Desperation drives Central African civilians to risk river route to safety

News Stories, 17 December 2013

© UNHCR/M.L.Diop
People are still risking the journey by boat to Zongo in Democratic Republic of Congo. Here a group prepares to move from Zongo to Mole refugee camp.

ZONGO, Democratic Republic of the Congo, December 17 (UNHCR) On the banks of the Oubangui River, a Congolese customs officer looks across to the Central African Republic, possibly expecting a boat to heave into sight full of people fleeing from the unstable city on the other side.

Even though the river border between the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo has been officially closed since December 8, significant numbers of people risk their lives every day to make the 2-kilometre crossing from Bangui, where violence and killing continues to spread widespread fear.

On Monday, a total 1,815 people who had made the crossing since Friday, were registered in Zongo on the Democratic Republic of the Congo side of the river. Another 175 were registered on Tuesday. Most were women and children, and many said they fled to DRC after seeing armed men killing and beating civilians. Food shortages also spurred people to flee.

Bangui seems so close; the spire of St Paul's, where thousands have sought shelter from the violence, can be clearly seen from Zongo, which is normally only five minutes away by speedboat. But despite the arrival of extra UN peace-keeping troops in Bangui, most people don't dare make that trip for fear of being shot.

Desire*, aged 23, is one of the hundreds who have made the crossing. "I arrived this morning at nine," he told UNHCR at the weekend. "I crossed in a pirogue. I was lying hidden in the pirogue because I was scared to be shot", he added.

He was right to be worried. Louise*, who also made the journey at the weekend with close relatives, said that fighters of the Seleka coalition that captured Bangui in March were trying to kill people who attempted the crossing. "We saw them shoot people yesterday afternoon around 3 p.m. when we first tried to cross," said the 26-year-old, whose husband and brother were killed in Bangui a week ago.

Many newly arrived refugees in Zongo said the situation was very dangerous in Bangui, reporting conflict and killings that were causing people to flee their homes in desperation. "This morning, there was fighting. The Seleka came to our district. They tortured people and killed them," said Desire. "I fled. My family fled, everyone fled, but I don't know their destination. I arrived here alone. I have no one here."

Anna*, who crossed the river with a baby daughter three days before the border was closed, said she had fled because the situation in Bangui had become unbearable. She and her neighbours ran when armed men turned up without warning in her district and started the killing.

"I fled with the neighbours. We went to the river and we crossed on a pirogue," Anna recalled, adding that she was worried about her businessman husband and her two other children. "When we fled, the children were at school. Until now I don't know where they are."

Many of the refugees that UNHCR spoke to in Zongo said the Democratic Republic of the Congo was the only place they felt safe in. "I know that here in Zongo, I am in safety," stressed Desire. Many fear an escalation in sectarian violence.

After their arrival in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, refugees are registered by the National Commission for Refugees and relocated to Mole refugee camp, a site holding some 5,200 refugees about two hours by bus from Zongo.

In Mole, the refugees receive emergency assistance, including shelter, blankets, sleeping mats, jerry cans, kitchen sets, soap and food. Others prefer to stay with host families in Zongo, waiting for better days in Bangui, but many eventually decide to go to the refugee camp.

They hope things will improve and that the river reopens to peace-time trade. "When Bangui is calm again, I will return. I don't know if calm times will come back soon," said Anna.

Since the conflict started a year ago, more than 48,000 refugees have crossed into the northern province of Democratic Republic of the Congo. UNHCR has opened four refugee camps; three in Equateur province and one in Orientale province. As of today, nearly 20,000 refugees have been relocated to the refugee camps.

* Names changed for protection reasons

By CĂ©line Schmitt in Zongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo