Mass exodus as forgotten tragedy explodes in Central African Republic

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A solitary metal signpost indicates the point where the Central African Republic (CAR) meets Chad. There is nothing on either side of this endless stretch of dirt highway to distinguish one desperately poor central African state and the other. But the relief that travellers feel when they pass the "Frontière Tchad" sign is palpable.

With the family's belongings strapped to three donkeys, Fadimatou Fanta and her four sons skirt the collapsed bridge and scrabble to safety. They have walked for seven days; hundreds more people are arriving in Bekoninga every week. It is a pattern repeated across the two nations' frontier.

That so many people are desperate to leave CAR, the sixth-poorest country in the world, for Chad, the seventh, indicates the extent of the crisis now engulfing this forgotten corner of the world.

The Central African Republic has become enveloped in a humanitarian crisis so serious that one-quarter of the population of four million has been affected. Bandits kidnap children, rebel groups destroy villages and rape women, and soldiers kill civilians with impunity.

Already 60,000 refugees have crossed into Chad; 30,000 more have fled to Cameroon. At least 150,000 are displaced within CAR itself and humanitarian workers believe up to one million people could soon be on the move. Most are walking - often for up to 10 days - to reach safety. Others are selling everything they own to buy a place on one of the trucks operated by CAR's growing number of people traffickers.

The shadow of Darfur looms large. The Sudanese region borders CAR's northeast and there has been a sharp increase in ethnically driven attacks in the area.

A UN team last month reported that 40,000 of the area's 200,000 residents had been driven from their homes. Unidentified aircraft, rumoured to be Sudanese government planes, have been landing in the area. Darfur rebels and janjaweed alike have been using CAR as a base to launch attacks inside Sudan.

In November, Jan Egeland, the UN aid chief at the time, warned of a "really dangerous regional crisis". The conflicts in Darfur, Chad and CAR are, he said, "intimately linked".

The presidents of Sudan, Chad and CAR agreed at a summit in Cannes last week to refrain from supporting rebellions within each other's countries but few experts believe it will make much difference.

"The situation is dire," said Bob Kitchen, head of mission for the International Rescue Committee, one of the few aid agencies working inside CAR. "It is very similar to Darfur but this is a forgotten crisis and it is getting worse."

If it were not called the Central African Republic, few in the West would have any idea where this poverty-stricken, coup-ridden nation is situated. Bordering Chad and Sudan to the north and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the south, CAR has had a turbulent history since gaining independence from France in 1960. Its diamond and timber wealth has made power a valuable prize, and there has been a succession of military dictators.

Education and health services have collapsed and life expectancy has dropped from 49 in 1995 to 39 today. Despite the urgent need for aid, little has been forthcoming. The United Nations appealed for $49m (£25m) for CAR this year but, by the end of January, just $184,330 (£94,000) had been collected from member states. The first refugees crossed into Chad in 2002 after a failed coup attempt by General Bozize. More fled a year later when Bozize staged a successful putsch. A third group entered Chad in late 2005 and early 2006 when fighting broke out between rebel groups and government soldiers.

The latest influx began at the end of last year as the security in the north deteriorated. Beneath the shade of mango trees in Bekoninga, a village a few hundred yards inside the Chadian border, dozens of new arrivals wait to be interviewed by the UN refugee agency.

Those huddled in a clearing include cousins 19-year-old Kayo, 15-year-old Isaka and 11-year-old Abdulaye. Kayo was abducted by a group of 20 armed men and held in the bush. His feet were tied together and he was given nothing to eat. The kidnappers demanded that his father, Tadi Abdul, a cattle owner, pay them CFA700,000, around £700.

"They told me if my father did not pay the money they would cut my throat," said Kayo. "I was really afraid they would kill me." "I was trying to find the money from everywhere," said Mr Abdul. "It took me five days."

The kidnappers returned his son. The next day they came back to their house and took Abdulaye. He was held for a few days as the family tried to raise the new ransom - this time CFA1m. When they paid up, the kidnappers returned and took Isaka.

But after paying out nearly CFA2m - and having lost many of their cattle to bandits - the family struggled to find the ransom. The kidnappers killed Isaka's father and returned the boy.

A truck carrying about 80 refugees arrived at the border a few days ago, escorted by CAR soldiers. Mothers paid up to CFA150,000 to be taken with their children to the border, with one-third being paid to the military. Those who have made it say that thousands more are trying to sell everything they own to buy places on the next truck for their children.

Salmania Umar is one of those who paid to get out. "I left everything," she said, sitting in a UNHCR camp 65km north of the border. Mrs Umar said Arabs like her were being attacked by armed groups because they are Muslim.

"They are shooting at people as they go to prayer," she said. "It has been like this for two months." Her family had suffered a string of attacks, she said, as the situation in Paoua has deteriorated. "Last time, they came at five in the morning," she said. "They fired bullets all over the house. We hid under the bed. We already wanted to leave before but this was too much. We had to leave immediately."

Other women gathered around Mrs Umar tell even more harrowing stories. One points to a bullet wound in her abdomen; another whispers that the attacks caused her to miscarry. Families have been split up. Husbands have tended to stay in CAR, living in the bush with their cattle and trying to return to work on their crops at night. All the women fear the violence will only get worse. None of them wants to return home.

At the border, Fadimatou Fanta leads her children into the village and finds a quiet spot under a mango tree. "I am ashamed to be a refugee," she said. "But I don't want my children to be killed by rebels. All the women are leaving my village with their children. They will all come here."