Central African refugee thrilled to reunite with friends and family on return home
Hadjara Arouna is overjoyed to be returning home in the Central African Republic after years living as a refugee in neighbouring Cameroon.
Hadjara Harouna, 37, waits to be repatriated to the Central African Republic after spending eight years in Cameroon. "All I want is to be near my neighbours once again," she said.
© UNHCR/Helen Ngoh Ada
Looking out the window of the bus that would take her home, 37-year-old Hadjara Arouna uses the grey scarf around shoulder to dry her tears. The refugee settlement in Gado-Badzere in Cameroon’s East region had been a place of safety, ever since she fled the carnage that forced thousands to flee the Central African Republic.
"I had never ever thought about leaving my country," Hadjara says, as she passes through the circuit at the transit centre in Gado that ends with her luggage being loaded onto the truck transporting the belongings of returning refugees. "I had never even imagined that I could live in Cameroon," she adds.
The 37-year-old and her three children are among 150 Central African refugees returning home from Gado, crossing at Garoua-Boulai, a bustling town on the Cameroonian side of the border.
Another 150 refugees had left from Lolo settlement some four hours away by road, crossing into CAR at the border in Kentzou.
It’s the first wave of 2,500 CAR refugees expected to return home by the end of 2022, in voluntary repatriation convoys facilitated by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in accordance with a tripartite agreement signed in 2019 between UNHCR and the governments of Cameroon and the Central African Republic.
"I’m very happy. It really makes me happy just to think that I'm going back," Hadjara says with a chuckle. "I wasn’t even able to eat anything this morning."
This sentiment is a far cry from the fear that drove her to Cameroon in the first place.
"We fled the war in the Central African Republic. We were told that those who started the war killed all our relatives who stayed behind. They killed my husband and his parents, and they killed my father. They were going from village to village. I don’t know who they were."
For eight years, Hadjara tried to forget the horrors of her loss and build a new life, alongside others who were forced to flee their homes. She worked in farms, volunteered for UNHCR partner NGOs carrying out projects in the settlement, and formed new bonds with neighbours, who eventually became more than friends and helped her find joy again.
“I had no family, but I lived with my neighbours as one family. If I or my children were sick, they looked after us. They fed my children and they helped me do chores around the house.”
But a few years ago, Hadjara’s neighbours were among 5,500 people who went back to CAR, when UNHCR began helping CAR refugees to return home starting in October 2019, following a peace and reconciliation agreement signed by the Central African government and 14 armed groups.
However, the repatriations were interrupted twice - when Cameroon and CAR closed their borders because of Covid-19 in early 2020, and later because of a resurgence of violence after the December 2020 presidential election in CAR.
In Gado, Hadjara started to feel the absence of her adoptive family.
"I miss them so much. Now, I am sad all the time and there is no one to look after me," she says.
Meanwhile, calm began return to some areas in CAR and a significant number of refugees found their own way home. And then in April, in the Yaounde Declaration, the states hosting over 700,000 CAR refugees rallied together and, with the support of donors, development, and humanitarian partners, committed to prioritise solutions for those who had been displaced by one of the most protracted crises in Africa. One of those solutions was voluntary repatriation, where conditions allowed.
"It is a refugee’s right to choose to return home and we cannot deny them that," says the Representative of UNHCR in Cameroon, Olivier Beer, who, accompanied by government officials, came to witness the relaunch of facilitated returns.
"To avoid them coming back, it is crucial to advocate first, for sustainable security in CAR, and for livelihoods, civil documents, and help in regaining properties and assets, with assistance from the international community supporting the CAR government in the return areas. These actions are necessary for their return be a sustainable solution."
The assistance provided to returnees by UNHCR, with support from donors and partners, includes some cash, food, and help in starting a livelihood activity.
Longing to be reunited with her adoptive family in Baoro, Hadjara was among 10,000 refugees living in Cameroon’s Eastern façade who showed interest in returning to CAR. She was overjoyed to be part of the 2,500 persons to receive help to return home in 2022.
"All I want is to be near my neighbours once again," says Hadjara, as she readies to board the bus. "I intend to start a business when I go home and enroll my child in school. He will often help me in his free time from classes. He will sell a little while I go to the farm. I will also raise goats," she says with a huge grin.
In the second of three buses taking the returnees home, Hadjara’s kids crane their necks into the windows, captivated by the beehive of activity as an army of refugee volunteers, UNHCR staff and partners, complete boarding and cross out items on the departure checklist.
Even though Hadjara is ready and eager to go back home, she’s grateful to Cameroon and its people.
"Cameroonians liked me very much. I never had a problem with them. I worked everywhere without any problem. They never owed me any money for my work. They helped me a lot. God bless them."
On her hopes for life back in CAR, Hadjara wishes only for peace.
"We just need peace and the opportunity to live our daily lives."