Desperation drives Central African civilians to risk river route to safety

News Stories, 17 December 2013

© UNHCR/M.L.Diop
People are still risking the journey by boat to Zongo in Democratic Republic of Congo. Here a group prepares to move from Zongo to Mole refugee camp.

ZONGO, Democratic Republic of the Congo, December 17 (UNHCR) On the banks of the Oubangui River, a Congolese customs officer looks across to the Central African Republic, possibly expecting a boat to heave into sight full of people fleeing from the unstable city on the other side.

Even though the river border between the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo has been officially closed since December 8, significant numbers of people risk their lives every day to make the 2-kilometre crossing from Bangui, where violence and killing continues to spread widespread fear.

On Monday, a total 1,815 people who had made the crossing since Friday, were registered in Zongo on the Democratic Republic of the Congo side of the river. Another 175 were registered on Tuesday. Most were women and children, and many said they fled to DRC after seeing armed men killing and beating civilians. Food shortages also spurred people to flee.

Bangui seems so close; the spire of St Paul's, where thousands have sought shelter from the violence, can be clearly seen from Zongo, which is normally only five minutes away by speedboat. But despite the arrival of extra UN peace-keeping troops in Bangui, most people don't dare make that trip for fear of being shot.

Desire*, aged 23, is one of the hundreds who have made the crossing. "I arrived this morning at nine," he told UNHCR at the weekend. "I crossed in a pirogue. I was lying hidden in the pirogue because I was scared to be shot", he added.

He was right to be worried. Louise*, who also made the journey at the weekend with close relatives, said that fighters of the Seleka coalition that captured Bangui in March were trying to kill people who attempted the crossing. "We saw them shoot people yesterday afternoon around 3 p.m. when we first tried to cross," said the 26-year-old, whose husband and brother were killed in Bangui a week ago.

Many newly arrived refugees in Zongo said the situation was very dangerous in Bangui, reporting conflict and killings that were causing people to flee their homes in desperation. "This morning, there was fighting. The Seleka came to our district. They tortured people and killed them," said Desire. "I fled. My family fled, everyone fled, but I don't know their destination. I arrived here alone. I have no one here."

Anna*, who crossed the river with a baby daughter three days before the border was closed, said she had fled because the situation in Bangui had become unbearable. She and her neighbours ran when armed men turned up without warning in her district and started the killing.

"I fled with the neighbours. We went to the river and we crossed on a pirogue," Anna recalled, adding that she was worried about her businessman husband and her two other children. "When we fled, the children were at school. Until now I don't know where they are."

Many of the refugees that UNHCR spoke to in Zongo said the Democratic Republic of the Congo was the only place they felt safe in. "I know that here in Zongo, I am in safety," stressed Desire. Many fear an escalation in sectarian violence.

After their arrival in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, refugees are registered by the National Commission for Refugees and relocated to Mole refugee camp, a site holding some 5,200 refugees about two hours by bus from Zongo.

In Mole, the refugees receive emergency assistance, including shelter, blankets, sleeping mats, jerry cans, kitchen sets, soap and food. Others prefer to stay with host families in Zongo, waiting for better days in Bangui, but many eventually decide to go to the refugee camp.

They hope things will improve and that the river reopens to peace-time trade. "When Bangui is calm again, I will return. I don't know if calm times will come back soon," said Anna.

Since the conflict started a year ago, more than 48,000 refugees have crossed into the northern province of Democratic Republic of the Congo. UNHCR has opened four refugee camps; three in Equateur province and one in Orientale province. As of today, nearly 20,000 refugees have been relocated to the refugee camps.

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Céline Schmitt in Zongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

Central African Republic: Urgent Appeal

You can help save the lives of thousands of refugees

Donate to this crisis

DR Congo Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Intense fighting has forced more than 64,000 Congolese to flee the country in recent months.

Donate to this crisis

Internally Displaced People

The internally displaced seek safety in other parts of their country, where they need help.

Related Internet Links

UNHCR is not responsible for the content and availability of external internet sites

Displaced in North Kivu: A Life on the Run

Fighting rages on in various parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with seemingly no end in sight for hundreds of thousands of Congolese forced to flee violence and instability over the past two years. The ebb and flow of conflict has left many people constantly on the move, while many families have been separated. At least 1 million people are displaced in North Kivu, the hardest hit province. After years of conflict, more than 1,000 people still die every day - mostly of hunger and treatable diseases. In some areas, two out of three women have been raped. Abductions persist and children are forcefully recruited to fight. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases have increased as the situation deteriorates and humanitarian agencies struggle to respond to the needs of the displaced.

When the displacement crisis worsened in North Kivu in 2007, the UN refugee agency sent emergency teams to the area and set up operations in several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Assistance efforts have also included registering displaced people and distributing non-food aid. UNHCR carries out protection monitoring to identify human rights abuses and other problems faced by IDPs in North and South Kivu.

Displaced in North Kivu: A Life on the Run

Displaced by Fresh Fighting in North Kivu

Waves of fighting in eastern Democratic of the Republic since late April have displaced tens of thousands of people. Many have become internally displaced within the province, while others have fled to south-west Uganda's Kisoro district or to Rwanda via the Goma-Gisenyi crossing.

The stop-start clashes between government forces and renegade soldiers loyal to former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda began in the province's Masisi and Walikale territories, but subsequently shifted to Rutshuru territory, which borders Uganda.

Between May 10-20, one of UNHCR's local NGO partners registered more than 40,000 internally displaced people (IDP) in Jomba and Bwesa sectors.

The IDPs are living in difficult conditions, staying in school buildings and churches or with host families. They lack food and shelter and have limited access to health facilities. Some of the displaced have reported cases of extortion, forced labour, beatings and recruitment of minors to fight.

UNHCR and other major aid organizations plan to distribute food, medicine and other aid. More than 300,000 people have been forcibly displaced in North and South Kivu since the start of the year, according to UN figures.

Displaced by Fresh Fighting in North Kivu

Shelter for the Displaced in Yemen

The port city of Aden in southern Yemen has long been a destination for refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants after making the dangerous sea crossing from the Horn of Africa. Since May 2011, Aden also has been providing shelter to tens of thousands of Yemenis fleeing fighting between government forces and armed groups in neighbouring Abyan governorate.

Most of the 157,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from Abyan have found shelter with friends and relatives, but some 20,000 have been staying in dozens of public schools and eight vacant public buildings. Conditions are crowded with several families living together in a single classroom.

Many IDPs expected their displacement would not be for long. They wish to return home, but cannot do so due to the fighting. Moreover, some are fearful of reprisals if they return to areas where many homes were destroyed or severely damaged in bombings.

UNHCR has provided emergency assistance, including blankets, plastic sheeting and wood stoves, to almost 70,000 IDPs from Abyan. Earlier this year, UNHCR rehabilitated two buildings, providing shelter for 2,000 people and allowing 3,000 children, IDPs and locals, to resume schooling in proper classrooms. UNHCR is advocating with the authorities for the conversion of additional public buildings into transitional shelters for the thousands of IDPs still living in schools.

Photographer Pepe Rubio Larrauri travelled to Aden in March 2012 to document the day-to-day lives of the displaced.

Shelter for the Displaced in Yemen

Iraq: The Generous GiverPlay video

Iraq: The Generous Giver

An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis have been internally displaced since the beginning of the year, with nearly half seeking refuge in the Kurdistan Region. As weary families began pouring into Dohuk, one local businessman built them a small camp equipped with tents, water, sanitation and electricity.
UNHCR Meet: Nation of the DisplacedPlay video

UNHCR Meet: Nation of the Displaced

UNHCR's governing body, at its annual meeting, draws attention to the increasing numbers of displaced and the challenges of protecting and assisting them. The number of forcibly displaced people is equivalent to the 26th largest nation on earth.
Ukraine: Displaced at Home Play video

Ukraine: Displaced at Home

In Eastern Ukraine, officially hundreds of thousands have left their homes, including Tamara who found herself in exile in her own town.