UNHCR fears for civilians in Central African Republic as hundreds flee to DR Congo

News Stories, 6 December 2013

© UNHCR/B.Sokol
Refugees from Central African Republic in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some 700 crossed the Oubangui River to the Zongo area in DR Congo yesterday.

BANGUI, Central African Republic, December 6 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Friday expressed alarm at the deteriorating security situation in the Central African Republic and concern for the safety of civilians caught in the latest fighting.

More than 200 civilians are believed to have been killed after being caught in the clashes between fighters of the former Seleka rebel group and self-defence forces in the capital Bangui and the town of Bossangoa to the northwest. According to UN and media reports, at least 140 civilians were killed during fresh attacks yesterday in Bangui.

Attacks and executions of civilians in hospital and worship places were also reported across the city. This is the first major fighting in the capital since March, when Seleka forces captured Bangui and ousted the government of President Francois Bozize.

UNHCR staff in Bangui reported that the situation was very tense on Friday morning. Gunfire could be heard in the city's 8th District, preventing residents from leaving their homes. The refugee agency has also received worrying reports of sectarian and revenge attacks between neighbours throughout Bangui. A local UNHCR worker was attacked in his home last night and the assailants took away and killed his 24-year-old nephew.

Up to 1,000 people were reported to have sought shelter at Bangui's main cathedral as of Thursday night. UNHCR fears that many more people in Bangui will need to leave their homes to seek safety if the sectarian violence continues.

A growing number of people are fleeing across the Oubangui River and seeking shelter in the town of Zongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yesterday, close to 700 people had crossed and more were arriving this morning. Our colleagues in Zongo are verifying the number of arrivals along the river.

The newly arrived are staying in a school at Gbala, a village located 12 kilometres from Zongo. The school, a former refugee transit centre built by UNHCR, has facilities for receiving refugees.

Meanwhile in Bossangoa, heavy shelling Thursday afternoon caused panic among the residents. Although the shelling has stopped, the situation remains unpredictable and tension is high. More than 100 people are believed to have been killed during sectarian violence. A member of the Central African Community forces was killed by a stray bullet.

There are some 40,000 forcibly displaced people in Bossangoa, mostly sheltered in the compound of the Roman Catholic church there. They need support, but the dangerous security conditions are hampering aid delivery. One UNHCR convoy, carrying 60 tons of relief supplies, reached Bossangoa yesterday and its aid will be distributed soon. The aid includes tarpaulins, blankets, sleeping mats, mosquito nets, jerry cans, buckets and soap for some 3,000 displaced families in Bossangoa.

Since December 2012, conflict in the CAR has displaced nearly 400,000 people within the country and forced another 69,800 into exile in neighbouring countries, mostly to the 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

This video was shot by one of our staff* using a mobile phone as they helped refugees who had crossed the river to safety.
Central African Republic: Torn CommunitiesPlay video

Central African Republic: Torn Communities

For more than a year, inter-communal strife has displaced tens of thousands of people in the Central African Republic. But amid the violence, efforts are being made to promote reconciliation.
Central African Republic : Bangui Airport RefugePlay video

Central African Republic : Bangui Airport Refuge

UNHCR's High Commissioner António Guterres visits Central African Republic and meets internally displaced people in Bangui airport. He says the international community needs to give the CAR crisis the same focus as the emergencies in Syria and South Sudan.