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

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2014: CAR refugees attacked as they flee to Cameroon

Each week 10,000 Muslims cross into eastern Cameroon to escape the violence consuming the Central African Republic (CAR). Many new arrivals report that they have been repeatedly attacked as they fled. The anti-Balaka militiamen have blocked main roads to Cameroon, forcing people to find alternate routes through the bush. Many are walking two to three months to reach Cameroon, arriving malnourished and bearing wounds from machetes and gunshots.

UNHCR and its partners have established additional mobile clinics at entry points to provide emergency care as refugees arrive. The UN refugee agency is also supporting public health centres that have been overwhelmed by the number of refugees and their condition.

Meanwhile, UNHCR has relocated some 20,000 refugees who had been living in the open in the Garoua Bouai and Kenzou border areas, bringing them to new sites at Lolo, Mborguene, Gado and Borgop in the East and Adamwa regions.

Since the beginning of the year, Cameroon has received nearly 70,000 refugees from CAR, adding to the 92,000 who fled in earlier waves since 2004 to escape rebel groups and bandits in the north of their country.

UNHCR staff members Paul Spiegel and Michele Poletto recently travelled to eastern Cameroon and have the following photos to share from their iPhone and camera.

2014: CAR refugees attacked as they flee to Cameroon

Central African Republic: Crossing the Oubangui to Home and Safety

The escalating violence in Central African Republic (CAR) has caught everyone in its web, including refugees from countries such as Chad, Cameroon and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). For the Congolese living in places like the CAR capital, Bangui, or the town of Batalimo, home was just a short trip away across the Oubangui River. UNHCR earlier this year agreed to help those who wished to repatriate due to fear for their safety. The refugee agency has since mid-January facilitated the return home of hundreds of these refugees. The following photographs, taken earlier this month by UNHCR staff members Dalia Al Achi and Hugo Reichenberger, depict the repatriation of a group of 364 Congolese. The refugees portrayed were heading to the riverside town of Zongo in Democratic Republic of the Congo's Equateur province, where they spent a night in a transit centre before continuing to their hometowns. They were relieved to be leaving, and some were in poor health. The decision to return to the country they had fled during the years of civil war from 1996-2003 was not easy. Some 6,000 of the 17,000 Congolese refugees in Central African Republic have registered with UNHCR to go home.

Central African Republic: Crossing the Oubangui to Home and Safety

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

Over the past year, the UN refugee agency has run a series of photosets on its website by American photographer Brian Sokol focusing on the possessions that refugees take with them when they are forced to flee from their homes. We started last August with Sudanese refugees in South Sudan and have since covered refugees from Syria and Mali.

Last year, Sokol visited the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to ask refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) the same question: What is the most important thing you brought with you? He again received interesting answers from a wide range of people from rural and urban areas of CAR, where inter-communal violence has spiralled out of control. They are featured here and include a sandal that helped an old woman, a pair of crutches used by a man to reach safety and a boy's photo of his slain father. Another boy named the family members who escaped to safety with him as his most important possession - many would feel the same.

Tens of thousands of people have fled from CAR to neighbouring countries since December 2012, including 60,000 into northern DRC. Some 30,000 of them live in four refugee camps set up by UNHCR and the others are hosted by local families. For the majority, there was no time to pack before escaping. They fled extreme violence and chaos and arrived exhausted and traumatized in the DRC. They could take only the most essential and lightest belongings. The photos here were taken at Batanga Transit Centre, Boyabo Refugee Camp and Libenge village.

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

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.
Central African Republic : Bangui Airport RefugePlay video

Central African Republic : Bangui Airport Refuge

UNHCR's High Commissioner António Guterres visits Central African Republic and meets internally displaced people in Bangui airport. He says the international community needs to give the CAR crisis the same focus as the emergencies in Syria and South Sudan.