Central African Republic: Refugees in Cameroon Fear Returning Home

Garoua-Boulaè — Settled in eastern Cameroon where they fled to escape masked attackers who hacked off people's ears, killed, kidnapped and raped with impunity, 45,000 refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) do not envisage going home.

"We will never return to CAR, even if it finds peace," said Aladji Abdoulaye Gidjo Garga, father of a refugee family whose children have been kidnapped several times. "We will never be able to forget everything we suffered," he told IRIN in Borongo, a small village in Eastern Province.

Northern CAR has seen a brutal conflict between the national army and rebel groups that have burned hundreds of villages and displaced more than 300,000 people - over 7 percent of the country's population - with no end to the conflict in sight.

However, refugees in Cameroon to the west tell a different story. They say in western CAR it is bandits - armed, masked, dressed in black or in military getup and known locally as 'coupeurs de route' or 'zaraguinas' - that are making normal life impossible.

So brutal was the violence against them that some of the refugees who escaped from western CAR are certain of one thing: they will never be able to face going home.

Observers suspect the attackers are former rebels or even disguised military, but their identities remain unknown.

The violence is still happening. Some villages in Cameroon receive 20 new refugees every day. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 7-10,000 more refugees will settle in Cameroon "in the near future".

On 28 November, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) called for more international assistance for Cameroon to help it deal with the influx.

Mbororo ethnic group targeted

The refugees, members of the Mbororo ethnic group, are mostly nomadic pastoralists. The attackers consider them rich because of their livestock. They kidnap their children for ransom. If unpaid, they execute their hostages.

"All our neighbours have lost children because they didn't have the means to pay the 'zaraguinas'," said Garga, whose family originates from Ouham Prefecture in CAR.

Those who are kidnapped tell of being left for days in the sun without water, hands and feet tied. Some were beaten until they lost consciousness; others had their throats slit.

Abdoul, a shepherd, had his ears cut off when his boss refused to pay the abductors. He sought refuge a few months ago in Garoua-Boulaï, a small border town that is hosting about 3,500 refugees.

Some families said they had been subjected to kidnappings up to 20 times. Others had their children kidnapped several times.

"I would die before returning to CAR," said refugee Oussamanou, who has been in Cameroon since 2005, when refugees first started arriving.

The attackers have followed them into Cameroon. Deployment of a national military battalion at the beginning of the year has reduced the number of incursions, but there have, nonetheless, been several incidents. The latest took place in June, when attackers kidnapped about 20 people in the border town of Ngaoui, in Adamaoua Province.

Lost livelihoods

A few steps from his new home in Garoua-Boulaï, Oussamanou has begun making mud bricks for a living.

The cattle herders here say they have no hope of returning to their migratory way of life, for lack of means. Families of abducted children had no choice but to sell their herd to pay the kidnappers - sometimes resulting in losses of several hundred cattle. Most refugees arrive in Cameroon empty handed.

Settled on the periphery of Cameroonian villages, and grouping themselves by region of origin, they are trying to build new sedentary lives, based mostly on agriculture, but also on small money-making schemes.

"I collect wood and scrub to resell them downtown," one refugee explained.

UN support

Many of the refugees depend on the help of the UN, which has been distributing food, blankets and tarpaulin since July. "The objective is to make them self-sustainable again," said the head of the UNHCR in Cameroon, Jacques Franquin.

But it is not easy. The refugees have settled over a widespread area and UNHCR has not yet been to all the sites to register them. It was only a few months ago that the agency realised there were double the number of refugees in Cameroon than it had previously thought, and between May and October an additional 23,000 people were registered.

While the UN food assistance is "vital", according to one refugee, he hopes not to need it one day. "We need small agricultural inputs in order to become independent."

Like the others, this refugee wants to forget CAR, where he no longer has any family. "Everyone has left the country," he said, adding that if others have not yet done so, it is because they cannot afford to transport their families across the border.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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