Ismaila looked on dejectedly as a convoy transporting some 300 Central African Republic (CAR) citizens left the Gado Badzere refugee camp in Cameroon’s East region on Wednesday, June 8.
The refugees had agreed to return home to their country on a voluntary basis. It’s a process that began in 2016 but was suspended in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
While some 2500 CAR refugees have agreed to return home, thousands of their peers won’t be going back home, not just yet.
Ismaila, once a thriving businessman in the CAR, witnessed firsthand the 2013 coup d’états when predominantly Muslim Séléka rebels overran the capital, Bangui, putting President François Bozizé to flight and naming Michel Djotodjia as the new head of state.
But a predominantly Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka would eventually force Djotodia out of power.
“I left the town of Boda on December 1, 2013, for business in Bangui and there was a coup d’état on December 5. The anti-Balaka invaded the town, and I couldn’t return because I am a Muslim-the narrative was that it was a Christian-Muslim conflict.”
Ismaila’s only recourse was to flee. “I trekked for several days, through forests and open fields, to get to Cameroon,” he recalls.
As busses full of his compatriots left the Gado Badzere refugee camp, Ismaila’s eyes turned misty-the longing to go back home seemed too strong. But the circumstances, in his view weren’t just ripe.
“I love my country,” he told Timescape Magazine.
“But I can’t return yet,” explaining that the political environment was still uncertain.
“What worries me is the last quarrel between the government and the opposition. There is the Parliament that wants to modify the constitution to allow the President to run for three, four, five six terms. Perhaps this will trigger crises and these crises always end in armed conflict. I am an old man with many children so I can’t risk my by returning to the CAR. If the politicians come to an agreement and peace returns, nothing will stop me from going back to my country. For now, I am afraid,” he said.
Like Ismaila, Tecombi Fifi won’t be returning to the CAR anytime soon-the scars of the conflict are ever so present in her mind.
“Some of us who saw the extent of the violence cannot easily go back home,” she said.
“I saw people being killed, some in ways that completely dehumanize them. I saw members of my family killed. You don’t want to go back to be reminded of those macabre incidents,” she told Timescape Magazine.
“I was a target because I was married to a Muslim. So, it’s not easy for me to go back, and besides, there still is insecurity, and it’s difficult to start life all over again because we lost everything.”
The mother of three notes that the Cameroonian people have been quite hospitable, even in the midst of poverty.
Her only wish is that the UNHCR and other aid groups can help them get sustainable livelihoods.
The head of the UNHCR in Meiganga that oversees activities at the camp, Maurice Moussouravi says the biggest obstacle to fulfilling such requests is finance.
“For some time, the international community has been complaining of crisis, and the UNHCR functions on donations from goodwill people, states, and donors and at the moment, such donations aren’t evident. This has an impact on all our programs and that has an impact on the wellbeing of refugees,” he said.
“Our budget has for some time now been dwindling while the needs continue to rise. That is the problem,” he emphasized.
Still, the refugees remain ever hopeful about the prospects for peace.
“Conflicts, be they inter-communal, political, or armed conflicts are found in the histories of all countries of the world. Some last for 30 years, others for 20 years, but they always come to an end,” Ismaila told Timescape Magazine.
“Ours is about ten years old now but I believe that one day it shall come to an end because there are associations and NGOs working for peace. So, people are being educated on the values of peace. Without peace, there can’t be development.”
Those who have opted to return say they have assurances that it’s safe to return.
Thirty-five-year-old farmer Robert Bissa who fled fighting in 2017 says family members back home have reassured him that peace has returned to his village in the South of the country.
“I intend to go back to my farm and cultivate beans and groundnuts,” he said.
CAR officials, promising security for the returnees, have also said they will be socially and economically integrated.
Cameroon’s Minister of Territorial Administration, Paul Atanga Nji who oversaw the voluntary repatriation process said the militaries of Cameroon and the CAR will protect refugees as they return to their country.
“We have asked the security forces [military] in Cameroon to accompany the convoy and by the time we get to the boundary (border) the security forces from the neighbouring country [CAR] will continue with the convoy,” Atanga Nji said.
The Minister delivered some basic items such as food and blankets for the returning refugees as additional support from the government of Cameroon.
The restart of facilitated returns to CAR comes after a regional conference in April during which states hosting CAR refugees, with support from donors and partners, agreed to step up action on solutions, including voluntary repatriation where conditions allow.
The conflict in the CAR that started in 2013 has forced at least a million Central Africans to seek refuge in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria.
Cameroon is host to 332,000 CAR refugees, most of them women and children.