First time in CAR: The eventful first days
Apr 10, 2016
I left the Philippines on 24 September 2015 to get to my new project at the Central African Republic, my second mission with MSF. Although I was excited, I still felt the butterflies, anxious of the uncertain, of not knowing what to expect when I get to work. Our luggage was limited to 24kg and our carry-on at 5kg, but I also packed in as much courage and hope my petite body can muster. This has always been my humanitarian dream anyway, reaching out and helping those who are in need of assistance and attention.
I arrived in Bangui, the capital of CAR, after three long days of travelling. I went straight to the office and started with my briefings, and was startled to hear French again. I hardly spoke the language after my assignment in Democratic Republic of Congo last May 2015. It was hard for me to catch up, too. It’s also possibly because I was physically and mentally tired from the long trip. But like they said, once you get to work, you just have to be prepared for whatever is thrown at you.
I was lucky to get my first briefing from the assistant admin who was patient enough to go easy on an English-speaker. “Repetez sil vous plait (can you please repeat what you just said)?” I kept saying through all the briefings with the administrative staff and other officers of the project.
I was in the middle of signing some documents when we’re told to pack up and go to the house immediately. I thought it was because we’re skipping work on a Saturday. But it was something else.
I got into the car with some international staff, and all my luggage, to get to the staff house. We cruised through quiet streets but all I felt was anxiety. Only two hours into the project, in a different country and with a different team, and I could hear myself saying, “What did I get myself into?”
Photo credit: Ji Nacanaynay
There were security issues in the community, and they happened to intensify the day I arrived in the capital. I was not entirely surprised of the security issues; maybe I was just not prepared that it could happen within two hours of my arrival. The violent armed conflict due to CAR’s political crisis have been going on for three years. The country already had inadequate health services prior to the armed conflict, but as buildings and supplies are destroyed in times like these, the health system have gotten worse. Hundreds of thousands of Central Africans are internally displaced, and more are fleeing to neighboring countries.
As the situation heightened, the team had quickly decided to evacuate and leave a small team consisting of essential staff in the capital. During evacuation, we’re only allowed to bring a maximum of 10kg each. Unpacking and packing got me anxious too – everything was important to me!
After four or five attempts, I finally got to trim down my belongings: four shirts (plus one I was wearing), one pair of pants (plus the one I was wearing), one pair of leggings (I thought it was light enough to pack), one pair of boxers, seven pairs of undergarments, a pair of slippers, my trusty pair of Birkenstock sandals, and the shoes I was wearing.
I also packed some toiletries, a bar of chocolate, my water bottle, and six packs of Skyflakes, a popular brand of biscuits back home. I also had with me all my documents and my tablet.
As I was waiting for others to finish packing and weighing, I saw some having to carry laptops and chargers and documents for work, which could easily weigh up to 5kg. It meant they couldn’t carry as much clothes or personal belongings. I thought I was still lucky to pack in as much as I did, so I stopped complaining.
We left the staff house in the afternoon and stayed in a more secure place overnight.
The next morning, we left the place and made our way to the riverbank where a boat was waiting for us. I couldn’t remember how I got into a boat that was too high for a short person like me (I probably somersaulted my way in!), but I’m sure it was likely because of the adrenaline rush. Together with around 30 MSF staff, we crossed the river to go to another border.
On the other end of the boat ride, a motorbike was waiting for us to bring us to a safe place we aptly called sanctuary. We only had electricity for two hours and we had to get used to the dark for the rest of the evening.
It wasn’t for long as the following day, we took a plane to another city where other MSF staff welcomed us with open arms and booked us in a hotel. We stayed in the hotel for weeks until the situation back in Bangui got stable.