sought refuge there, 125km from home.
An eyewitness, anonymous for security, recalled the moment which shattered the lives of thousands:
“It all started on Friday 22 September. It was like the calm before the storm,” the eyewitness recalled.
“During the night, all was quiet, but tension was high as the town heard rumours of an attack. This created an atmosphere of panic, with some fleeing into the bush – on their bare feet, or by bike.
“Others sought refuge in the Catholic church compound or in schools, and others at the UN peacekeepers’ base [MINUSCA]. The exodus continued through the night, but nothing tangible happened.
“Early the following day, just after 5am, a MINUSCA patrol was seen near the Catholic church compound. Two armoured vehicles were stationed at its entrance. At about 5.30, the first column of armed rebels entered the town. They passed by the Catholic compound. The UN soldiers were still there, outside their armoured vehicles. The rebels greeted them, before continuing on their route.
“A few minutes later, the first detonations of automatic rifles were heard. Meanwhile, the two UN armoured vehicles left the Catholic compound and moved towards the town. They seemed to be going back to their base, 3km away.
“The detonations and shootings continued through the day, until 6pm. For about eight hours, the rebels attacked and overran the town, without any reaction from the MINUSCA troops.”
On Sunday 24 September, the whole town was under rebel control, though MINUSCA said its troops had intervened and repelled the attack.
The exodus of civilians continued: the vast majority of the 15,000 inhabitants, including women and children, fled.
A total of 3,388 IDPs arrived in Bozoum during the three to four days that followed the attack.
Brigitte, in her forties, is a mother of ten. The youngest is still a baby.
“Why is this happening to us?” she asked. “We used to have a decent life. I used to run a small business, while my husband was a nurse. We earned enough to look after our children.”
But now life has changed. Despite the generosity of local communities and churches in Bozoum, conditions are hard: Brigitte and her husband share the same room with their ten children.
“We have no bed or mattress… We sleep on a piece of tent. At night, it’s difficult to sleep. It’s cold and mosquitos are flying all around and biting us,” she said.
Four days after their arrival, the first food distribution was organised – by Caritas International. Like dozens of other IDPs, Brigitte waited for hours to receive her portion: three kilos of rice for her family of 12.
“It’s not enough for us all. But we had something to eat for the night and the following day,” she said.
Asked about the future, she shook her head: “Nobody knows. Each time I see children on their way to or from school, I think of my own”.
Christiane, 29, a lone mother of three, including twins, lacks even basic toilet facilities. She is worried her babies could easily get sick because of the mosquitos or living conditions. She says it’s been hard to cope with the whole situation on her own. The father of her children left her even before the attack. She doesn’t know where he is now.
Valentin, a deacon in a church in Bocaranga, walked for four days, 125km, to reach Bozoum with his wife and eight children, aged between two and 16. “By the grace of God, we got the strength and energy to walk all the way,” he said. He knows that of the hundreds who left with him, not all reached the town.
Grateful for support from local communities, including churches, he prays and encourages others to remain strong in the midst of hardship.
People who managed to visit their former homes in Bocaranga say the rebels looted and ransacked them all. They say the attack targeted the predominantly Christian districts of the town: the commercial district, Catholic sector and the Bollara area, where most NGO offices were located. They say predominantly Muslim districts were spared: some of their residents were said to sympathise with the rebel attackers.
The attackers are believed to be members of two armed groups: The 3R (Retour, Réclamation et Réhabilitation), a predominantly Fulani group led by Abass Sidiki, and MPC (Le Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique), led by Mohamed Bahar.
Though MINUSCA eventually launched an offensive, on 7-8 October, to remove the rebels from Bocaranga, there is no expression of joy or celebration from the IDPs in Bozoum. Just a lot of anger. They say it is too late; they have already lost everything.
“Why did the UN troops wait for more than two weeks to intervene?” they wonder.
And they denounce MINUSCA’s failure to stop rebels entering Bocaranga in broad daylight, as well as what they saw as the peacekeepers’ “hypocrisy” – two weeks before, at a meeting with community leaders, high-ranking UN officers reportedly said any attack from rebels would be “impossible” or “unthinkable”.
They also wonder why MINUSCA said it had repelled the attack on 24 September and that the situation was under control, when in fact the rebels were in charge of the town. Some even accuse the MINUSCA troops, in this case made up of Bangladeshis, of complicity with the rebels.
It isn’t the first time MINUSCA troops have faced such accusations – in August, Moroccan troops were accused of the same following an attack in the eastern town of Gambo that left dozens dead, including ten Red Cross workers. Previously, another Moroccan contingent in Bangassou was accused of indiscriminate killing of civilians, prompting the local bishop, Juan José Aguirre Muños, to demand their withdrawal.