UNHCR) – Forty-year-old Adidja* recently flew out of the Central African Republic (CAR), her home for decades, with a heavy heart and a terrible sense of loss.
“I have a feeling that I am leaving a part of myself behind. At the same time, I know I will never return to this country,” she had told the refugee agency last month when she, her ailing husband and 10 of their children turned up at the UNHCR office in Bangui to board a bus for the airport and a flight back to Chad, more than 30 years after her family fled conflict there. The latest outbreak of violence in CAR in December between rival armed groups proved too much.
Adidja and her family were among a group of 201 Chadian refugees, mostly from the capital N’Djamena and Am-Timan in the south, who were voluntarily repatriated on January 19 under a programme launched days earlier by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. Frightened refugees from Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan have also registered to repatriate and some 400 Congolese are scheduled to return home by boat across the Oubangui River later this week.
At the UNHCR office, Adidja was stressed. Aside from the trauma of displacement and concerns about the future, she was desperately worried about her 15-year-old son, Karim. “One day [December 5], he just left to meet his uncle at the mosque, but he never returned,” she said, fearing the worst.
The conflict in Central African Republic has left more than 900,000 people internally displaced while an estimated 86,000 have fled the country. The roots of the current inter-communal conflict are complicated and, in recent weeks, the situation has been exacerbated by individual and mob violence as well as banditry.
For Adidja, December 5 will be the day that her life came tumbling down, “the day that CAR changed from being our home, to being our deathbed.” She was referring specifically to reprisal attacks by the two main communities, which had long lived together in harmony, that led to the violence spiralling out of control.
Convinced that her son was dead, Adidja asserted that “he was killed because of his religion.” Much of the recent violence perpetrated by members of the predominantly Muslim Seleka rebel group and the Christian “Anti-Balaka” militia has targeted people of the two faiths. Religious leaders have made joint calls on people to halt the violence.
This development has come as a shock for refugees like Adidja, who had fully integrated into Central African life after living for decades in the country, where she sold fruit and vegetables in Bangui. The welcoming country of asylum had suddenly become a place filled with threats and danger.
The conflict put the refugees in a precarious situation because Chadians are perceived by many people as taking sides in the conflict.
As the situation deteriorated, Adidja and many other scared refugees, expressed their wish to go back to their homeland. Under the voluntary repatriation programme, the Chadians will be taken to N’Djamena and given a cash grant to help them reintegrate in Chad, a country that some have never seen.
But although Adidja was relieved to be leaving for a safer destination, she said she would miss the friends she left behind. Before contacting UNHCR, she and her family had been hiding in the house of their Christian neighbour with just one case of belongings – the rest of their possessions were looted. The friend brought them to the UNHCR office.
Facing an uncertain future, she told UNHCR that she wanted to start a new life in her place of origin, Sarh, which is Chad’s third largest city. It is located some 350 kilometres south-east of N’Djamena near the border with Central African Republic.
* Name changed for protection reasons
By Bernard Ntwari in Bangui, Central African Republic