For the past few weeks, Central African Republic (CAR) cities such as Zemio have evolved from battlefields for rival rebel groups into ghost towns.

Around 10 000 people fled the south-eastern town at the height of the conflict and sought refuge in the bush or surrounding areas.

Another estimated 10 000 crossed the border over to the equally-troubled Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and are staying in makeshift camps.

Almost everybody has left. The population has dropped from 21 000 to under 1 000.

“The only people left are those who couldn’t run away, such as the disabled,” said Wil van Roekel, Doctors Without Borders co-ordinator.

In the ever-increasing displacements of civilians fleeing their homes in the war-torn Central Africa Republic, spare a thought for people with disabilities caught up in the raging conflict battering the country.

While thousands of people walk for weeks and hide in the forests, the disabled are unable to flee violence and some are especially vulnerable to attacks while trying to flee. Others face unsafe and unhealthy conditions in displacement camps.

People living with disabilities may be left behind during flight, or may not survive the journey.

They are often not identified or counted in registration or data collection exercises, are excluded from or unable to access mainstream assistance programmes and forgotten when specialised services are set up.

The disabled members of the community, most who have sought sanctuary at the PK8 camp in Bambari, are often the most exposed to protection risks, including physical and sexual violence, exploitation, harassment and discrimination.

Polio is the leading cause of disability in the Central African Republic.

Jardina Akombe, a 34-year-old woman with a physical disability caused by polio, recalls how she played dead as rebels from the Union for Peace attacked the town of Yasmine in 2017 because she could not run away.

“When the town was attacked, I hid inside my house because I did not stand a chance of fleeing. My husband and our eight children fled and I have not heard from them,” she said.

Her ordeal, while she was somewhat fortunate to live to narrate it, mirrors some of their struggles as they are often left behind.

Violence has increased throughout the CAR, particularly between Muslim Seleka diehard factions in the central regions and between rebels and Christian extremist anti-balaka militias in the northwest. Civilians are caught in the middle, and sometimes targeted, despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.

The government struggles to maintain control of the capital, relying on peacekeepers for support. An estimated 461000 people are refugees in neighbouring countries and 421700 more are internally displaced.

“I was not able to flee like the others because I could not find my crutches. I stayed and protected my child until the gunfire stopped,” Geena Malala, another disabled woman, said.

To add to their misery, those who make it into the displacement camps have trouble accessing basic services.

Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said a peace accord the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra signed with 13 of 14 armed groups active in the country should bring a respite for civilians who have been brutalised in the conflict, especially people with disabilities who suffer violence and neglect.

“People with disabilities and other at-risk groups should get the protection and assistance they desperately need.”

Mediated by the Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, the accord commits the parties to end their hostilities and to recognise last year’s presidential election results, but is in danger of futility as the conflict rages.

Ironically, in CAR, discrimination against disabled persons is illegal. The civil service and large firms are mandated to employ some disabled people.

CAR is torn by renewed crisis since 2013 when rebel groups overthrew then-President François Bozizé. Touadéra’s administration is battling to retain order. - CAJ News