Growing numbers of young CAR refugees arrive in Cameroon with malnutrition

News Stories, 22 May 2014

Hourriatou mourns the death of her grandson, 18-month-old Djaratou from malnutrition. Djaratou's father and twin brother were killed in the Central African Republic during their flight. The boy's mother was injured but is recovering. Hourriatou was distraught when the little boy died after reaching the safety of Cameroon.

BATOURI, Cameroon, May 22 (UNHCR) Houriatou is distraught and in tears. She has become used to loss since her native Central African Republic exploded into violence last December, but the death of her 18-month-old grandson, Djaratou, from severe malnutrition seemed particularly cruel to her, and she can't hold back.

The 40-year-old refugee from Central African Republic sits and mourns on the hospital bed where the baby just died in the eastern Cameroon town of Batouri. He was also being treated for a nasty cudgel wound, inflicted by militiamen during the flight from the Central African Republic.

Houriatou finds it difficult to understand why Djaratou should have died after surviving the gruelling flight and journey, when finding enough food to eat was part of the ordeal. "We walked for three months in the forest. It was terrible. We only ate leaves on the road. We walked until our feet were swollen," she recalls.

Djaratou, who weighed less than 5 kilos when he died, was but one of a growing number of children arriving across the border suffering from malnutrition an estimated 40 per cent of children under the age of five arriving at the border town of Gbiti, east of Batouri, suffer from the condition.

The boy was among 100 refugee children being treated for severe malnutrition in Batouri Hospital's nutrition centre- he just lacked the strength to recover. The centre receives support from UNHCR and its key medical partner, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), but the needs are huge. There are only 12 beds, but mothers and grandmothers have brought dozens of children and more arrive every day.

Construction work has begun to increase the capacity, but to deal with the demand UNHCR has set up tents where children can stay with their mothers. "We work day and night to help children survive" and regain their strength, says John Majaliwa, a UNHCR nutritionist who works in Batouri Hospital.

The patients also include malnourished children referred by MSF to Batouri Hospital from its overwhelmed health clinic in the town of Gbiti on the border with Central African Republic. Many of the 80,000 refugees in Cameroon have passed through Gbiti, about half of whom are children, including 20 per cent aged under five.

There is a common theme in the tales told by grieving or concerned relatives as well as by those trying to save lives of the little ones. "They arrive in desperate condition after several months without eating, trekking through the forest in Central African Republic," explains Majaliwa. "In some cases, entire families are malnourished," he adds, saying this is an indication of the suffering. In general, the young are less able to survive long periods of deprivation and physical hardship.

Houriatou's tale is typical. She and her family lived in the countryside, hoping the conflict would not come to them. When militiamen attacked, she fled with a large group of relatives. It was always difficult to feed such a large group. The danger of attack was constant. Baby Djaratou's father and twin brother were killed in one attack, which also left the boy injured and his mother with machete wounds.

Another refugee, 17-year-old Habsatou, says her family walked through the bush for two months after their village was attacked. "We did not eat anything except for cow milk and leaves," she says, adding that the militiamen had stolen most of their food and animals. "We would spend the entire day walking and we slept in the open air."

Her husband was killed on the journey and her two-year-old child, Adama, died in Batouri Hospital from the effects of the journey.

Others have spent even longer in the bush, eating roots and whatever else they can forage, hiding from the armed groups and trying to make their way to safety. Many die and those who do make it across are usually extremely weak and traumatized.

In eastern Cameroon, UNHCR's Majaliwa stresses, every effort is made to detect those with severe malnutrition and to help the refugees help themselves. "We have to provide constant advice and help to the mothers to ensure that their children have a chance to survive. We keep an eye on the mothers to make sure they keep their children warm at night and administer treatment properly.

That includes milk and Plumpy'nut, a peanut-based paste for treatment of severe malnutrition. "Some children are unable to drink milk by themselves and we have to feed them through a tube [in the nose]," says Majaliwa. "The first meal of the day is at 6am and the last at 2am."

Meanwhile, although the number of refugee arrivals in Gbiti has slowed recently, UNHCR and its partners are expecting fresh arrivals when fighting across the border eases. Arrivals speak of many people still hiding in the bush many will be children suffering from severe malnutrition and in need of help.

By Céline Schmitt in Batouri, Cameroon




Young and Struggling with Malnutrition: Child Refugees in Cameroon

Growing numbers of refugees from the Central African Republic have been arriving in Cameroon in a dreadful physical condition after spending weeks or months hiding in the bush, struggling to find food and water, and sleeping out in the open, unable to return to the homes they were forced to flee from. The most vulnerable of these refugees are the children, especially those aged under five years. It is heart-breaking to see these rail thin children, clearly in need of sustenance after living on roots and leaves. An estimated 40 per cent of children arrive suffering from malnutrition and for some the journey proves too much, but UNHCR has been helping to save lives in eastern Cameroon. With Médecins Sans Frontières, the refugee agency supports a nutrition centre in Batouri. MSF sends children there from its overwhelmed health clinic in the border town of Gbiti, where some 20,000 of the 80,000 Central African refugees in Cameroon have arrived. The partners are expanding the capacity of the centre, which treats about 100 children. More arrive daily and UNHCR has set up tents to provide shelter for the children and their mothers. Photographer Frederic Noy last week visited Gbiti and Batouri and captured the following powerful images.

Young and Struggling with Malnutrition: Child Refugees in Cameroon

Central African Republic: Urgent Appeal

You can help save the lives of thousands of refugees

Donate to this crisis

Crisis in the Central African Republic

Little has been reported about the humanitarian crisis in the northern part of the Central African Republic (CAR), where at least 295,000 people have been forced out of their homes since mid-2005. An estimated 197,000 are internally displaced, while 98,000 have fled to Chad, Cameroon or Sudan. They are the victims of fighting between rebel groups and government forces.

Many of the internally displaced live in the bush close to their villages. They build shelters from hay, grow vegetables and even start bush schools for their children. But access to clean water and health care remains a huge problem. Many children suffer from diarrhoea and malaria but their parents are too scared to take them to hospitals or clinics for treatment.

Cattle herders in northern CAR are menaced by the zaraguina, bandits who kidnap children for ransom. The villagers must sell off their livestock to pay.

Posted on 21 February 2008

Crisis in the Central African Republic

Silent Success

Despite being chased from their homes in the Central African Republic and losing their livelihoods, Mbororo refugees have survived by embracing a new way of life in neighbouring Cameroon.

The Mbororo, a tribe of nomadic cattle herders from Central African Republic, started fleeing their villages in waves in 2005, citing insecurity as well as relentless targeting by rebel groups and bandits who steal their cattle and kidnap women and children for ransom.

They arrived in the East and Adamaoua provinces of Cameroon with nothing. Though impoverished, the host community welcomed the new arrivals and shared their scant resources. Despite this generosity, many refugees died of starvation or untreated illness.

Help arrived in 2007, when UNHCR and partner agencies began registering refugees, distributing food, digging and rehabilitating wells as well as building and supplying medical clinics and schools, which benefit refugees and the local community and promote harmony between them. The Mbororo were eager to learn a new trade and set up farming cooperatives. Though success didn't come immediately, many now make a living from their crops.

Mbororo refugees continue to arrive in Central African Republic - an average of 50 per month. The long-term goal is to increase refugees' self-reliance and reduce their dependency on humanitarian aid.

Silent Success

Shared Experience Binds Hosts and Refugees Across the Oubangui River

The Oubangui River is a vital source of food and water for the hundreds of thousands living along its 1,000-kilometre-long course, and many rely on it for transport, trade and agriculture. The river, forming the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with Central African Republic and Republic of Congo, has also been a life-saving bridge to safety for people fleeing the waves of violence that plague this deprived region - and a route back home when peace returns. This year, more than 40,000 terrified people have fled conflict in Central African Republic and crossed the river to find shelter in DRC's Equateur and Oriental provinces. Here they have received a warm welcome from the local people, many of whom know exactly what it is like to be a refugee. Time and again, newly arrived refugees from CAR seek out people they once hosted in Bangui and other places along the river. And these old friends are offering them and their families places in already cramped homes, and sharing their meagre resources. Photographer Brian Sokol recently travelled to Equateur province to document the extraordinary bond between the refugees and host communities. These are some of his striking portraits of hosts and their guests. They know that one day their roles could be reversed by the ebb and flow of violence.

Shared Experience Binds Hosts and Refugees Across the Oubangui River

Joint Appeal: Help Needed for Central African RefugeesPlay video

Joint Appeal: Help Needed for Central African Refugees

The UN refugee agency and its partners appealed for more donor support to cope with the continuing outflow and deteriorating condition of refugees from the Central African Republic.
Joint Appeal: Help Sought as Food Shortages Threaten Refugees in AfricaPlay video

Joint Appeal: Help Sought as Food Shortages Threaten Refugees in Africa

The World Food Programme and the United Nations refugee agency seek urgent funding to help 800,000 refugees in Africa affected by food shortages. Cuts in food rations threaten to worsen already unacceptable levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anaemia, particularly in children.
Cameroon: A Young Victim of ViolencePlay video

Cameroon: A Young Victim of Violence

Militia attacks on civilians in Central African Republic have left many people, including children, dead or badly injured. Six-year-old Ibrahim is recovering from one such attack, lucky to be alive.