Thousands flee violence in Central African Republic and seek shelter in in southern Chad

News Stories, 17 February 2014

© UNHCR/F.Farman
These colourfully dressed Central African Republic refugees have just arrived in Chad.

BEKONINGA, Chad, February 17 (UNHCR) As the humanitarian situation deteriorates in Central African Republic, thousands of traumatized and confused people have been fleeing to towns and villages across neighbouring southern Chad.

At the border crossing of Bekoninga, a crowd of mostly women and children was gathered under mango trees, the latest of some 6,000 people who have arrived in southern Chad at various crossing points, including Sido in the east and Bitoye near the border with Cameroon.

Mobile UNHCR teams, working with the local authorities, regularly visit these border entry points to monitor arrivals, pre-register them and arrange for their transfer to a refugee camp. The group at Bekoninga will be going to Dosseye camp, about 30 kilometres away, where they will be provided with documentation, shelter, food, drinking water and health care.

But at the border crossing, open only to pedestrian traffic, they looked anxious and tired; even the children seemed distressed. They were among tens of thousands of people who have fled increasingly brutal attacks, mainly targeting people on the base of their religion.

"Armed men wearing masks came with machetes and killed everyone in our village, men, women and children," said Adija*, a woman in her 60s from the western CAR town of Paoua. "We don't know why," she added.

Some of the refugees spent weeks walking to safety and many became separated from their families in the mad scramble to escape from the armed groups. "I don't know where my sister and her children are, we were separated as we ran into the bush," said Halima*, a mother of three from Paoua. "They may be in Cameroon."

Mahamat*, aged 25, had come all the way from the Central African Republic capital, Bangui, taking more than a month to make the perilous journey after narrowly escaping death at the hands of members of the former Seleka rebel coalition. But the university student's loss was great,

He said that when the latest wave of violence erupted in early December, "The Seleka came into our home one evening, killed my parents and burned down the house." Mahamat managed to jump over the wall and stayed with his neighbour for several days before heading north on foot.

"I tried to avoid main roads. I really didn't think I would make it to Chad," he said. "Once in Chad, I wanted to keep going until I reached Gore [near the Bekoninga crossing], but the authorities told me that UNHCR was coming here," he added. He was waiting for the next convoy to Dosseye camp, where he hopes to find some stability. "At least I will be able to eat," he said with a smile.

More than 13,000 people fled Central African Republic into southern Chad last year. Since the start of December, some 5,700 have crossed the border, with about 5,000 transferred to the refugee camps of Dosseye (4,000) and Belom. UNHCR is anticipating the arrival of many more refugees in coming weeks.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visited Bangui last week and described what he had seen there as "a humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions." He said "massive ethno-religious cleansing" was continuing and he called for more foreign soldiers and police to be sent to the country to try and restore peace and end the killing.

In 2013, UNHCR registered some 15,000 newly arrived refugees from Central African Republic, bringing the total population of Central African refugees in Chad to more than 80,000.

*Names changed for protection reasons.

By M. Farman-Farmaian in Bekoninga, Chad

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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

Food cuts in Chad camps expose refugee women and children to exploitation, abuse

A funding shortfall has forced the World Food Programme (WFP) to cut food rations in refugee camps in eastern Chad by up to 60 per cent. As a result, Sudanese refugees in 13 camps in the east now receive about 850 calories per day, down from the minimum ration of 2,100 calories daily they used to get. The refugees are finding it difficult to cope. Clinics in the area report a significant spike in malnutrition cases, with rates as high as 19.5 per cent in Am Nabak camp.

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.

In the meantime, the refugees experiencing ration cuts have few options. Poor soil quality, dry conditions and little access to water mean they can't plant supplemental crops as refugees in the less arid south of Chad are able to do. To try to cope, many refugee women in eastern Chad are leaving the camps in search of work in surrounding towns. They clean houses, do laundry, fetch water and firewood and work as construction labourers. Even so, they earn very little and often depend on each other for support. In the town of Iriba, for example, some 50 refugee women sleep rough each night under a tree and share their some of their meagre earnings to pay for a daily, communal meal.

They are also subject to exploitation. Sometimes, their temporary employers refuse to pay them at the end of the day. And some women and girls have resorted to prostitution to earn money to feed their families.

Ration cuts can have an impact far beyond health, reverberating through the entire community. It is not uncommon for children to be pulled out of school on market days in order to work. Many refugees use a portion of their food rations to barter for other essentials, or to get cash to pay school fees or buy supplies for their children. Small business owners like butchers, hairdressers and tailors - some of them refugees - also feel the pinch.

WFP supplies food to some 240,500 Sudanese refugees in the camps of eastern Chad. Many have been in exile for years and, because of their limited opportunities for self-sufficiency, remain almost totally dependent on outside help. The ration cuts have made an already difficult situation much worse for refugees who were already struggling.

Food cuts in Chad camps expose refugee women and children to exploitation, abuse

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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.