Refugees from Central African Republic

The sun is still rising in the Congolese sky, but Jean is already busy cleaning the small garden in front of his new house in Bili refugee camp. He greets me with a wide smile. After nearly two years on the run from violence in Central African Republic (CAR), he and his family are finally safe.

Jean, 38, his wife, 29-year-old Edwige, and their four surviving children are among the 800 refugees who have settled in Bili camp, near the northern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

As we sit down to talk, Jean recalls the exact day – 24 March 2013 – when he and his family first fled an attack on Bangui, their nation’s capital.

“My house was destroyed when the Séléka [rebels] arrived in Bangui,” he says. “I was there. There were many abuses and they set fires. I fled for the first time into the forest with my family, 40 kilometres away.”

After one month in the forest, they returned to Bangui, where Jean rebuilt their home and prayed for a lasting peace. But a few months later during a counterattack on the city, they had to flee again. It was Christmas Day, 2013.

The attack was so sudden that Edwige left one of their children behind as she ran out of the house. “The fear of the gunshots made her run away and she forgot the child just for a few minutes,” Jean explains. “The Sélékas killed our child. He was two years old. They threw his body away.”

Jean was desperate. “I said: ‘My Lord, where can I go to stay safe with my family?’”

Finally, after months on the run, surviving on little sleep or food, they found a way to cross into the DRC, over 400 kilometres upriver from their home in Bangui.

Jean’s family spent the next 11 months in an informal settlement close to the border before UNHCR brought them here to Bili as soon as the camp opened.

UNHCR opened Bili camp in March 2015. Upon arrival, refugees receive shelter, food, sleeping mats and blankets, as well as other essential items, including mosquito nets treated with insecticide – malaria is rife in the area.

More than 90,000 refugees from CAR are now living in the DRC. Many reside in the five refugee camps – Mole, Boyabu, Zongo, Bili and Mboti – where UNHCR and its partners are providing emergency assistance.

Many of the refugees UNHCR spoke to say they expect the fighting in CAR to continue, causing further instability and displacement.

But Jean is optimistic, despite his ordeal. “I hope to return to CAR, because it is my country,” he says, with a hopeful smile. “I am waiting for the right time to go back home.”

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