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Refugee from Central African Republic finds "promised land" in UNHCR-run camp

Telling the Human Story, 8 October 2013

© UNHCR/B.Sokol
The sun sets as a young boy paddles on the Oubangi River at Batanga village, Equateur province in Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Central African Republic can be seen in the distance.

BOYABO REFUGEE CAMP, Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 8 (UNHCR) As a fisherman, 36-year-old Jean came to rely on the Oubangui River for a living; but today he looks across it from exile and thinks only of death and suffering.

"I cannot cross the river [to his native Central African Republic] because the Seleka are waiting for me on the other side," he says, referring to the former rebel coalition that toppled the government in March and killed his mother and many others. Jean is among more than 40,000 people who have fled the continuing violence and crossed the river to Democratic Republic of Congo's Orientale and Equateur provinces.

He says he did try to go fishing one day from Batanga, the riverside village in Equateur where he first found shelter with his wife and two children, but "they called me over and beat me." After that, he says, just looking across the Oubangui to Central African Republic makes him feel scared, but he feels safer since moving further from the river to the UNHCR-run Boyabo refugee camp.

He calls Boyabo the "promised land," and it's a bit easier to understand why after he tells his story. Like many others, Jean was caught by surprise at the speed of the Seleka advance and capture of the capital, Bangui, on March 24.

People were tense in his village, Batalimo, but he did not feel his life was threatened. That all changed on March 31, when armed men came to his home shortly before midnight after being told by other villagers that his mother sold palm oil and was relatively rich.

"My wife and my kids were sleeping at my mother-in-law's. I was alone with my mother. We heard someone knock at the door. I told my mother not to open it," he tells UNHCR, adding that several men with torches broke down the door. "They saw my mother in bed. They asked for money. As she had no money, they slit her throat. I was hiding under the bed. They did not see me," a weeping Jean recalls.

The assailants looted the simple home before leaving. The terrified fishermen stayed under the bed until morning, when he found his mother's body. "Eight young men had the courage to help me bury my mother. After the funeral, I found my wife and my children in the forest and we went to the ferry port of Zinga," he says.

They spent the night with the head of the locality and crossed the river to Batanga the next day. But it was still too close for Jean, who was unnerved by the sight of Seleka fighters across the river and feared they might follow him over the Oubangui.

In Boyabo, Jean seems quite relaxed and even happy, but he is still hurting mentally over his mother's death and physically from the beating. He and his family were transferred to the camp in mid-August and quickly started trying to establish as normal a life as possible for themselves.

When UNHCR visited, he was looking forward to resuming life free from fear. On a hot sunny day, he keeps busy by cutting the grass around his shelter. He hopes that he will soon be allocated some land so that he can start growing vegetables for the family.

At midday, he takes a break and goes to join his wife and children at the communal kitchen where they have. They are surrounded by other families, each with their own dark memories and wondering if it will ever be safe to return to their troubled country.

Boyabo was opened last June on a site where it was easier to ensure protection and security for the refugees, who had been living along the river. Located some 20 kilometres from the Oubangui, it currently provides shelter to more than 3,600 refugees. UNHCR coordinates the work of seven partners in areas such as health and sanitation, shelter construction, social services, and distribution of food and non-food aid items. Jean benefits from these aid distributions, but, like the thousands of other refugees who have arrived in the DRC, he is uncertain about the future.

Silvestre Zawa, who was also transferred to Boyabo from Batanga with his family, said he was working for the Central African Red Cross Society as a water and sanitation technician when the fighting came to the capital. "The military groups were firing and killing people, we were disoriented and we ran in different directions," he said, adding that he became separated from his seven-year-old daughter.

Thanks to the family reunification programme run by the Congolese Red Cross with support from the International Committee for the Red Cross, he was reunited with his daughter the day before he was transferred to Boyabo camp.

Ironically, Silvestre used to help Congolese refugees at a camp in Batalimo. Today it's his turn to be a refugee in the DRC and to live in a camp, but he hopes he can use his skill to help his fellow refugees in Boyabo by ensuring a steady supply of potable water for them.

Both Silvestre and Jean fear that their stay in the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be a long one. "There is no peace on the other side [of the Oubangui River] and I don't want to cross before there is peace," Jean said firmly.

By Céline Schmitt in Boyabo Refugee Camp, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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Human Misery in Katanga Province's Triangle of Death

People in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Katanga province have long referred to the region between the towns of Manono, Mitwaba and Pweto as the "triangle of death." Despite the presence of UN peace-keepers and government military successes in other parts of the country, the situation in the resources-rich Katanga has been getting worse over the past two years. Conflict between a secessionist militia group and the government and between the Luba (Bantu) and Twa (Pygmy) ethnic groups has left thousands dead and forcibly displaced more than 400,000 people since 2012, including over 70,000 in the last three months. UNHCR has expressed its "deep concern" about the "catastrophic" humanitarian situation in northern Katanga. The violence includes widescale looting and burning of entire villages and human rights' violations such as murder, mass rape and other sexual violence, and the forced military recruitment of children.

The limited presence of humanitarian and development organizations is a serious problem, leading to insufficient assistance to displaced people who struggle to have access to basic services. There are 28 sites hosting the displaced in northern Katanga and many more displaced people live in host communities. While UNHCR has built some 1,500 emergency shelters since January, more is needed, including access to health care, potable water, food and education. The following striking photographs by Brian Sokol for UNHCR show some of the despair and suffering.

Human Misery in Katanga Province's Triangle of Death

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

Statelessness Around the World

Edwige Deals With Loss by Keeping Busy and Aiding Others in Mole Camp

Edwige Kpomako is a woman in a hurry; but her energy also helps the refugee from Central African Republic (CAR) to cope with the tragedy that forced her to flee to northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last year. Before violence returned to her country in 2012, the 25-year-old was studying for a Masters in American literature in Bangui, and looking forward to the future. "I started my thesis on the works of Arthur Miller, but because of the situation in CAR . . . ," she said, her voice trailing off. Instead, she had to rush to the DRC with a younger brother, but her fiancée and 10-year old son were killed in the inter-communal violence in CAR.

After crossing the Oubangui River to the DRC, Edwige was transferred to Mole, a camp housing more than 13,000 refugees. In a bid to move on with her life and keep busy, she started to help others, assume a leadership role and take part in communal activities, including the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. She heads the women's committee, is engaged in efforts to combat sexual violence, and acts as a liaison officer at the health centre. She also teaches and runs a small business selling face creams. "I discovered that I'm not weak," said Edwige, who remains optimistic. She is sure that her country will come out of its nightmare and rebuild, and that she will one day become a human rights lawyer helping refugees.

American photojournalist Brian Sokol took these photos.

Edwige Deals With Loss by Keeping Busy and Aiding Others in Mole Camp

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