Sudanese refugees struggle to get by as new dangers arise in CAR conflict

Sixteen-year-old Ache from Sudan's Darfur region dreams of finishing her studies, but worries about violence around the Central African Republic town of Bambari.

A Sudanese refugee from Darfur prepares food in the Pladama Ouaka Camp, near Bambari in Central African Republic.   © UNHCR/D.Mbaiorem

BAMBARI, Central African Republic, November 19 (UNHCR) - At just 16 years old and already married, Ache from Sudan's Darfur region has had to overcome many obstacles in a bid to fulfill her dream of finishing her studies.

Now, despite completing elementary school last August, armed groups in the Central African Republic town of Bambari are threatening the refugees' future once more. "Violence and fighting all around have once more reached our door," she says. "With our lives in danger, how will I keep on studying?"

Two years of conflict have uprooted more than 830,000 people in the Central African Republic, including some 430,000 who have fled to neighbouring countries. The war has also taken a heavy toll on the 8,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in the Central African Republic, including Ache, who fled from Darfur seven years ago to escape fighting in her home region.

Like 1,900 other mainly Sudanese exiles, she now lives with her family at the Pladama Ouaka Refugee Camp near Bambari, but faces new dangers as a result of her language and Muslim faith.

The promising young student was nine when her struggles first began back in Darfur. "I was at home playing when I heard the explosions," she remembers. "I was terrified and I started running, with my brother on my back, to go and find our mother in the fields. The soldiers were approaching so fast that we didn't have the time to take anything with us."

Hungry, thirsty and destitute, Ache and her family joined the rest of their village on a five-day walk to the north-eastern corner of Central African Republic. They crossed the border and settled in the Sam Ouandja region, before finally being transferred inland to the Pladama Ouaka camp in late 2010.

Life was relatively calm for a while. Ache married at the age of 15 and, with the assistance of UNHCR, the refugees began undertaking income-generation activities, farming land and rearing cattle. They soon became self-reliant and were considered the biggest crop producers in Bambari area.

UNHCR's partners also provided them with medical assistance and took care of the children's education. "I was able to continue school and this is how I decided that I want to become a teacher," says Ache, proudly. "But now I am afraid of what the future brings."

In recent months, armed men have set up barricades on the roads around the camp, and begun demanding money from the refugees, depriving them of what little they have. In September, a refugee was kidnapped after refusing to hand over his goat and now many Sudanese are afraid to leave the camp to go farming or to visit the local markets to sell and buy products.

The exercise of their religious rights is also under threat. "People accusing us of siding with their enemy once came to search if we had hidden weapons at our mosque," recalls 70-year-old imam, Adam Abdoulaye Moussa. "Of course, they didn't find anything, but they kept on threatening us. For me, it's been five months since I last left the camp for the nearby city."

But the refugees are not alone as they fight for survival. UNHCR is currently engaged in mediation talks between them, the host community and armed groups. The refugee agency has also organized a profiling exercise in the camp, as part of efforts to identify the best solutions for the refugees. Meanwhile, aid continues to reach the refugee community, either directly or through UNHCR's partners.

And Imam Moussa is busy preaching patience and tolerance to his congregation. "Christians and Muslims can live in harmony together, as they did before the conflict," he insists, adding that his only wish is for more security - just like Ache, who is looking forward to the day when, in a peaceful country, she will be able to welcome other refugee girls through the school gates.

By Aikaterini Kitidi in Bambari, Central African Republic