Facing the experiences of people internally displaced by armed conflict in Central African Republic and Chad. 

“Trésor, displaced 9 months and counting,” 2018, charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 122 x 152 cm /48 x 60 in, painting and text by Ben Betsalel

Portrait happening: late afternoon on the day we arrived, canvas tied to the Land Cruiser, surrounded by community members at a makeshift IDP camp in northern Central African Republic.

My parents had a spell of good fortune around the time I was born and it is for this reason that I have been given the name Trésor. My parents became affluent members of our village. We had land, cattle, several businesses. We were able to afford my education. I studied hard and passed my BAC. Until recently, I was studying computer science at university.

The violence spread to our region, then into our village. My family began to loose their ability to work and earn money. They were afraid. One day they called me: “There has been an attack. The entire village has been forced to flee,” they told me.  “We lost everything. Everyone did.”

I dropped everything and came here to be with them.

Now, we have been here for 9 months. We depend on aid to survive. Each family is given a 15 kgs allotment of food per month. We are surviving, but just. It is extremely frustrating. Its as if our lives are on hold.

There are many things I miss. Here we have no electricity and of course no internet. We don’t have money to pay for anything, let alone enough for me to continue my studies. I want to move forward with my life plan. At times I admit it is disheartening. I try to be patient. I try to be positive.

Within the next few months, my wife and I are expecting our first baby. This is a source of great happiness; but also, stress. No one would choose to raise a family in a volatile environment such as this.

“Valentin, displaced 9 months and counting,” 2018, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 152 cm / 48 x 60 in, painting and text by Ben Betsalel

portrait happening: after a long night of thunderstorms,  we meet inside a circular, open, thatched roof hut, surrounded by community members at a makeshift IDP camp in northern Central African Republic.

I am from Kaga Bandoro. I am 47 years old. I had seven children but have lost one. I had two wives but have lost one.  They’ve tried to kill me too. Their bullet hit me here in my arm [rolls up his sleeve to show us the scar on his misshapen right bicep].

My moment of peace is when I am fishing on the river. But it’s too dangerous to do that now. We have to stay here. It is the only place we are safe and even here our security is never certain. When we first arrived to the camp, I was able to find consistent work on a small farm not far from here, but now access to that area has been blocked. Without supplemental income, my whole family is forced to survive on the 15 kgs of food aid per month. It is not enough.

What makes me happy is having enough money to take care of my family. Some days that drives me to take risks. I’ll go to small farms nearby to see if they have work for me. For a whole day of work I only make 500 CFA [around $1]. When there is no work to find I hunt in the bush but of course that is dangerous too. You never know who you might run into.

“Rose, displaced 9 months and counting,” 2018, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 152 cm/ 48 x 60 in, painting and text by Ben Betsalel

Portrait happening: late afternoon, surrounded by community members and ICRC deligates, canvas tied to a tree near the center of an IDP camp in northern Central African Republic.

I have some images in my head of which I cannot speak. My children are here with me but our conditions are not good. We came here for security and to this day it is still not safe for us to go back home.

I am from Bandama. In the middle of the night an armed group burst into our village. I saw men with guns attacking people from my village. I grabbed my five children and dove into the bush. We hid there from 4 am to 2 pm the next day. I tried to go back home to take some food and a few things but there was still fighting so I fled. I waited for three days in the bush outside Bandama, hiding with my mother, my three brothers, and my five children, before deciding to walk to Markounda.

We wandered through the bush for another three days without eating. We were scared out of our minds. We didn’t really know what we were doing. I was almost naked. Lucky it was the dry season. My youngest child was so weak. When we finally arrived I saw one of my aunts who gave us some food.

When I am alone at night these events come back to me. At the beginning it was very hard for me here but, day by day… [her voice trails off, she turns away and begins to cry]

“Pascaline, displaced 3 months and counting,” 2018, pastel and acrylic on canvas, 122 x 152 cm / 48 x 60 in, painting and text by Ben Betsalel

portrait happening: late afternoon, behind a group of weathered buildings, several wide-eyed children stop to watch the portrait unfold, the canvas tied to a tree across the road from the Ubangi River, Bangui, Central African Republic

My family and I lived in Kaga Bandoro where I farmed a small plot of land and would sell the surplus from my harvest at market.

It was 8pm when they arrived. Gunshots and shouting… The sound of people screaming and being beaten. I didn’t know what to do. My children were crying, pulling at my dress: Mamma! Mamma! We began to run. Bullets flying. To the right, to the left, everywhere I looked there were people with guns. I stopped to look back. Mamma! Mamma! My children crying, pulling at my dress. I was trembling with fear. I began to cry. I couldn’t do anything. There was nothing to do. Darkness had fallen, but I could still make out the silhouette of the bridge that crosses the river. We ran to it. I fell down on my hands and knees. I got back to my feet and continued running. Somehow we made it across and dove into the bush.

The next morning we started to walk through the jungle. For twenty days we walked. We would walk each day until 7 or 8 pm. Mamma! I am tired! Where will we sleep? I pleaded my children not to talk, not to cry. Even at this moment we could hear the sound of gunshots. We had no food. My feet were badly swollen but I had no choice but to continue. When it rained we drank water from the potholes on the road. When we would hear a vehicle, we’d dive back into the bush to hide and wait for it to pass.

Until we made it to Bangui I thought we were all going to die. My children were so tired, so skinny. I saw a woman who used to buy my produce at the market. She was shocked to find us in such bad shape. What happened to your feet? And we both started to cry.

“Ngabou, internally displaced since four years,” 2018acrylic and local charcoal on canvas, 122 x 152 cm / 48 x 60 in, painting and text by Ben Betsalel
portrait happening: mid-morning inside grand hanger, IDP camp, Lake Chad Region, Chad

We are from an island west of here. There we had a normal life of farming, raising cattle and fishing. Four years ago our village was attacked by an armed group and we were forced to flee. We left everything behind. We crossed more than twenty bodies of water to get here. The armed group had taken our boats so we walked on the floating grass. Those who could swim used ngoro (a piece wood used for swimming long distances). The journey was not easy and many people were separated from their families.

Now to survive, women collect wood and men make rope to sell at the market. This is how we live. We receive very little assistance. Food scarcity is our main problem here. We don’t have enough land to sustain ourselves. We can no longer go fishing for fear of being assimilated into armed groups. They want our knowledge of the region. That is why, now, we stay here on the main land.

We manage our community here. We have a lot of people with us, but we are suffering, and actually, we don’t have a decent life. The state often comes to our camp, but hardly ever bring us anything.

[Ngabou’s phone rings. He is being notified that someone from the community has passed away and that funeral arrangements must be made. He will make the calls when we finish.]

*a grand hanger is a large hut where the community comes together for meetings and special meals. If someone arrives to the camp from another place, they will first go to the grand hangar where they will be welcomed.

“Kaltouma, internally displaced, four years and counting,” 2018, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 152 cm/48 x 60 in, painting and text by Ben Betsalel

portrait happening: mid-morning, strong winds blow sand everywhere, the canvas carefuly tied to a small and very thorny Acacia tree just behind the grand hanger,
 IDP camp,  Lake Chad Region, Chad

When we left, it was sudden. People from the west had fled their villages and came to us. Not long after, out of fear, we too fled east.

I arrived here empty handed, with only my youngest children in my arms. My children who were old enough to walk traveled here by themselves. We don’t even know how they made it it, but thankfully, they did.

When we arrived, at the beginning, we had no shelter, no mosquito nets, no food. We washed ourselves under a palm tree. That’s where we spent our first nights. We suffered a lot when cutting the stems of grass from the lake to build our huts. We continue to face many difficulties, especially in terms of food security, though now, it’s better than it was.

If I had to choose something from my life that is an important to me, it would be this nose ring and necklace. They make me more beautiful. I would like to have a second nose ring to hang on my necklace. Who knows, maybe one day I will be able to afford one. For now, my focus is on having enough food for my family to eat.

“Tchari, internally displaced since four years and counting,” 2018, local charcoal and acrylic on canvas, 122 x 152 cm/48 x 60 in, painging and text by Ben Betsalel

portrait happening: under a tree on the river bank of lake Chad

It was market day, around 6 pm, when they arrived to our island on three motorized canoes. Yelling, shouting, shooting at anything that moved.

We ran. We left our meals cooking in the pots. We couldn’t take anything, not even our children. I abandoned my baby like many other women. We dove into the forest. We crawled and crawled. It was a long and terrifying night, hiding, waiting, fearing the worst.

The next morning we came back to our village in hopes of finding our families. The armed group had burned all the houses and taken or burned all of our belongings and goods. On the land and in the water we saw the corpses of human beings as if they were rotten animals. Those of us who survived found canoes and left our island. We didn’t bring anything with us. Nothing. Not even a saucepan.                      

We arrived to another village, but that night there was another attack. Again we ran. Everywhere we went the armed group was on our heels. From place to place we moved in small groups, only under the cover of night. In the end, it was calculated that around two hundred people had lost their lives.

We have been here for a little more than four years now. Here, we are more or less safe, but we have lost everything. The little help offered by the state is not even close to enough to feed people like us, people who have been forced to flee, people who have lost everything. We want to rebuild our lives but we are poor. We have nothing to eat. We need help. Now, all that matters to me is what I don’t have. What does that even mean?

At the intersection of art making + humanitarian action, artist Ben Betsalel traveled to Central African Republic and Chad with ICRC audio/visual producers Birom Seck and Eric Chege (respectively) to meet with internally displaced people and conduct a series of portrait happenings. 

While the issue of migration is hotly debated in the public space, a lesser known fact is that the majority of displaced people in Africa still live within the borders of their home country. In late 2016, it was calculated that there were at least 12.6 million people living in a condition of internal displacement as a result of conflict, violence and disaster.

Behind these numbers are human beings who have been forced to leave everything behind. They have not only lost material goods like homes, fields, and personal belongings, but also, in many cases, their sense of dignity and place in society.

The Central African Republic is particularly affected by this problem since one fifth of its population, more than one million people, are displaced. In Chad, many islands and communities in the lake chad region, close to the boarders of Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger, have been violently attacked by armed groups, causing thousands of people to flee their homes.

By sharing the creative process in such unexpected places, Betsalel's series of IDP portrait happenings engages with men and women hit hard by war and armed conflict, offering a chance for them to be heard, their stories to be shared, and for their courage and striength to be admired. In so doing, the project also provides the viewer an intimate window into people’s lives and their struggles for basic human dignity.