The Many Faces of CAR’s Displaced

Muslim and Christian, men and women, young and old, urban and rural. My colleague Mark Yarnell and I have spent the last two weeks meeting with internally displaced people (IDPs) across the Central African Republic and with those living across the border as refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We’ve visited those living in both formal camps and in informal sites, including churches, mosques, urban centers, and with host communities. Speaking with dozens of IDPs and refugees, we heard unconscionable stories of suffering and horrific accounts of violence. Many felt hopeless about their futures after living in terrible conditions for years. But others were more optimistic, and told us of their hopes to return home and rebuild their lives.

There is a general perception that the situation in CAR has improved since the peak of the violence last year. But as we spoke with refugees and IDPs, we learned that violence continues to flare up in many locations across the country. MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping force, has been credited as bringing stability to some parts of CAR. But as troop numbers are limited, MINUSCA is not able to patrol and secure every village in the country. Periodic violence continues, and with it, fresh displacement. 

The overwhelming story we heard from the displaced, whether Muslim or Christian, urban IDP or refugee, was that it was not safe to go home.

One of the more powerful stories we heard was from a woman living as a refugee in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Clara* lived with her husband and three children in a village south of the town of Bambari. Clara’s husband was a fisherman and sold to everyone in the village, including members of the ex-Seleka (an amalgamation of mostly Muslim groups responsible for overthrowing the government in 2013). Just two months ago, anti-Balaka militants (predominantly Christian groups who have fought against the Seleka since the conflict began) killed her husband for selling fish to the ex-Seleka. While some groups of anti-Balaka formed as local groups to protect their communities, many used their newfound status to terrorize villages and gain control of land, resources, and power. After killing her husband, this particular group returned to attack Clara’s home while she was in mourning. She felt it was no longer safe for her to remain in her village, so she fled with her children.

Clara spent a day walking with her three young infants to Kuongo, a border town near the DRC. She crossed into the DRC, but was unaware there was a camp for CAR refugees nearby. Clara continued her journey by pirogue, a sort of dug-out canoe, to another DRC border crossing up the river. She was processed at a transit center by UNHCR and moved inland to the Mole camp, where she now resides as a refugee. Clara is just one of the estimated over 90,000 Central African refugees residing in the DRC.

In another part of CAR, six hours west of the capital Bangui, the town of Boda is in a period of tentative calm after horrific violence swept across the mining town last year. Muslim and Christian IDPs live in segregated zones in the city. The Muslim section is often referred to as an “enclave” due to the fact that Muslim IDPs cannot venture more than three kilometers outside for security reasons. Mark and I visited a group of Muslims from the Peuhl ethnic group, a usually nomadic herding group. This particular group of Peuhl were sedentary and had lived in villages outside of town before anti-Balaka militants destroyed their homes. Now they live within the Muslim community in Boda, and fear for their lives should they leave the enclave.

The overwhelming story we heard from the displaced, whether Muslim or Christian, urban IDP or refugee, was that it was not safe to go home. And for many, there is nothing to go home to. Until security improves and homes are rebuilt, this precarious existence of temporary assistance, makeshift shelters, and day-to-day living will be the reality for CAR’s displaced.

*Name has been changed to protect her identity