Central African Republic's quiet conflict uproots more than 290,000

A humanitarian crisis has been quietly unfolding in the Central African Republic (CAR), with more than 290,000 people uprooted from their homes over the past two years. There are some 212,000 people internally displaced in the north, while 80,000 have fled to Chad, Cameroon and Sudan's South Darfur region.

A group of mothers with their children in the bush. They have no access to clean water, regular food or medical treatment.   © UNHCR/H.Caux

PAOUA, Central African Republic, September 26 (UNHCR) - A humanitarian crisis has been quietly unfolding in the Central African Republic (CAR), with more than 290,000 people uprooted from their homes over the past two years.

Fighting between government forces and various rebel groups since mid-2005 has left an estimated 212,000 people internally displaced in the north-west and north-east, while a further 80,000 have fled to neighbouring Chad, Cameroon and Sudan's South Darfur region.

But the outside world remains largely ignorant of the suffering in this country. "The humanitarian crisis in northern CAR has been largely overshadowed by the crisis in Darfur and eastern Chad," said Bruno Geddo, UNHCR representative in the Central African Republic.

"Thousands of people have been living in the bush - sometimes for as long as two years. They lack everything and live in constant fear of being trapped again in fighting between government forces and rebel groups," he added, referring to recurrent clashes around this north-west town some 60 kilometres south of the border with Chad and 500km from the capital, Bangui.

"The usual pattern is that rebels attack key towns in the north, the government soldiers take them back and retaliate on the surrounding villages," claimed a displaced man met recently on the road between the town of Paoua in north-west CAR and the nearby border with southern Chad. "We, the civilians, are in the middle and we are paying the price."

Hundreds of civilians have been killed, thousands of houses burned and hundreds of villages abandoned in the fighting since 2005. But in some villages, people leave their harsh bush sanctuary and return for a few hours every day to check on their properties or even to go to school.

"I come to Bemal in the morning to teach the children," said 41-year-old Valentin Bekia, adding that some children trekked up to 7km to reach the village, which is located on the border road from Paoua. "After 2:00pm, we all go back to the bush, we don't feel safe staying the whole day and night in the village," he added.

Bemal was attacked several times last year and its 1,600 inhabitants have all decamped to the bush. Dozens of villages between Bemal and Paoua are completely abandoned.

Living conditions in the bush are incredibly tough. Access to clean water remains a huge obstacle, while health problems abound. Many children suffer from diarrhoea and malaria, but they are not getting treatment because their parents are too scared to risk the journey to towns where there are health centres.

People make the most of their meagre resources, building shelters from hay, growing vegetables and even starting bush schools. But it is no substitute for life in a village and they live in constant fear of being attacked again.

"Every time we hear the engine of a car, we go further into the bush," said Alphonse Baidoum, the 70-year-old chief of Bodouli village. Armed gunmen attacked the village twice last year, killing seven people. The villagers now live 4km away in the bush.

Government troops and rebel soldiers pose one threat, bandits pose another in the north - especially to people of the Peul ethnic group. They say that the bandits, roaming along roads and trails, kidnap children and demand crippling ransoms from their families. They have to sell valuable cattle to raise the money.

"The constant insecurity in northern CAR makes it hard for aid agencies to assist displaced people in the bush," said UNHCR's Geddo. And the six-month rainy season starting in June also limits regular assistance. People are scattered in small groups, which adds to the problems facing UNHCR and other agencies as they try to help the displaced.

Children walk through the bush to reach their temporary settlement.  © UNHCR/H.Caux

UNHCR's main role in northern areas has been to monitor the human rights situation through a network of observers established in partnership with the Catholic relief organization, CARITAS. The refugee agency has, at the same time, been teaching soldiers and police about human rights and internal displacement.

Together with other agencies, it has also distributed clothing, shelter materials, household items and medicine to those hiding in the bush. Meanwhile, a UNHCR-funded project is providing psychosocial assistance and community support to victims of torture and sexual violence.

By Hélène Caux in Paoua, Central African Republic