After conflict, the displaced of Central African Republic dream of going home
Like so many forced by conflict to flee their homes, Clarisse Nina Renessio dreams of returning. Now, five years after fighting first reached her village of Nzacko in eastern CAR, that dream is close to becoming a reality.
Last year the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, facilitated the return of 800 people from PK3, a camp for displaced people outside the central city of Bria where 33,000 people live, including Clarisse. This initial relocation, mostly to previously unsafe neighbourhoods of the city, came after repeated surveys in 2021 and 2022 showed that around four out of five households at PK3 wished to return to their original homes.
But the desire to return is rarely matched by the financial means. “After having provided humanitarian assistance, we now need to provide development assistance,” said UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Operations, Raouf Mazou, during a recent visit to Bria alongside a delegation from the African Development Bank (AfDB).
"More than anything, I wish I could find my way home."
Clarisse’s husband and one of their sons were murdered by gunmen who attacked their village in 2018. The 38-year-old escaped with her six surviving children, leaving everything behind as they made the long and perilous 175-kilometre journey on foot to Bria. “We marched day and night,” Clarisse said. “During the trip, we crossed several villages deserted by their inhabitants. On several occasions, we had to take refuge in the bush.”
In Bria, Clarisse arrived destitute but at least found safety in the PK3 camp and received support from UNHCR to build a shelter for her family. But residents face many ongoing challenges, including accessing education for children, and land for farming. “A camp is not a place conducive to the development of a child," said Awa Pélagie, who lives in the camp with her six children.
Awa, too, longs to return home, but lacks the money to pay for transport and to rebuild her shattered life when she gets there. “At the height of the crisis, we could not leave the site for security reasons. This prevented us from farming or trading to earn enough to meet the needs of our families,” she said, let alone to save anything for the future.
The gradual improvement in security means Awa can farm nearby land, but nevertheless her desire to leave is undimmed. “More than anything, I wish I could find my way home,” she said. "Resettling in my own place will allow me to live with my family, with dignity, and to educate those of my children who have stopped attending school.”
The needs in return areas are huge, said Laetitia Kakou-Silue, head of the UNHCR office in Bria: “We are talking about boreholes, schools, health centres. There is a lot to do.”
It will take the combined efforts of government, humanitarian and development organizations, and local communities to ensure that returns take place in safety and dignity. It will also take additional resources for the re-establishment of basic services, the reconstruction of damaged and abandoned housing, and the kick-starting of income-generating activities.
“People here need the means to rebuild their lives,” Mazou said during his four-day visit to CAR alongside AfDB Country Manager Mamady Souare and others seeking to increase investment in public services and livelihood programmes. He called for support for the displaced, “to help people rebuild their lives, to rebuild the economy, to rebuild their homes, and to rebuild the infrastructure they need to have a normal life.”
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Successive crises and waves of conflict since 2013 have caused 1.2 million Central Africans to leave their homes, with 500,000 displaced within the country and a further 700,000 living as refugees in neighbouring countries. Despite this, people such as Clarisse and Awa refuse to be discouraged, working hard to make their dream of returning home a reality. Clarisse has already relocated from PK3 to a site for returnees in Bria, in what she hopes is the first step towards moving back home.
Mazou said it is important that UNHCR and partners do what they can to make the dream of return a reality for Clarisse and others. "The people we met in Bria clearly indicated that they wanted to return home, provided that the security and material conditions are met," he said.