As tensions ease, some displaced return to Bangui
Thousands of people who fled fighting in the Central African Republic's capital have returned under a voluntary programme run by UNHCR and the government.
CARMEL SITE, Central African Republic – Antoine Nambeyam shuffles forward on his crutches towards the head of the queue. It is a line that will finally take the amputee home after three years in a dilapidated site for thousands of people displaced by conflict in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, or CAR.
He has come to collect his family’s cash grant of US$80 from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, that will help the 60-year-old and his family rebuild their lives and damaged house in Bangui, some 15 kilometres north of the Carmel site for internally displaced people.
“We stayed here for three years because we had no choice. The security situation was so bad that we had to save our families,” he says. “Given that the violence has reduced in Bangui, we are happy to return to our districts," adds the father of four, who lost his leg during his internal exile because he could no longer work and pay for drugs to treat his severe diabetes.
“Given that the violence has reduced in Bangui, we are happy to return to our districts."
Almost 80,000 residents of Bangui are still displaced by the conflict. Nambeyam is among more than 4,250 residents who have returned under a voluntary programme launched in the first week of January by UNHCR and the government. Among those who returned to the capital under the scheme were 3,000 people from Carmel. UNHCR and government teams will be helping others in the coming days.
A separate return programme, managed by the Government with technical support from UNHCR has enabled another 15,000 displaced people to leave the squalid camp at Bangui’s M’Poko International Airport - where they lived in dire conditions and were dangerously close to air traffic - and return home.
CAR slipped into chaos in the months after former Seleka rebels seized power in March 2013, ousting then-President Francois Bozize and sparking a brutal backlash from anti-balaka militias in December of that year.
This and subsequent violence displaced almost one million people and left parts of Bangui looted and in ruins. Some 475,000 residents fled to neighbouring countries and more than 434,000 people made their way to safer areas within CAR.
Going back to Bangui is a big step, given the bad memories of the explosion of violence that drove people to run for their lives. Nambeyam, who has since returned to the capital’s Boeing district with assistance from relatives, explains why he opted to return.
“Although my house was destroyed, I am relieved to leave the Carmel site because the living conditions are extremely difficult. We slept on cardboard and it was very cold at night." He said UNHCR supplied blankets, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets and other aid to displaced residents, but they sold these to buy food.
After reaching the head of the queue and collecting his cash, Antoine said he was going to use some of the money to buy two mattresses on which he can sleep with his family in his plundered and destroyed house.
"After the return, the next step will be to support the reintegration of the returnees.”
"After the return, the next step will be to support the reintegration of the returnees,” said UNHCR Deputy Representative Charles Mballa. “UNHCR and its partners plan to focus their interventions on programmes supporting social cohesion and reconciliation, livelihoods, rehabilitation of houses and mobilization of other actors in areas of return to enable the returnees to start a new life in dignity."
UNHCR is already working on reintegration projects in parts of the country such as Ouham Pende and Lobaye prefectures in the west, where the agency and partners have been rebuilding homes and infrastructure to enable a sustainable return of internally displaced people and refugees.
But CAR remains fragile a year after the democratic elections that brought President Faustin-Archange Touadéra to power. Fighting in the second half of last year has displaced another estimated 150,000 people in an area running from Bria, Alindao and Bambari to Ippy and Bakala. This pushed the number of internally displaced people to a record 434,174 at the end of November 2016. With the ongoing returns in Bangui this number had again decreased to 411,785 by mid-January.