When wells became graves: casualties of war and water in the Central African Republic

Crystal Wells

A fragile peace may have settled over the forested hills and valleys surrounding Gaga, but people are reminded of the horror that took place here each day when they go about the most mundane of routines: fetching water.

Fifty-eight wells in Gaga were contaminated with the remains of the dead from one of the many killing sprees that took place in the Central African Republic in the past two and a half years. The wells, once the source of drinking water for families, are now abandoned, their rusted brown frames acting as grave-markers for one, two, and sometimes even more than a dozen people.

On October 7, 2013, the 12,000 residents of Gaga woke up before dawn to gunshots. The Séléka, a predominantly Muslim paramilitary group that took over the country in a March 2013 coup, began going door-to-door, demanding money and shooting those who could not pay.

Most people fled when they had a chance, abandoning their homes and all they owned to hide deep in the bush. Detar Suzanne, 55, was among those who could not escape because of an injury to her left foot. She hid in her home as the bullets pierced the air and left many dead outside. “They shot all day, from morning to night,” said Detar Suzanne. “I saw 17 people be thrown into [this] well.”

She gestured to a grassy mound beside her and explained that it was once a borehole where she and her neighbors collected water. Villagers covered it with dirt to make a tomb out of respect for the dead. “Two men were killed and thrown inside [the borehole],” Detar said. “Then they brought 15 [bodies] down and they were all thrown inside.”When Concern Worldwide opened an office in the Central African Republic last year, one of the priority needs was for clean water. Chronic poverty and underdevelopment meant that many people in the country had always lived without access to safe drinking water. However, the conflict amplified the problem because so many wells were tainted with decomposing bodies. Today, the UN and humanitarian organizations like Concern estimate there are 2.3 million people in the Central African Republic who need water and sanitation.

“Most of the wells were contaminated and people don’t have another source of water, so [they] have to go into the forest to collect water, ” said Serge Gazembeti, Concern Worldwide’s Water and Sanitation Manager in Ombella M’Poko, the prefecture to which Gaga belongs.

Neighbors Torn Apart

The Central African Republic started to unravel in December 2012 when the Séléka started a campaign against the government, culminating in the overthrow of the country’s long-term president François Bozizé in March 2013. The Séléka, which included many foreign fighters from neighboring countries like Sudan and Chad, brutalized the Christians, who make up the majority of the population.

It was not long before Christian militias, known as the “Anti-Balaka” or “anti-machete,” retaliated, setting off a hellish level of violence in which people — both Christian and Muslim — were summarily murdered in the streets, often in horrific ways, at the hands of their neighbors. Communities where Muslims and Christians once lived by side were torn apart, setting off a humanitarian crisis which left nearly a million people still displaced from their homes.

According to Detar, one of the few people who remained in the village during the Séléka’s October massacre, “the war” in Gaga went on for six days and ended when the Anti-Balaka pushed the Séléka out. To this day, the Muslim population has yet to return to Gaga, an ominous sign of what happened to them.

Today, Christian families are gradually returning to Gaga after more than a year living in the bush, camps, or with host families in other towns. Amambou Anasthasie, 39, was among those who fled Gaga on October 7, 2013. She, her husband, and seven children spent three days in the bush before going to the nearby city of Yaloke, where they lived for six months.

They returned to Gaga to find their home destroyed and all their belongings looted. Now renting a one-room home, Anasthasie’s greatest concern is water. “The population is not complete yet,” she said. “Many [people] are still in the bush. The water points we have are already not sufficient.”

"We Have No Choice"

Fifty-eight wells in and around Gaga are de facto burial sites, completely unusable. Concern built two water pumps and six wells, but long wait times often make it very difficult for women to fetch water before going to tend their fields.

“People now have to go far away [to get water],” said Nabana Jonathan, 25, who found the body of a victim at the bottom of the well that he and 20 other households relied on for water. “We can wait in a long line at the pump or go to the water source in the bush.”

Roughly a 20-minute walk from the center of Gaga, the source is a spring that seeps into a small bowl carved out of the rocky hillside. Just inches away from where women and children fill their jerry cans, others dig and slosh through red-dirt-stained-water for gold.

“We know the water is not good quality, but we have no choice,” Anasthasie said. “The health of my family is never 100 percent. Someone always has diarrhea of varying gravity.”

In the coming weeks, Concern will build three additional wells in Gaga and harness the water from the spring to create a water source that is not contaminated from the mining activities. The 8,000 residents of Gaga are among 46,000 people in the area to receive access to safe drinking water through the work of Gazembeti and his Concern team.

“I am very thankful to Concern for being interested in helping us after all the suffering that happened here,” Anasthasie said. “I want the village to come back as it was before.”