Augustine Fredericks, a WFP logistician, is pictured in the CAR capital, Bangui. Copyright: WFP/Djaounsede Pardon
More than a million people risk going hungry in the Central African Republic (CAR) after months of conflict. The World Food Programme (WFP) is on the ground, and WFP and its partners since the beginning of the year have been providing emergency food assistance to more than 300,000 people, including refugees, displaced persons, malnourished women and children. With armed gangs roaming large swathes of the country, getting assistance to those who need it most is a challenge, as Augustine Fredericks can attest.
Bangui, CAR - When Augustine Fredericks returned in mid-November to Bangui, the capital of CAR, after spending one and a half months in Bossangoa, his heart was torn between sadness and relief.
The 55-year-old logistician, who has worked for WFP for 15 years, was haunted by what he had seen and heard in the remote town that has become a safe haven for civilians fleeing armed gangs roaming the surrounding countryside.
But Fredericks was also relieved that he and his team had managed to bring food assistance to the displaced people, many of whom had fled their homes and farms after witnessing killings and other atrocities.
Fredericks, who hails from Liberia, is no stranger to hardship. He has worked in some of WFP’s most complex and challenging operations, including in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania, Sudan, Madagascar, and East Timor. He has been based in field offices in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo -- where militias were terrorizing villages -- as well as in remote Burkina Faso and in Peshawar in Pakistan. However, Bossangoa, 300 kilometers northwest of Bangui, offered a particular blend of risk and complexity.
“I have arrived with memories of burnt houses and checkpoints along the road to Bossangoa. At every checkpoint, there were armed people, some with hands on the trigger and others holding their double-edged blades,” said Fredericks as he recalled his first trip to Bossangoa in late September 2013.
That day he travelled in a convoy of five WFP trucks carrying food and other relief items.
Just getting the food and supplies to those in need is a feat.
Convoy leaders had to negotiate with armed men at the checkpoints. The atmosphere often became tense with the armed men quick to take umbrage and show their frustration. Sometimes, convoys were obliged to wait until tempers cooled and the situation could be resolved.
In Bossangoa town, armed men patrolled the streets. Some wore army uniforms but others were dressed in civilian clothes and carried guns, double-edged knives, bows and arrows. It was not clear who was who.
Despite the military presence, looting, killing and armed robbery were widespread. In September, two aid workers from the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) were killed in Bossangoa. Several humanitarian compounds were looted and vehicles were stolen.
To increase security, all the UN agencies shared the same compound. And this is where Fredericks found himself after he arrived.
Every night, he would look for a small space on a porch or in a meeting room where he could roll out his camping mattress and hang his mosquito net. There was little water for toilets or showers, but thanks to the WFP-managed humanitarian air service UNHAS, there was a supply of drinking water. Fredericks knew he was lucky compared to the thousands of people living in makeshift shelters in the school yards or in the compound of the Catholic Church.
Despite the palpable tension in the town, Fredericks was able to carry out his duties. He organized the rehabilitation of the WFP warehouse and supervised the management of the desperately needed food commodities.
The context was complex: Soldiers would come and patrol around the WFP warehouse and the food distribution points, but Fredericks stuck firmly to WFP’s guiding principles of neutrality and impartiality.
“WFP, which I represented in Bossangoa, cares only about peace, rescue and survival of people affected by the crisis,” he said.
“If my daily engagement requires meeting with the army commander or any service provider from the local community, I will do so with no fear or claim because I have no interest other than pursuing the UN objective of minimizing suffering and ensuring the safety of anyone caught up in the confusion in Bossangoa.”