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Across the world, the World Food Programme (WFP) delivers food assistance to the most vulnerable people, often in dangerous and complex situations. WFP’s operation in the Central African Republic is one of the most challenging, and all staff are acutely aware of the risks. For the men and women who work at WFP but who also call the capital Bangui home, there is also the emotional trauma of seeing their families and friends caught up in the violence. For Justin Makamba, December brought the danger into his home, but the WFP driver never faltered in his commitment to WFP’s mission.
Bangui- Justin Makamba was asleep at home one Saturday in early December when two young men jumped over the wall, shouting, "Tonton (Uncle), Tonton! Let's get out of here, the armed men are around."
Earlier that day, government forces and self-defence militia groups clashed on the streets of Bangui at the start of another round of increasingly sectarian violence. In this latest outbreak, around 1,000 people were killed, according to Human Rights Watch.
Now, the armed men were going door-to-door, looking for people they accused of providing support to the enemy.
Makamba, a driver for WFP, woke up at once and ran half-naked into a neighboring compound to seek refuge.
"When they (armed men) arrive, if the door is closed, they knock three times. If nobody answers from inside, they shout, ‘Open the door or we will force our way in with a grenade'," said the 38-year-old driver.
Makamba was lucky. He got out of his compound in time. The armed men were hunting him because they believed he supported a local militia group.
When the armed men realized Makamba was not in the compound, they threatened to kill his 13-year-old nephew. Makamba's wife begged for his life, saying the boy was too young to be treated as an enemy. The boy was saved but the house was looted.
Makamba is not the only WFP staff member in Bangui to have suffered. Many local staff have been threatened, homes have been looted, and some local staff members from other UN agencies have lost children to the violence.
I Will Not Give Up
The increasingly sectarian violence, which peaked on 5 December, has driven around 200,000 people from their homes and into ad-hoc camps in churches, mosques and schools. People are now too afraid to return home, fearing attacks from armed men from all sides.
But despite the horror unfurling in their home city, WFP local staff members have continued to do their jobs, determined to provide emergency assistance to the hundreds and thousands of their countrymen, women and children who have fled their homes with nothing.
Since the latest outbreak of fighting in December, WFP and its partners have distributed over 500 tons of food to more than 118,000 people in Bangui. Overall for the country, WFP is scaling up its emergency response to provide assistance to more than 1 million people over the next six months.
Locals like Makamba are at the heart of these relief efforts, putting their emotions and sadness on hold to deliver food and hope to their fellow city dwellers.
Just hours after his own narrow escape and the looting of his home, Makamba reported to work, getting behind the wheel to rescue other colleagues across Bangui, and to ferry staffers who were carrying out emergency needs assessments across the city.
"There were gunshots all around but we had to go out. I put on the armoured jacket and helmet and set out, driving among hundreds of corpses lying across the streets," he said.
Makamba is not a stranger to danger. In October, he narrowly escaped a carjacking attempt when two armed men attempted to force the doors of the car he was driving in Bangui.
He gunned the engine and sped away.
"2013 has been really challenging for me, but I will not give up. The most important thing is to help the organization reach out to those in desperate need," he said.