Continuing attacks in Central African Republic push refugees into Chad
BEKONINGA, Chad, Feb. 21 (UNHCR) - The number of refugees seeking refuge in Chad after fleeing violence in the lawless northern Central African Republic (CAR) is climbing steadily, with around 200 crossing the border daily. More than 4,000 refugees have arrived so far this month and more are believed to be on the way.
"Many refugees report they fled attacks by government forces on civilians who CAR troops suspected of supporting various rebel groups. Refugees also mention raids by rebel groups who attack their villages to loot food and cattle, as well as forcibly recruit young men," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told journalists at a regular briefing in Geneva on Tuesday. The refugees said they are also suffering from attacks by bandits or coupeurs de route.
"Some refugees have told UNHCR they have been victims of all three groups - rebels, government soldiers and bandits," said Pagonis.
Although UNHCR was unable to verify the accounts as it did not have a presence in northern CAR for security reasons, the agency took the reports seriously due to the number and similarity of stories from refugees, she added.
The refugees have harrowing tales of their ordeals and those left behind.
"We are the lucky ones, those of us able to talk to you and tell our story," Martin, 55, a recent arrival from CAR told UNHCR staff in south Chad. "Others are hiding in the bush, sleeping under trees like animals. They are dispersed all over the place. It is very sad," he sobbed as he sat outside a hospital nursing a deep, infected wound to his foot.
Martin said that when his northern CAR village of Begora was attacked on February 11, eight men, all civilians, were shot.
"We were all sitting under the shade of trees when three army trucks arrived, packed with heavily armed men, grenades attached to their belts," he recalled with great emotion. "They quickly surrounded our village and started firing. They started shooting indiscriminately at civilians. We were so scared."
Martin fled into the bush, ripping open his foot on a fallen branch and losing contact with his wife and two daughters. He has had no news of them since, and fears for their lives. After the attack ended, his 32-year-old son found him and together they walked eight hours to the Chadian border. Once they reached safety in south Chad, Martin was quickly transported to hospital.
"The situation in CAR needs to be addressed urgently by the international community, before it is too late," said UNHCR's representative in Chad, Ana Liria-Franch. "Abuses against civilians do not appear to be confined to any one side - rebel groups, bandits and government forces are all mentioned by the refugees. It is credible that they are indeed terrifying these helpless populations."
Liria-Franch called for the restoration of human rights in northern CAR, noting that everyone had the right to enjoy peace and security at home without having to flee.
Nevertheless, UNHCR fears that the outflow of refugees will continue. Many civilians are still hiding in the bush in northern CAR, too scared to return home. How long they can hold out without seeking help across the border is uncertain.
"I was walking along the road returning from work to Biyokonbo, my village, when three military vehicles drove by and shot me," said newly arrived Jean. "I was hit in the elbow and they just abandoned me on the road. I ran into the bush and slept there for the night. My family came looking for me. We all ran away to the border."
Jean walked to Chad with his wife and their seven children. The family is emphatic that they will not return to CAR as long as they have to fear further attacks.
Most refugees cross the border and stop 500 metres into Chadian territory at Békoninga village, population 600. Initially, they must survive on food they bring with them, as well as handouts from generous local villagers - people who have very little to share. Clean drinking water is a major concern as there is only one well in the village. Some refugees have no choice but to drink water from a nearby swamp.
The refugees are understandably anxious to move away from the border to a refugee site. On Wednesday, UNHCR will move 300 of the new arrivals to Gondjé refugee camp. More are scheduled for transfer in the coming days. To speed up the process of registration and identifying the most vulnerable refugees, UNHCR has brought in extra staff from its other field offices in southern and eastern Chad.
UNHCR and Chadian authorities are discussing the possibility of opening a third refugee site near Goré in light of continued refugee arrivals from the CAR. Some 45,000 refugees from the Central African Republic currently reside in three camps in the south. Gondjé refugee camp, 12 km west of Goré, opened in December 2005 to decongest the overcrowded neighbouring Amboko camp site.
Chad also hosts more than 200,000 Sudanese refugees from the Darfur region in 12 camps in the eastern part of the country.
By Ginette Le Breton in Békoninga, Chad