CAR: When refugees become more than statistics

7 August, 2014
July 2014, Gado refugee camp, Cameroon. More than 120,000 refugees have arrived in Cameroon, fleeing the crisis in the Central African Republic. Credit: OCHA/John James.
July 2014, Gado refugee camp, Cameroon. More than 120,000 refugees have arrived in Cameroon, fleeing the crisis in the Central African Republic. Credit: OCHA/John James.

Dr. Modeste Hoza, a Government official from the Central African Republic (CAR), visited the Garoua-Bouli refugee transit camp in Cameroon to see the conditions and report back to the Government’s humanitarian unit. He was taking part in a UN-led humanitarian mission. What he didn’t expect to find at the camp were old friends.

Dr. Hoza spoke to one woman—a refugee – sitting alone on the ground at the entrance to her makeshift tent. As the conversation unfolded, he realized that they knew each other – that she was a friend and distant relative who used to have a comfortable house in Bangui.
“To see her in this state, it makes you very emotional,” he said.

Dr. Hoza, a Christian, and his old friend, a Muslim, hugged and cried. They exchanged news on mutual friends and relatives, several of whom were killed in the ongoing crisis.

“When you are in the office, you just see statistics, you don’t see faces,” he said.

A regional refugee crisis

Thousands of refugees continue to cross the borders from CAR into neighbouring countries. More than 120,000 have found refuge in Cameroon alone since the crisis first reached its current peak in December 2013. This puts a massive strain on border areas, where basic infrastructure and services are limited.

At the nearby Gado refugee camp, a site initially planned for 8,000 refugees, an estimated 13,000 people have arrived. Since February people here have been increasingly desperate, with families having often walked for several months and with little food through the forests of western CAR. Acute malnutrition rates average between 20 and 30 per cent among newly arrived children under the age of 5.

“We arrived with only the clothes we had on our backs,” said one refugee, Abakar Ousmane, from the Central African town of Yaloke. “We’ve heard our homes have been destroyed. We want to rebuild our lives and cattle here before going back. If it wasn’t for UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), who knows what we’d have become.”

“Much more needs to be done”

Abakar was speaking at a meeting with Dr. Hoza and a joint humanitarian mission from CAR, led by the Humanitarian Coordinator, Claire Bourgeois.

“I am always impressed to see how refugees can still be full of hope; hope to return, hope to restart their life and hope to contribute to the rebuilding of their country,” said Ms. Bourgeois.

“Cross-border programmes will need to be addressed. I was shocked to learn the high rate of malnutrition amongst children still fleeing CAR. Much more needs to be done to solve these issues.”

Carnot: Safety in the grounds of a church

Back over the border in western CAR, several hundred thousand people are displaced, some of them in sites that require 24-hour protection by international forces.

In Carnot, about 600 internally displaced people live in the grounds of a Catholic church. The World Food Programme provides food supplies that are distributed by the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières, which also provides basic health services.

“We have suffered,” says Ibrahim Mahamat, who is sheltering at the church. “Everything has been stolen, all the homes looted. But I’ve lived in this town from birth, so I haven’t fled.” But he adds: “I cannot walk 50 metres from this church without being attacked.”

The local government administrator, Jean Aourt, says the key issue is security: “In a country where you don’t have a justice system, it’s disorder.”

The local prison was forced open in the crisis and has not functioned since. Some police and gendarmes are now back at work, but they lack weapons, vehicles and communications equipment.

Bouar: Easing community tensions

Several hours’ drive north in Bouar, one of CAR’s biggest cities, intercommunity relations are better, but still strained. The several thousand Muslims who haven’t fled find it difficult to leave the Hausa district where they live.

The community spokesperson, Mahmat Sani Mumini, said: “We don’t have the liberty to leave our quarter. We can’t go out to our fields 5 km away. So we’re here and we do nothing. We don’t have weapons. We depend only on God.”

At night there are frequent robberies. They often happen after the mobile phone networks shut down at 9PM, meaning people cannot call for help.

But there are some positive signs. The provincial official (prefet) was one of the first Government administrators to take up his post under the new Government and has worked to ease community tensions. A recent football match between Christians and Muslims was widely seen as a positive sign.

Several UN agencies and NGOs also have bases in the town. For example, the UN Children’s Fund is encouraging children to start returning to school. NGOs like Save the Children and Cordaid are supporting health services, while others such as Mercy Corps and Catholic Relief Services work on social cohesion.

“From the start of the crisis until now, the humanitarian community has accompanied the community here,” said the prefet.

In July 2013, leaders in the town set up an interreligious platform, which has helped the town avoid some of the excesses seen elsewhere. But the platform’s members warn that the peace is still fragile.

“The social tissue was completely destroyed,” said the platform’s Secretary-General, Abbe Celestin Dojarid. “The population’s difficulties are enormous.”

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