Forced by armed raiders to flee their home in Central African Republic, Monica and her four children slept under a tree in neighboring Chad for four weeks, living on peanuts and water.
The family are among thousands of refugees who have crossed Chad’s southern border in recent months to escape unidentified gunmen whose raids have sparked an exodus that aid workers fear could turn into a humanitarian crisis.
Local officials from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR say they have been overwhelmed by the numbers of desperate and hungry people pouring into an area of landlocked, arid Chad that is already suffering from food shortages.
“Currently we cannot respond to the needs of all these refugees, so this is becoming a real humanitarian crisis,” said Georges Menze, UNHCR’s coordinator in the town of Gore, near the border between the two countries.
Fleeing armed gangs in Central African Republic
Since June, unidentified armed gangs have been storming villages in the far north of Central African Republic, shooting randomly, looting homes and terrorizing their inhabitants.
The violence, which comes just a few months after President Francois Bozize won a May election that ended two years of military rule, has forced at least 9,000 people to flee to Chad since June.
This week, the United Nations said it was bracing for the arrival of more refugees from Central African Republic, one of the world’s poorest countries which has been shaken by a series of coups and mutinies over the past decade.
At Mballa village near the border, Monica and her children are among 800 people who have been waiting for weeks to be transferred to a refugee camp at Amboko, four miles from Gore. The camp is already filled almost to capacity.
“Since we arrived we haven’t eaten a single proper meal,” Monica, who did not want to give her last name, said.
“Sometimes women take pity on us when my children cry, and give us peanuts. I give these to my children though, I’ve just been drinking hot water.”
At Amboko, the refugees will receive food and medical attention. But the camp’s population has swelled to 26,000 from just under 14,000 in a few months, and UNHCR officials say they are struggling to cope.
“Our resources are inferior to the refugees’ needs,” said Menze. “Should there be more new arrivals, we don’t have the resources to respond. We have an urgent need for shelter, cooking equipment, medicine, water — everything necessary for an adequate life.”
There are more than 45,000 refugees from Central African Republic in southern Chad, including 30,000 who fled the 2003 coup that brought Bozize to power.
“We cannot exclude the possibility of new arrivals. Therefore the only thing we can do is try to prepare for a new wave of refugees,” Menze said, adding that details of the latest violence were sketchy.
Army officers in Central African Republic said in June their troops had been attacked by unidentified gunmen near the border with Chad, with heavy losses on both sides.
Bozize, a former army chief, was helped by mercenaries from Chad in his 2003 coup. His election win in May confirmed him in power, but some of the hired guns he used two years ago have now turned to banditry in the remote border area.
Refugees said the marauders were evicting people from villages and looting their homes.
“It was August 9. I was at home alone when the men arrived. I don’t know where they’d come from. They broke down the door and began asking me questions I couldn’t understand,” said one refugee, who asked not be identified.
“They took all our belongings — our food, our clothes, our shoes. Then they forced me to carry the belongings they’d stolen for some way into the jungle, before they finally let me go. I fled immediately with my wife and children,” he said.
This month, UNHCR and the World Food Program (WFP) said refugees across Africa were suffering hunger and malnutrition because donors were failing to provide needed cash.
WFP said lack of funds meant refugees from the Central African Republic were receiving incomplete rations, which was putting greater strain on the resources of the host population.
Before moving to the camps, the refugees in southern Chad have been relying on handouts from local villagers to survive.
District chief Beosso Simon said a failed food crop this year had added to the pressure.
“We’re right on the border so we’re obliged to take these refugees in,” he said. “But we’ve been hit by famine ourselves, so it’s very hard. There’s nothing to eat. We’re missing lots of things. There’s no millet; there’s nothing to live off.”
Chad, which is hoping to get rich from a southern oil field, is also host to about 210,000 refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region in its barren eastern borderlands. There too tensions have risen as locals vie with refugees for scarce resources.
“Everything we eat, we’ve been sharing with the refugees. But we must support them,” Simon said. “Tomorrow it could be us in this situation.”