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Northern town empty as scared civilians stay away

Burnt homes in Birao following clashes in March between government forces and UFDR rebels, CAR, March 2007. According to the UN, 95 percent of the town residents fled.
(Joseph Benmasse/IRIN)

Clashes between rebels and government troops in northeastern Central African Republic (CAR), have left the once bustling town of Birao virtually deserted, with thousands of civilians too scared to return.

More than 600 houses were set on fire in the latest clashes three weeks ago, according to a local official. "All were burned down by rebels when they were pulling out," Col Mathieu Mobiliawa, the prefect, told IRIN in the town.

The rebels, belonging to the Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement (UFDR), are pushing for talks with the government over power-sharing in the CAR. In November, they captured five towns - Birao, Sam-Ouandja, Ouanda-Djalle, Ouadda and Ndele. Birao is the main town in the region

After about a month, the regular army, backed by French troops, regained control. But clashes between the UFDR and government continued in the region.

On Tuesday, one of their leaders, Damane Zakaria, rejected claims that they burnt down houses. "We have no reason to burn down houses in our own town; the regular troops and the French army are responsible for the destruction of Birao," Damane, speaking from nearby Tiringulu, said. He called on the international community to investigate the attacks.

United Nations officials, who visited the town, said 95 percent of Birao’s population fled the fighting. "Never before has the UN seen a town in CAR where 70 percent of houses have been torched," a shocked Toby Lanzer, UN humanitarian coordinator in the CAR, said on Tuesday. "The impact of this on people's lives cannot be exaggerated."

Before the latest fighting in March, Birao had 14,000 people. Now, the UN estimates, only about 600 people remain in the town, which is near the border with the western Sudanese Darfur region. Those who fled the violence are believed to be living in the bush.

"In addition to burning houses, which makes the population’s return virtually impossible before the start of the rainy season in May, the team also noted that the town’s schools and hospital had been destroyed or looted during the fighting," the UN said in a statement.

Humanitarian needs

Local authorities in Birao described the situation as "dramatic". A female medical worker still living in the devastated town accused all the forces on the ground of responsibility for the violence.

"Both the rebels and the national army were firing rockets in all directions and most of the rockets set houses on fire," said Delphine Zanaba. "French jet fighters also contributed to the destruction as they hit some houses."

Even as the residents fled, they left behind a deplorable humanitarian situation. The town’s main hospital is closed down and virtually all medical workers have fled. As the fighting continued, medical stores were looted by the rebels.

During the last census in 2004, the town of Birao had about 22,000 people. Thousands fled when the rebellion intensified last year, mainly to Am-Dafock on the CAR/Sudan border.

According to Zanaba, some of those who fled the town and are living in the bush are coping without shelter, proper food, potable water and medical care. Médecins Sans Frontières had suspended activities after the March fighting but its team returned to Birao this week.

In New York, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Sir John Holmes, who is due to travel to the region soon, said: "This alarming news underscores the importance of my mission, which is intended to highlight the dire situation in the north of the Central African Republic, as well as the gaps in our ability to provide an adequate response due to both a shortage of resources and of humanitarian actors on the ground."

According to the UN, the number of people internally displaced in several parts of CAR tripled in 2006. An estimated 280,000 are displaced, including 20,000 people who have sought refuge in Cameroon, 50,000 in Chad, and an estimated 212,000 displaced within CAR.

Overall, one million people - one quarter of the total population - are believed to be affected by the widespread insecurity in the north of the country.

In February, local residents told IRIN the UFDR rebellion had also fuelled ethnic tensions, leading to fighting between the Goula and Youlou. The violence has also disrupted education, halted crop production and led to numerous incidents of rape.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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