Improving road access in eastern CAR
Proper road transport is essential for communities living in remote swathes of the Central African Republic (CAR). It is also vital for the mobility of UN troops, primarily tasked with the protection of civilians and the facilitation of humanitarian assistance.
The MINUSCA Pakistan Military Engineering Company deployed to the Mbomou and Haut-Mbomou prefectures, in the eastern part of the country, is employing its expertise to construct new roads, improve existing tracks as well as repair damaged infrastructure in the region – crucially helping to support the free movement of the population and ease humanitarian and economic access.
With MINUSCA funding to the tune of 120 million CFA, the 31-strong engineering team took on construction work on the key Bangassou-Bakouma main route last September. The city of Bangassou, located south of mineral-rich Bakouma connects the towns of Rafai, Obo and Zemio to the east and Alindao, Gambo and Kembe to the west. Further up north of Bakouma lies the uranium- and diamond-rich town of Nzako, which also lacks proper road access. The region has, over the years, attracted and currently hosts various armed groups.
Construction work has included the renovation of the 216-kilometer road from Bangassou till Zemio as well as the 128-kilometer road from Bangassou to Bakouma and the creation of 30 kilometers of a new road between Bakouma and Nzako. In addition, the MINUSCA engineers have repaired 17 bridges between Bangassou and Zemio and nine bridges between Bangassou and Bakouma as well as erected two metal bridges at PK-64 and PK-34 on the Rafai axis.
“They came with many machines, constructed roads and bridges like we had never seen before and even repaired our football and sports grounds,” remarked Jack, a resident of Sayo-Niakari, a village on the far bank of the Mbomou River whose population is totally dependent on the Bangassou-Bakouma route for access up north.
The road works came to a sudden halt soon after the December 2020 general elections however as Bangassou and Bakouma were taken over by armed groups.
Major stumbling blocks
In February this year, local authorities, once again in control of the area following the election-related unrest, requested the MINUSCA Pakistan Military Engineering Company to assist with the restoration of the PK-24 bridge on the Bangassou-Bakouma main road. The bridge had been destroyed by armed groups as they retreated from the city,thereby isolating Bakouma from rest of the region.
“MINUSCA arrived with machines and planks to fix the bridge; they did an extraordinary job pulling the metal beams out of the water. It was not easy,” said local mayor Marie Nzolakpo.
Repair work was successfully completed despitesignificant challenges: Armed group ambushes onthe engineering team resulted in casualties – a Pakistani and a Rwandan peacekeeper sustained bullet wounds and a bridge repair vehicle was destroyed. Moreover, work had to be abandoned on several occasions due to recurrent rebel attacks and the bridge repairs could only resume after construction equipment was ferried across the Mbari River to ensure safety.
“The MINUSCA team was attacked and their machines were destroyed and burned. We thought they would never return and that we would have to cope without a bridge and with no other means to cross the stream,” said André Sibalé, a teacher at the Niakari Catholic School.
Connecting neighboring localities
“We are aware of the importance of Bakouma and Nzako, and their links to other areas further up north, such as Yalinga and Bria. The difficulties we face will not deter our resolve to serve humanity. We will continue spreading smiles through the construction of roads and bridges which are a lifeline for thousands of inhabitants living along this axis”, said Major Muhammad Yousaf, Pakistan Engineering Company Deputy Contingent Commander.
Pierrette Benguere, the prefect of Mbomou, thanked MINUSCA for improving road connectivity within the prefecture. “Linking Nzako to Bangassou will play a pivotal role in the interconnectivity of neighbouring localities” she said.
Lt. Col Zulfiqar, Commanding Officer of the Pakistan Military Engineering Company noted that improved road access will have a positive economic and social impact – such as through facilitating mineral exploitation and the restoration of State authority in the area. “Over 27,000 people and 63 villages in Bakouma as well as 47 villages and about 16,000 residents of Sayo-Niakari stand to directly benefit from the ongoing construction work,” he said.
The CAR Minister for Mines Leopold Mboli Fatran expressed gratitude to the team for their service while visiting the engineering company: “I don’t know how to thank but you’re doing a great job staying away from your homes for us.”
Construction work on the Bangassou-Bakouma-Nzako route, as well as the restoration of numerous other roads and bridges by other Mission contingents, will help better connect some of the Central African Republic’s least accessible regions, and facilitate the mobility of troops in fulfilling their mandated tasks.