29 August 2014

Cameroon: The 10-Year-Old Leading a Family Following the Death of her Parents

press release

The Timangolo refugee host site in East Cameroon was still under construction when we visited it. More than 700 new refugees from the Gbiti transit site had just been transferred there.

Back then, this site was playing host to more than 10,000 other refugees who had been settled for several weeks, waiting to be transferred to their permanent relocation sites.

The new residents of Timangolo could now heave a sigh of relief, as they had finally regained some measure of family privacy, as could be read on their faces, and each family was busy constructing their shelter. Amid this setting was Zeinabou, aged 10, whose parents had been killed in the fighting in Central African Republic, who also had to construct a shelter for her four younger siblings, in her capacity as family head.

As a newcomer, she had also received food rations, mats and mosquito nets, and was tightly holding her family registration ticket in her frail hand. The importance of this piece of paper that entitled the family to various assistance services seemed to have dawned on her.

However, despite all the seriousness with which Zeinabou assembled the recently received installation materials, her eyes spoke volumes about how difficult it will be to put everything together to prepare sleeping space for her younger brothers and herself. Worse of all, Zeinabou could not rely on her younger brothers to do the job.

They were lined up behind her as a sign of dependence, except 5-year-old Daouda, the youngest, who had huddled against Zeinabou, with his face buried in her loincloth. This touching scene lasted a few minutes, then came the reassuring sound of Awoudou Souari's voice, a next-door neighbour, who had come in to lend a helping hand to the young family. This man, who was now the guardian of the little family, recounted the heart-breaking circumstances surrounding the demise of Zeinabou's parents.

"We are all from the village of Boudai in Central African Republic. Zeinabou's parents and I were neighbours. When fighting broke out in our village, we fled with our families into the forest. Unfortunately, the forest was not an obstacle for the fighters who continued their manhunt. Thus, while crossing a river near the border with Cameroon, Zeinabou's parents were murdered, leaving behind five children, with Zeinabou being the eldest. Since we arrived Cameroon, I've been doing my best to look after these children, in addition to my seven children and two wives. It's not easy for us," Awoudou said.

Before arriving the Timangolo camp, Zeinabou's and Awoudou's families were living at the Gbiti temporary site with hundreds of other refugees. These families lacked food and decent shelter to sleep in. "There were times when we had nothing to eat. We would then go begging in the village. Zeinabou and her brothers sometimes cried at night, calling out for their parents in despair. My two wives have always been present for them in these times of extreme anxiety. In order to get drinking water, we had to go back to the Gbiti health centre, situated a few kilometres from our resettlement site," Awoudou continued sadly.

The case of Zeinabou and her brothers is one case among hundreds of others recorded at the resettlement sites. Most of these children either lost their parents in the fighting or separated from them while fleeing.

According to UNHCR figures, in the East and Adamawa Regions of Cameroon, the number of new refugees, victims of the violence in Central African Republic, is estimated at more than 106,000. Most of them have integrated the local population, where they live in precarious conditions. They need food, shelter, clean water and health care.

Statistics show that children account for 57 percent of the refugees arriving Cameroon and whose health and nutrition needs are urgent, as they constitute the leading cause of deaths among refugees as reflected in the very high mortality rate estimated by UNHCR at 7 per 10,000 per day. Thirty-six per cent of these deaths are caused by severe acute malnutrition.

At the Yokadouma host site, more than 13 cases of unaccompanied children have been recorded by Red Cross teams. Cameroon Red Cross services responsible for restoring family links have put in place a mechanism for identifying such cases and tracing the parents or relatives who may have settled in another site in Cameroon, or in another country.

As part of its emergency appeal to support the actions of the Cameroon Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies is still providing assistance to 25,000 most vulnerable refugees through shelter construction, distribution of food and non-food items, emergency health, access to drinking water and sanitation and psychosocial support for families.

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