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Darfurian Refugees in CAR Receive Welcome in Village Not Camps


A group of Darfurian refugees who recently fled the war in Sudan have gathered across the border in the northern Central African Republic. But rather than living in a displacement camp as is usually the case for refugees, they live on their own, in a small neighborhood, on the outskirts of the town of Birao. Humanitarian workers say they prefer it this way. But the refugees are not so sure. VOA's Nico Colombant reports in this the fourth part on neglect and challenges in the mostly lawless Central African Republic.

Darfurian boys chop wood under midday sun near their neighborhood of straw huts on the outer edges of Birao.

Men return from nearby fields, with radios broadcasting news from Sudan cradled to their ears, while women and their daughters pound maize and prepare food.

Nearby, infants are giggling.

Life seems quiet here, but just half a year ago, the refugees say they were running for their lives.

Oumar Abdulahi explains how after a nearby village to his own was burned down, everyone from his village had to flee. He says the Janjaweed militia in Darfur attack all people with black skin, suspecting they are rebels.

He says it became too dangerous to go to their fields to grow crops, so the entire village of about 300 people has relocated here. They came on their own by foot.

Toby Lanzer, who recently ended his assignment as the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in the Central African Republic, says even though there are several-hundred-thousand displaced people and refugees in the country from Chad, Sudan as well as the CARitself, it has been a strategy not to establish many camps.

"It would be comfortable, let us say, from a logistics standpoint to have people in camps, but in no way is that something that we strive to achieve," Lanzer said. "We have two areas in the country which are camp-like. One with about 3,000 people who have come in from Darfur and another one in north-central areas of the country which now has 6,000 people in it, so it is camp-like."

Lanzer says camps can sometimes create problems rather than solving them.

"In general, most of our aid operation is managing to reach people who are in smaller communities, or in the bush quite close to their homes and this is something which enables them to have a semblance of normality about their life and that is something we really want to sustain until they choose to go home," Lanzer said.

For the group in Birao, that is not going to happen anytime soon, according to their leader, Issouf Abdalah Adou Suleiman.

He says only when the war is really over, and all the refugees from Chad and Central African Republic return, will he even start thinking of taking the people from his village back as well.

But he says, life is less than idyllic in Birao. There is very little aid from the humanitarians, he complains, and food is lacking.

Suleiman makes straw mats which he sells to French peacekeeping forces from the EUFOR contingent, helping secure the border region with Sudan.

The French peacekeepers have their base nearby, which has helped make Birao and the refugees safe. The town itself was attacked and ravaged by Central African rebels in 2007, as part of another of the region's many conflicts which has yet to be resolved.

The self-appointed mayor here, Amed Moustapha, says Darfurian refugees are welcome in Birao, but that he is not sure many more could come because life is very difficult for them, and they do not get much food aid.

He says with prices so high in the local market, it is almost impossible for the refugees to manage two meals a day on their own, with what they earn or grow themselves.

In their neighborhood, as the sun sets on another quiet day, some of the refugee children self-teach themselves verses of the Koran. That is basically the only education they are getting right now.

Other girls sweep in front of their huts or draw water.

Humanitarian health workers say the refugees are healthy. Aid workers stress they treat the refugees like any other residents of Birao not to make any group jealous, but they do seem to get some preferential treatment, like more frequent visits from French peacekeepers to buy things or give them military rations and plastic sheeting from the International Committee of the Red Cross to protect their huts from the frequent downpours in the rainy season.

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