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Thousands Flee Lawless Central African Republic

  • Lisa Schlein

Armed fighters from the Seleka rebel alliance patrol the streets in pickup trucks to stop looting in Bangui, March 2013.

Armed fighters from the Seleka rebel alliance patrol the streets in pickup trucks to stop looting in Bangui, March 2013.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates 206,000 people now are displaced inside the Central African Republic (CAR), while another 63,000 CAR nationals are refugees in four neighboring countries. This includes more than 4,000 refugees who have fled to southern Chad since mid-July.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said his agency is very concerned about the insecurity in the CAR.

"We have reports on a routine basis of human rights violations of a very serious nature. Reports of rapes, of shootings and other incidents," he said. "The nighttime situation in Bangui itself is one in which people in some cases are telling us they simply are not sleeping at night. They prefer to keep vigilance and on watch and trying to cope by sleeping during the day. So it remains an extremely worrisome situation and CAR retains its reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous countries."

According to UNHCR, two local U.N. staff were attacked and seriously wounded in the capital, Bangui, in the past few days, and the husband of one aid worker was killed.

In rural areas, agency officials said civilians are reportedly organizing vigilante groups to protect themselves from violence by Seleka rebels.

The rebels seized Bangui in March, forcing President Francois Bozize to flee the country. The transitional government has so far been unable to restore law and order, and the situation throughout the country remains largely chaotic and violent.

The UNHCR said humanitarian workers are having difficulty accessing many parts of the country, though it reports that its aid workers have improved access to three refugee camps in central and southern CAR, where more than 11,000 mainly Congolese and Sudanese refugees are living.

Although many areas remain too dangerous to enter, the U.N. Children’s Fund reports emergency teams have been working for the past few weeks to restart health services in two districts hard hit by the ongoing crisis.

UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said this is the first time since fighting between the government and rebels erupted in December that U.N. aid workers have been present for an extended period in the conflict-ravaged interior of the country.

"Through emergency mobile teams, and elsewhere across the country, UNICEF is working with national authorities and partners to restart or rehabilitate basic services wherever security permits," she said. "Late last month we brought in over 50 metric tons of humanitarian supplies. A vaccination campaign that is being rolled out as access opens up has reached almost 200,000 children since May with measles and polio immunization, as well as Vitamin A and de-worming medication."

UNICEF research indicates that CAR has been one of the toughest places for a child to survive, even before the military takeover. UNICEF said conditions for children, if anything, are now worse.

The United Nations is appealing to international donors to support what it calls a forgotten crisis. It says the response to its appeal for $495 million to carry out humanitarian operations this year has been "terrible."

It says only 32 percent of the requested amount, or $62 million, has been received.