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Hope hard to kindle for the forgotten refugees of Centrafrican Republic

Photograph: Kate Lyons for the Guardian

By Kate Lyons in eastern Cameroon

After fleeing conflict at home, 11,000 Central Africans have found safety at Mbilé camp in Cameroon. But the demise of a scheme that meant women no longer had to scavenge for firewood has added to concern about meagre food rations.

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In Mbilé refugee camp in the east of Cameroon, home to 11,000 people from Central African Republic, making even a small fire has all too often been the stuff of nightmares.

Until last year, the women in charge of such chores would have to walk up to five hours a day to pick up what firewood they could scavenge. Stories of women being attacked on these journeys – beaten and raped – were common.

“There was violence, I didn’t experience it, but it happened frequently,” says Hammadou Aishaidu, 23, a refugee in the camp. “I was very, very afraid.”

Last April, a scheme to make small fuel briquettes out of sawdust and clay changed things. No longer obliged to travel outside the camp in search of wood, the women felt safer.

There were other benefits, too. The briquettes– neat, environmentally friendly lumps of fuel – provided work and helped relations with the local population, who were unhappy about refugees felling trees and the competition for firewood.

But Bouba Rabiatou, president of the women’s committee at Mbilé, wishes the venture had never begun. “If the programme is going to end, it would have been better if they never started it,” she says. “Now it’s introduced, the women have changed their lives and have some security.”

In June, the scheme will stop operating. It was funded for just 18 months and the last four months of this period will be taken up with evaluation and reporting. So next month, the 12,000 francs a week that the refugees have received for their labour will stop and, crucially, there will be no more money available to transport sawdust – a key ingredient of the briquettes – into the camp.

This is just one of the short-term projects 43-year-old Rabiatou has seen arrive, only to disappear shortly after. Last year, a market garden scheme was launched to allow women to grow food to sell. It ended before a second crop could even be planted.

At Timangolo camp, three hours away, Ali Salihou, president of the refugee youth committee, tells of a sewing programme, meant to give young people the skills and equipment to make a living. The scheme was a success, he says, for the four people who were able to get on it. But it was never expanded and there are roughly 2,000 people aged 20-35 at Timangolo camp, many of whom are unemployed.

Perversely, these income-generating activities are disappearing at the precise moment refugees need them. Global funding for their plight is drying up, and in January the situation facing refugees from Central African Republic in east Cameroon was labelled a “forgotten crisis” by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.

The region, about the size of Iceland, hosts 274,000 Central African refugees, roughly 60% of those who fled into neighbouring countries after violence broke out between predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels and the Christian anti-balaka militia group in December 2013.

The first phase of response to the crisis, according to Basème Kulimushi, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Batouri, was about “saving maximum lives possible”. When this cycle ended in 2015, attention and funding started to wane, the situation eclipsed by events in the north, where refugees were streaming across the border from Nigeria as they fled the violence of Boko Haram.

Last year, the UNHCR office in Cameroon needed $55m (£43m); they received $21m, said Kulimushi. By April, they had received pledges equivalent to just 5% of the $49m required to support refugees in the country this year. Cash for the World Food Programme’s work with Central African refugees in Cameroon has also dropped off: last October, food rations for refugees had to be halved.

On the monthly food distribution day at Mbilé, Nouhu Habiba, 28, gets up very early, waiting for hours to collect food for herself and her three children, aged nine, six and six months. She drags three plastic sacks off a shelf – one containing sorghum, another yellow peas, and the third corn-soya blend – together with a container of cooking oil.

“This has to last for one month,” says Habiba. But it will not, leaving her and her husband struggling to find food for themselves and the children.

Habiba ran away from Bossembélé after her village was attacked by anti-balaka militia in 2014; seven members of her family died. It took her four months to walk to Cameroon. They walked for days without food, drinking water from puddles that was hot, because it was the dry season. A few days into the journey their group was set upon by bandits and one of her daughters was held hostage until the family gave up all the possessions with which they had fled.

She welcomes the security of the refugee camp but the lack of food is a struggle. “The advantage is there is a hospital, the disadvantage is that there is not enough food,” she says.

The majority of Central African refugees in Cameroon live in local villages rather than camps.

Françoise Collet, EU ambassador to Cameroon, says the poverty that afflicts the country’s east makes the situation there of at least as much concern as that in the dangerous north.

“A number of visitors consider the situation in the eastern region is worse than the far north because of the poverty, the lack of development, the lack of attention from the authorities,” says Collet.

“In the north, it’s a much more deteriorated situation in terms of security, but in the eastern part, the under-development is much more obvious and indeed is aggravated by the refugee crisis.”

The poverty is evident driving along the red dirt roads between villages in the east. These are lined by houses, sometimes made of brick, sometimes of sticks and mud. Outside the houses – on stoops, overturned barrels, tree stumps – people place their wares for passers-by to inspect: a hand of plantain or bananas, a bowl of green mangoes, piles of dried white cassava.

Many locals are pleased refugees have arrived, since it means aid agencies will follow.

“The presence of the refugees is an advantage for us because [aid agencies] have done so much for them,” says Amina, a Cameroonian mother of eight who lives on the outskirts of Boubara, a village that has taken in 2,000 people from CAR. “They have helped with the schools, the water points, even food; they renovated the health centre.”

Collet says balancing help for refugees with help for local people is important but difficult, as it goes beyond responding to a crisis, ranging into the development of infrastructure and services. Responsibility for the latter lies primarily with national and local authorities, she says.

“We are very careful to bring basic services not just to the refugees but also to the local population. It would not be fair to have refugees who are better cared for than the local population.

Kulimushi says: “They are a very poor community, sometimes poorer than the refugees themselves.”

Despite their poverty, says Kulimushi, locals were the “first responders to the CAR crisis”. Before the UN arrived to assist refugees, Cameroonian villagers were giving them food, water and shelter.

“When the refugees arrived the host community welcomed them,” says Amina. “Now, when refugees have food, they give some back to those who helped them.”

There are tensions, especially over refugees grazing their cattle on pastoral land. And if funding for refugees dries up, so that they are no longer seen as a way of improving conditions in a local village but rather as a drain upon them, things could worsen.

For now, though, relations are mostly amicable between locals and villagers, whose shared concern is ensuring they are not forgotten by the aid agencies upon which they both rely so heavily.


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