By M. Farman-Farmaian in Bekoninga, 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.