Friendship triumphs over prejudice amid violence in Central African Republic

News Stories, 10 January 2014

© UNHCR/C. Schmitt
The Central African Republic capital, Bangui, seen from Zongo. It seems so near, but it is dangerous to try and cross.

ZONGO, Democratic Republic of the Congo, January 10 (UNHCR) Edgar* looks exhausted. He has just reached the Zongo office of the National Commission for Refugees in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo after crossing the Oubangui River hours earlier to escape the carnage in his native Central African Republic.

He is with his wife, two children and a sister and niece. They have all lost close relatives in the mindless sectarian violence across the river. Edgar lost his parents, while his sister Annie's husband was killed. But the 28-year-old market trader, a Christian, says he would never have escaped without the help of his Muslim neighbour.

Some others tell similar tales of being helped by those resisting efforts to fan religious extremism in a country where sectarian violence had never been a major issue in the waves of unrest and instability that have swept the Central African Republic since independence in 1960.

The landlocked country's latest problems began just over a year ago when the rebel Seleka movement took up arms against the government of President François Bozizé before capturing the capital, Bangui, in March.

Before and after that victory last year, Edgar lived peacefully with his predominantly Muslim neighbours in an area close to the Kina Market in Bangui's third district. But after fresh fighting flared in December, the Muslim Seleka fighters and the Christian Anti-Balaka militias began to target civilians on the basis of religion.

It was all so unexpected, said Edgar, who had just returned from a business trip to Douala, the commercial hub of neighbouring Cameroon, on the eve of the fighting. "On the Thursday morning [December 5] when I wanted to go to the market, the Anti-Balaka people came from the east and the north by foot. They started killing people and targeting the Muslims," he recalled.

He said that the Seleka responded by killing civilians at random. "They killed with weapons and knives . . . They killed all the Central Africans of the area, if you are young, if you are old, they kill you," Edgar explained.

Edgar said he was lucky because a Muslim friend hid him in his house. "He helped me and I was hiding in his house. He covered me. He helped me get out of the area, gave me shoes and the clothes of the Muslims and told the Seleka that I was his brother," he said, adding that he crossed to a Christian area and started to look for his wife, three-year-old boy and daughter, aged 13, who had been in his house with his parents when the violence began.

As Edgar's wife, Lucie,* explained, the Seleka came to the house. "I fled but my husband's parents stayed in the house. A friend helped me. I was hiding in her house. She helped me get out and escorted me to [the office of the Roman Catholic charity] CARITAS," she said.

"In my area now you cannot walk without a veil. Men also cannot walk without the boubou [a flowing robe] of the Muslims. My friend gave me a veil and helped me out of the area," added Lucie. She said she had discovered her husband was still alive because CARITAS let her use a mobile phone and she called him. But his parents were both killed and the house torched.

Despite joint appeals from Muslim and Christian religious leaders in the Central African Republic for an end to the violence between faiths, sectarian killings have continued and scared civilians have risked their lives to flee to neighbouring countries, especially to the DRC.

Once reunited, Edgar and Lucie followed this route across the Oubangui to Zongo, along with his sister Annie,* whose husband and brother were killed as they tried to flee. She and her infant were helped to escape by a Muslim friend.

Finding a place to cross was difficult as armed men patrolled the bank on the Central African Republic side. "We spent the night in an abandoned house in the forest. After the curfew ended at 6 a.m., we found a fisherman I negotiated with him and he helped us cross. We then walked 10 to 12 kilometres to get here," Edgar said. "I have lost everything."

Edgar and his sister also mourn the fact that Christians have been fighting Muslims. "We never had any problems between Muslims and Christians. We are friends. They helped us to hide," said Annie, who blamed the situation on the armed fighters.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is hosting more than 56,000 refugees from the Central African Republic. About 24,000, including Edgar and his family, are in four refugee camps, while the rest stay with local families. "We are very worried about the situation, but we hope that the flow of people into places like Zongo will ease following the resumption this week of aid distributions at Bangui International Airport, thanks to the improved security measures," said Stefano Severe, UNHC's regional representative.

*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

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

New refugees from Central African Republic struggle with ration cuts in southern Chad

Since January 2014, a funding shortfall has forced the World Food Programme (WFP) to cut food rations by 60 per cent in refugee camps in southern Chad. The reduction comes as thousands of refugees from Central African Republic (CAR) continue to arrive in the south - more than 14,000 of them since the beginning of 2014. Many arrive sick, malnourished and exhausted after walking for months in the bush with little food or water. They join some 90,000 other CAR refugees already in the south - some of them for years.

The earlier refugees have been able to gain some degree of self-reliance through agriculture or employment, thus making up for some of the food cuts. But the new arrivals, fleeing the latest round of violence in their homeland, are facing a much harsher reality. And many of them - particularly children - will struggle to survive because WFP has also been forced cut the supplemental feeding programmes used to treat people trying to recover from malnutrition.

WFP needs to raise US$ 186 million to maintain feeding programmes for refugees in Africa through the end of the year. Additionally, UNHCR is urgently seeking contributions towards the US$ 78 million it has budgeted this year for food security and nutrition programmes serving refugees in Africa.

Photojournalist Corentin Fohlen and UNHCR Public Information Officer Céline Schmitt visited CAR refugees in southern Chad to document their plight and how they're trying to cope.

New refugees from Central African Republic struggle with ration cuts in southern Chad

A Central African Refugee's Reunion With Her Sons Brings Joy and Sorrow

The violence and conflict in the Central African Republic has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes since mid-December. Many have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, including 80,000 in Cameroon. During the trauma and confusion of flight, families often become separated. They face many dangers on the way to safety, and their journey can take many weeks. Ramatou, a 45-year-old mother of 11 children, was separated from three of her sons and her husband when militiamen attacked her village in January. She ran in one direction with eight children and eventually made it to Cameroon with the help of African Union peace-keepers. Her husband and three sons ran in a different direction and endured many ordeals in the bush, becoming separated again. Earlier this month, Ramatou was reunited in Cameroon's Mbile Refugee Camp with the two youngest boys. She was overjoyed, but dismayed that they were on their own. She still hopes for her husband and eldest son to turn up. Photographer Fred Noy was there at the emotional reunion.

A Central African Refugee's Reunion With Her Sons Brings Joy and Sorrow

Joint Appeal: Help Needed for Central African RefugeesPlay video

Joint Appeal: Help Needed for Central African Refugees

The UN refugee agency and its partners appealed for more donor support to cope with the continuing outflow and deteriorating condition of refugees from the Central African Republic.
UNHCR's Dr. Paul Spiegel on the Border of CAR  and CameroonPlay video

UNHCR's Dr. Paul Spiegel on the Border of CAR and Cameroon

This video was shot by one of our staff* using a mobile phone as they helped refugees who had crossed the river to safety.
Central African Republic: Torn CommunitiesPlay video

Central African Republic: Torn Communities

For more than a year, inter-communal strife has displaced tens of thousands of people in the Central African Republic. But amid the violence, efforts are being made to promote reconciliation.