As situation worsens, UN refugee agency sends more staff to Central African Republic

Displaced people living in UNHCR tents at the Bangui Airport, Central African Republic (CAR), where they found shelter from the violence. Photo: UNHCR/S. Phelps

17 December 2013 – The United Nations refugee agency said today it has deployed additional emergency teams in the Central African Republic (CAR), where some 210,000 people have been forcibly displaced by violence in the last two weeks in the embattled capital, Bangui.

“In Bangui, our staff are reporting continued shooting and a mood of widespread fear,” Adrian Edwards, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters in Geneva.

He added that on Monday, on the outskirts of the city, UNHCR staff came across some 40,000 people who had been uprooted on 5 and 6 December, but who had been out of reach till now because of heavy fighting.

To escape the fighting and insecurity, hundreds of people fled over the weekend by boat across the Oubangui River to Zongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), even though the border is officially closed and they risked being shot at. There are now nearly 3,300 CAR refugees who have arrived by boat to DRC since 5 December.

Many of the new arrivals report witnessing atrocities, Mr. Edwards said, including killing, looting and breaking into homes. Many told UNHCR that some displaced people camping at Bangui airport were planning to join them in Zongo.

“At Bangui airport, we have had to temporarily suspend aid distribution because of security incidents, some of which are related to sectarian violence,” said Mr. Edwards.

After the Séléka coalition forced President François Bozizé to flee in March, a transitional government was entrusted with restoring peace and paving the way for democratic elections, but armed clashes have erupted again, sometimes on religious grounds with Christians and Muslims launching reprisal attacks against each other in numerous places in Bangui.

Violence was also reported in the town of Bossangoa, some 400 kilometres north-west of Bangui. UN security officials reported that militias had looted shops and burned houses in the northern part of the town – largely populated by Muslims – over the weekend.

Some 5,600 people have been displaced since renewed fighting started between the anti-Balaka self-defence forces and former Séléka rebels almost a fortnight ago. The newly displaced have joined the more than 4,000 people already staying on the premises of the overcrowded Liberté School.

“We continue to hear of attacks against Christians by former Séléka, with looting, killing and houses being set on fire,” Mr. Edwards stated. In addition to the school, 40,000 people have found sanctuary inside Bossangoa’s sprawling Roman Catholic church since September, he said.

“Tensions are reported at the church between the regional African force known as FOMAC and anti-Balaka youth who are resisting disarmament,” he reported. “The youth are armed with agricultural tools and machetes but have refused to surrender them.”

Meanwhile, UNHCR is extremely concerned by the presence of armed men within sites hosting displaced people. The agency has asked that French and African troops step up patrols in troubled neighbourhoods and in the makeshift sites.

More than 710, 000 people have been uprooted within CAR since the current crisis began a year ago, while over 75,000 others have fled into exile, according to UNHCR.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said today it has reached 17 out of 24 sites for displaced people in and around Bangui as of 15 December. It was providing food to some 40,000 people taking refuge at the airport. The distributions started on 13 December, halted over the weekend for security reasons, and are due to resume today.

Yesterday in Bossangoa, nearly 3,000 beneficiaries received 42 tons of food. WFP is currently assisting displaced persons at three sites where both Muslim and Christian displaced people were gathered.

The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, warned that health needs in the country – which already had the worst health indicators in the world prior to the present crisis – were “great” and growing by the day, while many facilities were not functioning at all.

Owing to insecurity, medical staff are not going to work, and there is a chronic lack of medicine and a drop in the immunization rates. WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic told reporters that almost 80 per cent of the vaccination centres are out of order. There was an epidemic of measles that had affected 15 out of 22 districts as well as a fresh outbreak of malaria.

He said WHO will soon open two more field offices, but for the moment the security situation did not permit them to reopen their office in Bossangoa. Since the beginning of the year, WHO has provided 200,000 people with medicine, and is trying to set up an ambulance service.


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