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UNHCR chief decries "humanitarian catastrophe" in CAR, including massive ethno-religious cleansing

News Stories, 12 February 2014

© UNHCR/H.Reichenberger
High Commissioner António Guterres meets a forcibly displaced woman at the airport site in Bangui for internally displaced people. The Muslim woman told Guterres that she had lost everything and had no desire to remain any longer in Central African Republic.

BANGUI, Central African Republic, February 12 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Wednesday said he was "deeply distressed" about the situation in Central African Republic and described what he had seen during a brief visit to the country as "a humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions."

In a statement released in Bangui, he said that he was concerned because "nearly half-a-million Central Africans have been newly displaced [by fighting and generalized violence] since December alone. In all, 2.5 millions are in desperate need." He added that "massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing" and this was all the more tragic because of the country's centuries-old tradition of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians.

Guterres, who met internally displaced Muslims and Christians in Bangui as well as repatriating Congolese, religious leaders, top government officials, international peace-keepers, diplomats and humanitarian aid partners during his 24-hour visit, called on the international community to act urgently to help build sustainable peace and stability in the Central African Republic.

"The Central African Republic is falling through the cracks of international attention. This cannot be allowed to happen. The country needs the same focus that is being put on Syria and South Sudan," said the High Commissioner, who specifically called for an increase in the number of foreign troops and police on the ground in the capital, Bangui, and other parts of the country.

The conflict in CAR escalated in December 2012, when the Seleka rebel coalition began fighting the government before capturing Bangui and ousting President François Bozizé in March last year. Months of brutality against civilians followed before wide-scale fighting erupted again in December between the predominantly Muslim Seleka and the mainly Christian Anti-Balaka militias. This was marked by attacks on people based on religion, triggering massive population displacement.

Decrying the "indiscriminate killings and massacres," Guterres noted that tens of thousands of people were fleeing to neighbouring countries while others are trapped. He added that "massive ethno-religious cleansing is continuing."

The High Commissioner said that the country needed international help because although a new government had recently been formed, "it still cannot effectively protect its citizens. It is imperative to re-establish security, law and order."

In his statement and during talks on Tuesday with Christian and Muslim leaders, Guterres stressed the importance of restoring harmony. "Acting in concert, particularly with the support of religious leaders, all actors must enhance mediation and pave the way for the restoration of peace and sustainable reconciliation," he stressed.

UNHCR has been increasingly collaborating with religious leaders, who are instrumental in protecting populations at risk and fighting against religious intolerance. These same religious leaders, and a number of others, however, are now coming under threat for their actions.

On Tuesday, Guterres and France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian opened a community night shelter in Bangui's volatile 5th District. Many people in the district stay at home during the day but feel unsafe at night and seek shelter elsewhere. This project, implemented by UNHCR partner ACTED, allows people to stay close to home and in safety.

"We are so scared to go back at night when we hear shooting and screaming. But at the same time, so tired of living in terrible conditions. We hope this centre will help us find the way home," a community leader told the visitors.

Guterres then visited the vast settlement that sprang up in December at Bangui's Mpoko Airport, which now has an estimated population of about 100,000. About half of them come from the 5th District. He met members of both the Muslim and Christian communities during this visit before bidding farewell to a group of Congolese refugees waiting to cross the Oubangui River to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

At the airport, widow Zainaba said she had arrived there with her four children 10 days earlier after a terrible ordeal. "I lost everything; my home, my flesh, my identity. My kids sleep on the floor," she told Guterres. "We need your help, we need security. We live in constant fear of being killed."

The High Commissioner also met UNHCR staff and praised humanitarian aid workers for all they have done in Central African Republic under extreme circumstances. "We are all however facing dramatic underfunding. Our resources are overwhelmed and ability to do more hampered," he added, in another clear call to the donor community to step up assistance.

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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.