Central African Republic: a town in danger of losing its soul

News Stories, 12 February 2014

© UNHCR/J.Mathurin
A UNHCR staff member visits the École Liberté in Bossangoa every morning to listen to the people who have sought shelter there.

BOSSANGOA, Central African Republic, February 12 (UNHCR) Zenabou feels like a prisoner in her own home. The inter-communal violence and killings of recent weeks by rival groups the predominantly Muslim Seleka and the Christian Anti-Balaka forced her to flee her house in Bossangoa, north-west Central African Republic, with her seven children and seek shelter in the town's École Liberté (Liberty School) with scores of other frightened families.

This strong woman is terrified by what is happening in the town where she has spent most of her life, especially the targeting of civilians by men with arms on the basis of religion. "Bossangoa has always been a city where Muslims and Christians have lived together. It should remain so," she stresses, adding that should the violence continue, "the city risks losing its identity, its soul." Her words mean a lot for the mixed community, in which everyone has been affected by a conflict that has left almost 840,000 people displaced within the country.

Almost 1,000 of Bossangoa's Muslims have fled since last December, when Anti-Balaka fighters began killing civilians because of their religion. These people have sought shelter in other areas or in Chad, and those that remain the 225 Muslim families in the École Liberté need protection. And the situation here is being repeated across the country, with small pockets of people hanging on in their homes despite the risk to their lives as tens of thousands of others flee.

UNHCR is highly alarmed at the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Central African Republic and concerned for the welfare of the displaced in Bossangoa.

"We are here to listen, to witness and to take action through advocating for solutions," says Jean Maturim, a UNHCR national field officer, adding that the refugee agency has been regularly visiting the displaced in École Liberté and at Bossangoa's Roman Catholic church since the start of the year, bringing a message of reconciliation. Thanks to these efforts, both religious communities have requested meetings and workshops for the two communities.

Zenabou has been in her element at these well-attended gatherings, reminding the participants of the long history of harmony and peaceful coexistence between the communities. But at the end of one meeting, she confides her fears to UNHCR and the feeling that she is trapped. "Because you [UNHCR] are here, those thugs will not dare kill us," she avers.

Her concerns are real. Thugs and Anti-Balaka militiamen roam the streets, sometimes passing by the school and shouting threatening words to the families inside. International peace-keeping troops prevent them from breaking in, as does the presence of agencies like UNHCR and Catholic Relief Services, but it is terrifying for those inside the school and a daily reminder of the danger.

"We are here as witnesses of the international community, which can play a critical role in bringing people together, finding solutions, and in preventing situations, such as this one, from worsening," explains Josep Zapater, a senior UNHCR protection officer.

In this role, UNHCR staff have come to respect the proud community in École Liberté, especially Zenabou, with her love for the town. The daughter of a Cameroonian trader and a migrant from Niger, Zenabou was born in Berbérati, south-west Central African Republic, and then moved to Bossangoa, where she married at age 13 and had to work hard to support her children.

Although life was not easy for her, she explains that living in Bossangoa has been fulfilling; she has made many friends and it's where her children belong. "They are what matters most to me, that is why I do not want them to be displaced ever again," she stresses.

Zenabou has been forcibly displaced twice before: once in 2003, during the coup that brought François Bozizé to power, and then in March 2013, when the Seleka overthrew Bozizé as president. On both occasions, she fled to the bush with Christian neighbours. "It was a terrible moment in my family's life; the strong friendships we had with other displaced people kept us alive," she recalls.

Those bonds of friendship remain as strong as ever, despite the violence around them. Zenabou's friends in Bossangoa, most of them Christians, are yet another anchor for her. One friend, Marie, also fled her home and found shelter in the church. Because it is too dangerous for Zenabou to leave the school, Marie brings her and her children fresh vegetables and fruit and stays to talk to her.

Although the power of friendships like this raises hopes, some fear it may be too late for Bossangoa and for Central African Republic, unless the international community works together urgently to restore peace and effective governance.

But Zenouba is one person who will never give up. "Bossangoa is my home," she says, "and it always will be."

By Hugo Reichenberger in Bossangoa, Central African Republic




UNHCR country pages

Internally Displaced People

The internally displaced seek safety in other parts of their country, where they need help.

Central African Republic: Urgent Appeal

You can help save the lives of thousands of refugees

Donate to this crisis

CAR Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Central African Republic.

Donate to this crisis

Related Internet Links

UNHCR is not responsible for the content and availability of external internet sites

Displaced in North Kivu: A Life on the Run

Fighting rages on in various parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with seemingly no end in sight for hundreds of thousands of Congolese forced to flee violence and instability over the past two years. The ebb and flow of conflict has left many people constantly on the move, while many families have been separated. At least 1 million people are displaced in North Kivu, the hardest hit province. After years of conflict, more than 1,000 people still die every day - mostly of hunger and treatable diseases. In some areas, two out of three women have been raped. Abductions persist and children are forcefully recruited to fight. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases have increased as the situation deteriorates and humanitarian agencies struggle to respond to the needs of the displaced.

When the displacement crisis worsened in North Kivu in 2007, the UN refugee agency sent emergency teams to the area and set up operations in several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Assistance efforts have also included registering displaced people and distributing non-food aid. UNHCR carries out protection monitoring to identify human rights abuses and other problems faced by IDPs in North and South Kivu.

Displaced in North Kivu: A Life on the Run

Displaced by Fresh Fighting in North Kivu

Waves of fighting in eastern Democratic of the Republic since late April have displaced tens of thousands of people. Many have become internally displaced within the province, while others have fled to south-west Uganda's Kisoro district or to Rwanda via the Goma-Gisenyi crossing.

The stop-start clashes between government forces and renegade soldiers loyal to former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda began in the province's Masisi and Walikale territories, but subsequently shifted to Rutshuru territory, which borders Uganda.

Between May 10-20, one of UNHCR's local NGO partners registered more than 40,000 internally displaced people (IDP) in Jomba and Bwesa sectors.

The IDPs are living in difficult conditions, staying in school buildings and churches or with host families. They lack food and shelter and have limited access to health facilities. Some of the displaced have reported cases of extortion, forced labour, beatings and recruitment of minors to fight.

UNHCR and other major aid organizations plan to distribute food, medicine and other aid. More than 300,000 people have been forcibly displaced in North and South Kivu since the start of the year, according to UN figures.

Displaced by Fresh Fighting in North Kivu

Displaced inside Syria: UNHCR and its Dedicated Staff help the Needy

The violence inside Syria continues to drive people from their homes, with some seeking shelter elsewhere in their country and others risking the crossing into neighbouring countries. The United Nations estimates that up to 4 million people are in need of help, including some 2 million believed to be internally displaced.

The UN refugee agency has 350 staff working inside Syria. Despite the insecurity, they continue to distribute vital assistance in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Al Hassakeh and Homs. Thanks to their work and dedication, more than 350,000 people have received non-food items such as blankets, kitchen sets and mattresses. These are essential items for people who often flee their homes with no more than the clothes on their backs. Cash assistance has been given to more than 10,600 vulnerable Syrian families.

Displaced inside Syria: UNHCR and its Dedicated Staff help the Needy

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett visits refugees in JordanPlay video

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett visits refugees in Jordan

UNHCR global Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett has recently visited Jordan, where she witnessed the ongoing humanitarian support to people displaced by conflict in Syria.
Syria: Hope Returns to Baba AmrPlay video

Syria: Hope Returns to Baba Amr

Twelve out of 36 neighbourhoods in the city of Homs are in desperate need of reconstruction. One of them is Baba Amr, where clashes in 2011-2012 uprooted some 80,000 people. Four years on, returning residents and Syrians displaced from other parts of the country are coming together to rebuild the area.
Syria: Heading Home to RuinsPlay video

Syria: Heading Home to Ruins

Nearly half a million residents from Homs and surrounding areas have been displaced by heavy fighting, some multiple times within Syria, while others have fled abroad. One of the biggest challenges facing returnees, is rebuilding their homes in the rubble of old Homs and Hamediyeh.