UN refugee agency staff in the Central African Republic believe that 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,” a UNHCR spokesman said. He added that on Monday, on the outskirts of the city, “We came across some 40,000 people who had been uprooted on the 5th and 6th of 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 even though the border is officially closed and they risked being shot at. By official count, 1,815 people reached Zongo, bringing to 3,292 the total number of Central African Republic (CAR) refugees to have arrived there by boat since December 5.
Many of the new arrivals report witnessing atrocities, including killing, looting, 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,” the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, 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 over the weekend. The area is largely populated by Muslims.
Some 5,600 people have been displaced since renewed fighting started between the self-styled Anti-Balaka self-defence forces and fighters of the former Seleka rebel movement 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 Seleka, with looting, killing and houses being set on fire. As well as at the school, since September 40,000 people have found sanctuary inside Bossangoa’s sprawling Roman Catholic church,” the UNHCR spokesman said.
Tensions are reported at the church between members of a regional African peace-keeping force and the militia groups, who are resisting disarmament. They are armed with agricultural tools and machetes, but have refused to hand them over.
Meanwhile, UNHCR said it was 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.
Tensions also remain in Paoua, some 130 km from Bossangoa, and nearby Beboura, where hundreds of civilians have reportedly sought shelter in the bush.
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.