Thousands flee violence in Central African Republic and seek shelter in in southern Chad

News Stories, 17 February 2014

© UNHCR/F.Farman
These colourfully dressed Central African Republic refugees have just arrived in Chad.

BEKONINGA, Chad, February 17 (UNHCR) As the humanitarian situation deteriorates in Central African Republic, thousands of traumatized and confused people have been fleeing to towns and villages across neighbouring southern Chad.

At the border crossing of Bekoninga, a crowd of mostly women and children was gathered under mango trees, the latest of some 6,000 people who have arrived in southern Chad at various crossing points, including Sido in the east and Bitoye near the border with Cameroon.

Mobile UNHCR teams, working with the local authorities, regularly visit these border entry points to monitor arrivals, pre-register them and arrange for their transfer to a refugee camp. The group at Bekoninga will be going to Dosseye camp, about 30 kilometres away, where they will be provided with documentation, shelter, food, drinking water and health care.

But at the border crossing, open only to pedestrian traffic, they looked anxious and tired; even the children seemed distressed. They were among tens of thousands of people who have fled increasingly brutal attacks, mainly targeting people on the base of their religion.

"Armed men wearing masks came with machetes and killed everyone in our village, men, women and children," said Adija*, a woman in her 60s from the western CAR town of Paoua. "We don't know why," she added.

Some of the refugees spent weeks walking to safety and many became separated from their families in the mad scramble to escape from the armed groups. "I don't know where my sister and her children are, we were separated as we ran into the bush," said Halima*, a mother of three from Paoua. "They may be in Cameroon."

Mahamat*, aged 25, had come all the way from the Central African Republic capital, Bangui, taking more than a month to make the perilous journey after narrowly escaping death at the hands of members of the former Seleka rebel coalition. But the university student's loss was great,

He said that when the latest wave of violence erupted in early December, "The Seleka came into our home one evening, killed my parents and burned down the house." Mahamat managed to jump over the wall and stayed with his neighbour for several days before heading north on foot.

"I tried to avoid main roads. I really didn't think I would make it to Chad," he said. "Once in Chad, I wanted to keep going until I reached Gore [near the Bekoninga crossing], but the authorities told me that UNHCR was coming here," he added. He was waiting for the next convoy to Dosseye camp, where he hopes to find some stability. "At least I will be able to eat," he said with a smile.

More than 13,000 people fled Central African Republic into southern Chad last year. Since the start of December, some 5,700 have crossed the border, with about 5,000 transferred to the refugee camps of Dosseye (4,000) and Belom. UNHCR is anticipating the arrival of many more refugees in coming weeks.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visited Bangui last week and described what he had seen there as "a humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions." He said "massive ethno-religious cleansing" was continuing and he called for more foreign soldiers and police to be sent to the country to try and restore peace and end the killing.

In 2013, UNHCR registered some 15,000 newly arrived refugees from Central African Republic, bringing the total population of Central African refugees in Chad to more than 80,000.

*Names changed for protection reasons.

By M. Farman-Farmaian in Bekoninga, Chad

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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.