Once Congolese refugees in CAR, now they shelter former hosts fleeing CAR

News Stories, 10 September 2013

© UNHCR/B.Sokol
Valentin (right in yellow shirt), a 45-year-old Congolese father of eight, has been a refugee three times. He found shelter in Central African Republic. Today, it's his turn to host refugees. Valentin is seen here with his old friend and former host, Amodola, now a refugee from CAR.

BATANGA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, September 10 (UNHCR) With conflict now appearing on the opposite side of the Oubangui River separating the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic, former refugees here and their ex-hosts have been forced to reverse roles.

"Our Congo is also a country that has many problems," Valentin, a 45-year-old father of eight, said outside his house in Batanga village in northern DRC's Equateur province. He was a refugee in the Central African Republic (CAR) in the 1990s, again from 2001 to 2004 during a new round of civil war, and from 2009 to 2011 during inter-ethnic clashes over fishponds.

Today, it's his turn to host refugees. Some 40,000 CAR residents have fled to the DRC since late March, when the rebel Seleka movement captured Bangui and ousted the Central African Republic government. Two refugee families of 12 people have found shelter in Valentin's small house beside the Oubangui; 22 people now sleep under his roof.

"We have also been forced [in the past] to flee and, on the other side of the river, we have been welcomed. We are obliged to do the same. Everything I do is what they have done for us too," Valentin said. In 2009, he stayed with families in Zinga on the opposite side of the river for weeks before he was transferred to a refugee camp.

"When I heard that these two families were living in Batanga transit centre, I ran to look for them and took them to my house," Valentin said. "They are the same families who hosted me on the other side [of the river]. We know each other well. They were welcoming when I was with them. When they arrived here, I felt obliged to do the same."

Most of the local population of Batanga were refugees in CAR in 2009 and are now hosting refugees from there. "Their kindness comes from the fact that the Congolese themselves have been welcomed by the Central African population and were allowed to cultivate their land [in 2009]. The population from here could not do otherwise," said Mokatu Sabale, head of Batanga village. He is hosting three families of 15 women and children.

Many of the refugees living with host families in Batanga are awaiting transfer to Boyabo refugee camp since they do not feel safe with Seleka rebels visible on the other side of the Oubangui River.

"I saw dead people, I saw people wounded, I saw all of that and I was scared," said Amodola Kelela, a 42-year-old father of five who is hosted by Valentin. "The war is terrible. I fled with three of my kids and walked two hours from Mbongo to Zinga. I carried much luggage. I suffered a lot."

UNHCR is continuing to extend Boyabo refugee camp to be able to transfer more refugees; some 2,710 refugees are currently in the camp and more than 2,500 more are awaiting transfer there. In addition, more refugees are still crossing the Oubangui River to the DRC.

UNHCR and its partners are also building four refugee camps in DRC's Equateur and Oriental provinces to provide protection and assistance to the refugees and ease the burden on the local population.

Idopolai Tema, a 34-year-old father of five who was a refugee in CAR, is among those hosting refugees who had once helped him. Since May, he has sheltered five families of 21 people in his small house.

"My wife and my kids are sleeping in one room, my wife and myself on the bed and my kids on sleeping mats on the floor. The refugees are sleeping in the second room and the living room," he said. "When they crossed we could not leave them to suffer, as we have a house here," Tema added. "We are all brothers, we are all humans."

By Céline Schmitt in Batanga, Democratic Republic of the Congo

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2014: CAR refugees attacked as they flee to Cameroon

Each week 10,000 Muslims cross into eastern Cameroon to escape the violence consuming the Central African Republic (CAR). Many new arrivals report that they have been repeatedly attacked as they fled. The anti-Balaka militiamen have blocked main roads to Cameroon, forcing people to find alternate routes through the bush. Many are walking two to three months to reach Cameroon, arriving malnourished and bearing wounds from machetes and gunshots.

UNHCR and its partners have established additional mobile clinics at entry points to provide emergency care as refugees arrive. The UN refugee agency is also supporting public health centres that have been overwhelmed by the number of refugees and their condition.

Meanwhile, UNHCR has relocated some 20,000 refugees who had been living in the open in the Garoua Bouai and Kenzou border areas, bringing them to new sites at Lolo, Mborguene, Gado and Borgop in the East and Adamwa regions.

Since the beginning of the year, Cameroon has received nearly 70,000 refugees from CAR, adding to the 92,000 who fled in earlier waves since 2004 to escape rebel groups and bandits in the north of their country.

UNHCR staff members Paul Spiegel and Michele Poletto recently travelled to eastern Cameroon and have the following photos to share from their iPhone and camera.

2014: CAR refugees attacked as they flee to Cameroon

Central African Republic: Crossing the Oubangui to Home and Safety

The escalating violence in Central African Republic (CAR) has caught everyone in its web, including refugees from countries such as Chad, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). For the Congolese living in places like the CAR capital, Bangui, or the town of Batalimo, home was just a short trip away across the Oubangui River. UNHCR earlier this year agreed to help those who wished to repatriate due to fear for their safety. The refugee agency has since mid-January facilitated the return home of hundreds of these refugees. The following photographs, taken earlier this month by UNHCR staff members Dalia Al Achi and Hugo Reichenberger, depict the repatriation of a group of 364 Congolese. The refugees portrayed were heading to the riverside town of Zongo in Democratic Republic of the Congo's Equateur province, where they spent a night in a transit centre before continuing to their hometowns. They were relieved to be leaving, and some were in poor health. The decision to return to the country they had fled during the years of civil war from 1996-2003 was not easy. Some 6,000 of the 17,000 Congolese refugees in Central African Republic have registered with UNHCR to go home.

Central African Republic: Crossing the Oubangui to Home and Safety

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

Over the past year, the UN refugee agency has run a series of photosets on its website by American photographer Brian Sokol focusing on the possessions that refugees take with them when they are forced to flee from their homes. We started last August with Sudanese refugees in South Sudan and have since covered refugees from Syria and Mali.

Last year, Sokol visited the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to ask refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) the same question: What is the most important thing you brought with you? He again received interesting answers from a wide range of people from rural and urban areas of CAR, where inter-communal violence has spiralled out of control. They are featured here and include a sandal that helped an old woman, a pair of crutches used by a man to reach safety and a boy's photo of his slain father. Another boy named the family members who escaped to safety with him as his most important possession - many would feel the same.

Tens of thousands of people have fled from CAR to neighbouring countries since December 2012, including 60,000 into northern DRC. Some 30,000 of them live in four refugee camps set up by UNHCR and the others are hosted by local families. For the majority, there was no time to pack before escaping. They fled extreme violence and chaos and arrived exhausted and traumatized in the DRC. They could take only the most essential and lightest belongings. The photos here were taken at Batanga Transit Centre, Boyabo Refugee Camp and Libenge village.

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

UNHCR's Dr. Paul Spiegel on the Border of CAR  and CameroonPlay video

UNHCR's Dr. Paul Spiegel on the Border of CAR and Cameroon

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Central African Republic: Torn Communities

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