Thousands of people who have returned to their homes in areas close to Ndélé, in northern Central African Republic's (CAR) Bamingui-Bangoran region, after years of displacement, are living in difficult conditions as the security situation is still precarious, say officials.
Between 2009 and 2011, Ndélé was the scene of fighting between government troops and various armed rebels, forcing thousands to flee. "We fled to the bush because of the fighting between the CPJP [Convention des Patriotes pour la Justices and la Paix] and FACA [the CAR national army]," a nurse told IRIN in the village of Zoukoutouniala on the outskirts of Ndélé town.
"Life in the bush was very difficult, with nothing to eat, no potable water to drink, diseases... it was really difficult. We returned here to the village after the ceasefire accord."
The nurse is among an estimated 2,000 returnees living in the villages of Gozbeida and Zoukoutaniala, 25km and 30km from Ndélé respectively, along the Ndélé-Garba road.
While life in the village is better than it was in the bush, the returnees are facing livelihood challenges, the nurse said. "People don't have enough to eat," he said, noting that in the past three years they had not been able to work in their fields.
Only one well, a long distance away, is serving the two villages. A lack of building materials is also a problem; houses were torched during the conflict.
During a recent visit to the area, John Ging, the Emergency Director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said the need for humanitarian assistance was huge.
"What I have seen here in Ndélé... is of course terrible humanitarian suffering by a population that [is] enduring what our European partners in ECHO [European Community Humanitarian Office] have called the second-worst chronic crisis on the planet after Somalia and that translates into thousands, tens of thousands of human beings, without basic health, water, sanitation and livelihoods because displacement has been a fact of life for so many for so long they've lost everything during the periods of conflict."
Ndélé and its environs remain heavily militarized. While the CPJP and another former armed group, the Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement (UFDR), signed a ceasefire agreement on 10 November 2011, bringing to an end sporadic clashes and attacks, the incomplete disarmament of these rebels is cause for concern, a civil servant told IRIN.
Tensions between the CPJP and UFDR, which comprise mainly the Rounga and Goula ethnic groups respectively, remain, with sporadic clashes. The CPJP controls a 25km stretch of road from the main town of Ndélé up to the Chadian border along the Ndélé-Garba road, while the UFDR controls 7-18km of the same stretch. Another road leading to the Chadian border is under CPJP control. These two roads have long remained closed to humanitarian organizations.
Besides the threat of armed rebel groups, other constraints to humanitarian access in the CAR include banditry and highway robbers, poor roads and state restrictions.
"A historic challenge to humanitarians in the CAR occurred in two episodes between January 2011 and February 2012, where the state restricted access to international organizations for periods of time ranging from days to months," notes a February report by OCHA.
According to the region's head, who is also a FACA army colonel, peace is returning to Ndélé. "There are peace accords which are respected on both sides."
FACA controls central Ndélé, acting as a sort of a buffer between the CPJP and the UFDR.
"Criminality and banditry continue to plague most of the northern half of the country... where the state is absent and the proliferation of arms is on the rise," notes the latest CAR Consolidated Appeal, which requested US$134 million to help the country's vulnerable population.
At present, an ongoing military operation against a Chadian rebel movement in the north-central region has fuelled further population displacement.
"Villages have been violently destroyed and looted, including some medical centres," Pablo Marco, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in CAR, said on 24 February.
"People [were] left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and they are unable to go back to their fields, so there is an urgent need for food and relief items."