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Ill And Malnourished, CAR Refugees Flood Cameroon


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. More than 20,000 refugees fleeing religious violence in the Central African Republic crossed into Cameroon just in February alone. The refugees are predominantly Muslim and many more are expected to cross over in the coming weeks. They're finding shelter in towns and refugee sites near the border and many are suffering from malnutrition and malaria.

Andres Caballero reports from the border in Cameroon's east region.

ANDRES CABALLERO, BYLINE: At the Pont Bascule transitional refugee site in Garoua-Boulai, more than 1,000 people lie on rugs near piles of garbage and their few scattered belongings. The trees are their only shelter from the rain and the few tents here are only for the most vulnerable. Abubakar Saliou wears a beard and a long galabiya. He was born and raised in Central African Republic, but was forced to flee for his life to neighboring Cameroon after attacks by Christian militia called the anti-Balaka.

ABUBAKAR SALIOU: The anti-Balaka is killing the Muslim people and are going to Cameroon country.

CABALLERO: He says he watched Christian militants kill his 8-year-old son and wound his 10-year-old daughter. He left her under treatment at a hospital in CAR before boarding a bus under African Union military escort and fleeing the country. According to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, more than 32,000 people have entered Cameroon since the start of the crisis in CAR.

It erupted a year ago when Muslim rebels overthrow the government and then began attacking the nation's Christian majority. International intervention put a halt to that bloodletting only to unleash a Christian and Muslim backlash which continues today. Pascal Okwonkwo is a Muslim from Nigeria who lived and worked in CAR for over five years but he fled a month ago after militants attacked his convenience store in the capitol, Bangui, and killed his brother.

PASCAL OKWONKWO: My brother died in front of my face. I see my brother die, him die.

CABALLERO: Okwonkwo's major concern now is the lack of food. He stood near a woman cooking a small pot of rice that was donated by a local resident. The U.N. has handed out mats, soap and blankets for the most vulnerable, but not food. Djerassem Mbaiorem is the public information officer for the U.N. refugee agency in Cameroon. He says they can only provide food at the sites further inland because they don't have enough for the locals who are also in need.

DJERASSEM MBAIOREM: You cannot provide assistance at the border. It's one of our policy. We'll move them as quick as possible to the sites so that we can provide them with better assistance.

CABALLERO: UNHCR has established five sites for refugees in Cameroon, with one under construction. Doctors Without Borders treat about 200 patients each day. Most of the cases involved respiratory tract infections and malaria. At one of the main mosques in Garoua-Boulai, hundreds of Muslim men, many of them refugees, fill the grounds and the street for their midday prayers. They're just yards away from the border, but there's little likelihood they'll be going home any time soon.

A few blocks from the mosque, I walked across the border into CAR and found strong anti-Muslim sentiment. Once inside, I come across a group of men in regular clothes sitting outside a local restaurant. Two of them approach and say the commander wants to have a word.

MILABI JOHN: (Foreign language spoken)

CABALLERO: Milabi John says he's the local leader of the Christian Militia, the anti- Balaka. He says their mission is to monitor and protect their territory. On the left side of his lip is a partly stitched, partly open bullet wound that extends to the lower left cheek.

JOHN: (Foreign language spoken)

CABALLERO: He says he was wounded here two weeks ago during an exchange of gunfire with African Union peacekeeping forces who were escorting a truck full of Muslim refugees who were fleeing into Cameroon. According to Doctors Without Borders, at least two Muslim refugees were killed and 12 were injured.

Elvis Fanyama stands next to the commander. He's a former army corporal-turned anti-Balaka and helps monitor the border.

ELVIS FANYAMA: (Foreign language spoken)

CABALLERO: He says they have no problem with the Muslims leaving across the border and that there will never be peace so long as they stay in Central African Republic. For NPR News, I'm Andres Caballero. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andres Caballero
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