UNHCR finds burned and abandoned villages, thousands displaced in northern Central African Republic

Briefing Notes, 6 September 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 6 September 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

A joint-UHCR mission to northern Central African Republic reports abandoned villages, massive displacement and evidence of widespread human rights violations.

Staff from UNHCR and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) travelled to the town of Paoua, 500-kilometres north of the CAR capital, Bangui, last week. They found seven villages burned to the ground and deserted and an eighth village partially burned with villagers hiding in the bush.

The UNHCR team confirmed widespread lawlessness in the region. Local people spoke of physical assaults, extortion, looting, arbitrary arrest and torture by armed men. The villagers said their actions may have been in retaliation for a clash last month with self-defense groups who were trying to protect their families and property.

We are, in general, increasingly worried about the civilians caught in the middle of the fighting and who are at the mercy of anyone with a gun. In the village of Bedengui, 65 kilometres outside the Northern city of Paoua, UNHCR staff found people mourning the kidnapping and murder of four family-members. In Paoua, residents and displaced people living there said they spend the night in the bush for safety and return to their homes only during the day. People are keeping away from roads to avoid detection. And the rains are making living conditions even worse.

It is difficult to say exactly how many people in northern CAR have fled their homes, in part because of the insecurity there and restricted access. Before the Seleka alliance seized power in Bangui in March, almost 160,000 people lived in the affected area. With the outbreak of violence there late last month, thousands of people have fled. As of Wednesday morning, UNHCR staff had registered 3,020 displaced people in the region adding to the estimated total of at least 206,000 displaced people across the country since December.

The fighting and violence has also driven thousands across borders into neighboring countries. In Chad, a recent wave of more than a thousand refugees arrived in the Moissala region. That followed a wave of 4,125 people in July and brings the total number of refugees received there this year to 13,087. UNHCR staff in Cameroon have registered 4,119 refugees from CAR since March, including 123 last week. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, approximately 42,600 refugees from CAR had arrived by 28 August. Some 500 people arrived in Libenge on Tuesday night alone, and staff had to scramble to find them shelter from the rain. That brings the total number of CAR refugees to over 62,000 since the crisis began last September.

UNHCR staff made the 11-hour drive to Paoua again yesterday and are distributing supplies such as tarpaulins, mosquito nets and kitchen sets to displaced people. We repeat our call to the authorities in Central African Republic, and to all armed groups, to protect civilians and make sure aid agencies can reach people in need.

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