Hundreds flee armed raids in Central African Republic
BITOYE, Chad, January 28 (UNHCR) - Djaora and his family sit quietly in the shade at a UNHCR screening post in Bitoye, the latest of a growing number of people to arrive in southern Chad after being driven out of their homes in neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR) by armed assailants.
"I'm still very worried for my family. I fear that the zaraguina [bandits] will come after us in Chad," said the exhausted and frightened refugee, while waiting to be moved to a transfer camp near Goré, 220 kilometres east of here. UNHCR staff say the identity of the attackers is not so clear-cut in an area of insecurity.
What is certain is that raids have been a constant threat over the past year for Djaora and his neighbours in the north-west CAR village of Boucaranga. During the first two attacks, the villagers melted away into the bush and returned to their ransacked homes when the assailants had left with their booty.
But during the last raid earlier this month, the gunmen torched houses and went on a killing spree. "I have no idea why they attacked us; we had already lost all of our cattle and money," said Djaora. "Now, two of my brothers have been killed and we cannot go home until our region is secure."
Djaora decided to flee to neighbouring Chad - one of 614 people from CAR registered by UNHCR as refugees in the first three weeks of this year. UNHCR and local officials fear the number will continue to grow.
Moise Ngadana, the sub-prefect of Bitoye, told UNHCR he had recently visited northern parts of CAR. "There seem to be more Central Africans on the way," he said. "I worry that there will be even more refugees in 2008 than [the 3,256] there were last year."
The violence in CAR's lawless north has seemingly come from all sides. Armed rebel groups, rogue government troops and the zaraguina have all had a hand in the displacement of almost 300,000 Central Africans since mid-2005. Some 197,000 are internally displaced and 98,000 have fled to Cameroon, Chad and Sudan.
"When we screen new arriving refugees, we hear many similar stories of burned villages, kidnapping and murdered family members," noted Mari Sveen, a UNHCR protection officer in Goré.
"What can be a little more challenging is discovering the identity of the perpetrators," she said, adding: "It is often difficult for refugees to distinguish between zaraguina, rebels and government troops."
The Arabic-speaking zaraguina are cattle rustlers who mainly target the relatively rich Peuhl tribe. Recently, they have taken to kidnapping children for ransom.
Teenager Haoua spent a whole year as a hostage of the zaraguina gangs. "When they came to raid our village [in November 2006] they took me and seven other girls with them into the bush. We were chained up, ankle to ankle, for months and after they took the chains off we were forced to clean and cook for them," she recalled at the Dosseye camp near Goré.
The girl said they were beaten with sticks and chains if they made mistakes or worked too slowly. "We wondered if we would ever see our family again." Haoua was eventually released without any ransom being paid, but her family fled to Chad soon afterwards, when their home was attacked last December.
There are currently an estimated 45,000 CAR civilians in southern Chad's four refugee camps. Some of them have been there since 2003. The new arrivals may find it tough getting used to life as a refugee.
But many locals in the south understand what the refugees are going through and have extended a helping hand. "Many of us spent more than five years in Central African Republic as refugees and many of our Central African brothers gave us land to cultivate and parts of their harvest when we had nothing," said Clement Nando, a village chief in the south.
"It was a very hard time for us, but we were welcomed by many of the Central Africans. I still keep in touch with some of them when I go to markets in CAR," he added.
By Bryn Boyce in Bitoye, Chad