GENEVA — The United Nations refugee agency reports thousands of refugees fleeing the Central African Republic are arriving in Cameroon in horrific condition. Two senior officials who have just visited the region say the refugees report anti-Balaka militiamen are trying to prevent civilians from leaving the C.A.R. and are attacking them along the way.
"So, what we see…You can see the other side there. It is not too far. You see refugees walking over. This day, over 1,000 actually came over," said Paul Spiegel.
Spiegel, a medical officer and senior manager for the U.N. refugee agency, describes video taken at a border crossing between Central African Republic and Cameroon. He is watching refugees traverse a shallow river from the C.A.R. into Gbiti, in Cameroon.
“If you look, it looks as if their legs, their knees are actually quite swollen. But, they are not. It is that you have severe malnutrition, not just in children, which is more the norm, but in adults. And, so they have lost so much body mass… These people have come over. They have been walking for up to three months, many from Bangui…They have been hiding out in the evenings. They have been eating mostly leaves, very poor water," he said.
Spiegel says many of the refugees arrive with wounds from machetes or gunshots. He says the refugees were forced to take lengthy detours to reach this remote border post because anti-Balaka militias block main roads. This, he says, explains the extremely poor condition in which they arrive.
Liz Ahua, the UNHCR refugee coordinator for the C.A.R., and her colleagues got a close-up view of the refugee situation in the region. She spoke with people who are displaced within C.A.R., with refugees in Chad and Cameroon, and with Chadians who have fled home after many years in exile.
She found these people deeply traumatized and broken in spirit.
“Whether they be in exile or in their own country, these are people who basically have been caught in a situation that is akin to that of a web of vipers and they cannot get themselves out of it…. We need to help the population of Central Africa because they are into a descent into chaos and a descent into hell," said Ahua.
The number of refugees fleeing into Cameroon grows. The Gbiti transit camp, which is meant to provide only temporary accommodation, now holds 15,000 refugees. The UNHCR says it is looking for other sites to build more permanent camps. It also is encouraging refugees to become integrated into the surrounding communities.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 69,000 refugees from the C.A.R. have fled to Cameroon. The ongoing crisis in the C.A.R. has displaced about 1 million people since the end of 2012.