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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Congolese Medics on Call For Refugees

Jean de Dieu, from the Central African Republic (CAR), was on his way to market in mid-January when he was shot. The 24-year-old shepherd and his family had fled their country two months earlier and sought refuge on an island in the Oubangui River belonging to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Sometimes Jean crossed back to check on his livestock, but last week his luck ran out when he went to take an animal to market. A few hours later, in an improvised operating room in Dula, a Congolese border town on the banks of the Oubangui, medics fight to save his life.

Jean's situation is not unique. Over the past two years, war in the Central African Republic has driven more than 850,000 people from their homes. Many have been attacked as they fled, or killed if they tried to return. In neighbouring DRC, medical resources are being stretched to their limits.

Photographer Brian Sokol, on assignment for UNHCR, captured the moment when Jean and others were rushed into the operating theatre. His images bear witness to desperation, grief, family unity and, ultimately, a struggle for survival.

Congolese Medics on Call For Refugees

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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

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