CAR refugees in Chad: “The painful memories are kept in check by a staggering effort”

The refugees fleeing the Central African Republic (CAR) have had to endure a torturous journey before finally reaching Sido, on the Chadian side of the border. After witnessing the massacre of their neighbours or relatives in CAR, they arrive exhausted both physically and mentally in Chad after travelling several hundred kilometres packed in trucks or vehicles escorted from Bangui by the Chadian army. Dr. Frédérique Drogoul, a psychiatrist for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), talks about these lives torn apart by violence and exile.

'You have to bottle things up'
“Most of the refugees who told me their stories did so in a monotone, with solemn faces, without going into details about the bodies carved up in the massacres, keeping their distance from the expression of painful emotions. ‘You have to bottle things up, otherwise you go mad,’ a man whose wife and children had been savagely killed, told me.” Dr. Frédérique Drogoul is returning from Sido, where Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) opened a health centre and a hospital unit in early February to meet the urgent medical needs of some 13,000 refugees relocated to this town on the border of CAR.

Older brother decapitated
“Despite the terrible stories I heard throughout my visit, I often had the feeling that the painful memories were being held in check by a staggering effort,” Frédérique said. That was the case with the grandmother of Abdel and Zacharia, two brothers about 20 years old. “She was as if detached.” Residents of the “kilo 5” neighbourhood of Bangui, they arrived in Sido in one of the convoys organized by the Chadian army. The 28 members of their family had been massacred. “When I met him, Abdel was not really there. He was sitting down and mumbling from time to time. His grandmother told me that, when his older brother was decapitated before his eyes, Abdel ran out screaming. He has not recovered since,” Frédérique said.

Zacharia, Abdel’s younger brother, was not with them at the time. He was working in his shop, which was also attacked. He said that the anti-Balakas tied up his arms before throwing a grenade into the shop. Part of his right hand was torn off and he was hit in the right eye. Zacharia was reunited by chance with his grandmother and Abdel in Sido. Now he is anxious, exhausted, worried about his grandmother, who is not able to do very much, and a brother who is psychotic and no longer self-sufficient. It’s a very heavy burden for him. The family is being supported and receiving medical help from the MSF team in Sido.

Killed by machete
In addition to the violent incidents experienced at home, there are those that sometimes occur on the long journey to Chad. Mariama is a little 10-year-old Peulh girl. When Frédérique met her for the first time, she was accompanied by one of her older sisters. “She looked afraid. Her face was sad and closed. She did not speak on her own. It was her sister who told me their story,” Frédérique recalls. Mariama’s parents were killed during the attack on Bossembélé and she fled into the bush with some neighbours. The husband of one of her older sisters managed to find her and brought her to their place in Bonali before they all fled to Bangui in one of the convoys escorted by the Chadian army. Their truck broke down on the road. “The escorted convoy did not stop and, according to Mariama’s sister, the anti-Balakas immediately attacked. All the men – including the brother-in-law who had saved Mariama – were killed by machetes in front of the women and children.”

Some of them were raped and Mariama was trampled on. She complains of generalized pain. “On our third meeting she told me that, before abandoning them there in the middle of the night, the anti-Balakas set fire to all their belongings, leading them to believe they would also be cooked in the fire and eaten,” said Frédérique. “While her sister was telling me all this, Mariama was listening and nodding her head to what her sister said. I was really touched when they spoke about tears. Her older sister said to me, 'if she cries, I also start to cry. It’s too hard.' I had the impression that speaking about it helped to ease the terror, and at our last meeting her sister told me that Mariama was no longer crying, that she had begun to participate in activities appropriate to her age.”

Fingers deliberately mutilated
About 100 kilometres from Sido, at Doyaba, a special reception site has been set up for unaccompanied minors, that is, all the children who arrive alone, completely separated from their families. There are about 400 children there, but a little over 1,000 throughout southern Chad, according to UNICEF. Four young brothers who have been in care for several weeks at Doyaba had arrived via Sido with wounds from machete blows on the skull and, for two of them, fingers deliberately mutilated. “The two older ones, 7-8 years old, seem to be getting better. The wounds have healed and they play quietly with the other children. However, the two younger ones are isolated, withdrawn and still stare blankly.”

Family separation
In addition to the trauma of the violence suffered in CAR, there is also that of family separation. For Frédérique, “it is essential to work for the reunification of families, for example, by examining the lists drawn up by UN agencies in Chad and in CAR or by setting up telephone booths, as the ICRC has already done in Goré and Doyaba – to enable the refugees to call their relatives or neighbours and to re-establish contact with those they have lost.”

'Survival from day to day'
“It’s survival from day to day. Mental life seems suspended. There is little room for memories of terror, no space to imagine a future for oneself. To have survived and managed to protect one’s children is what counts above all now,” according to Dr. Frédérique Drogoul. “But when the minimum conditions for survival are finally provided to the refugees, it is likely that situations of great distress, even of psychic collapse, will become more frequent.”

MSF has been operating in Chad for over 30 years. In addition to emergency programmes established in February in N’Djamena, Bitoye, Goré and Sido to meet the medical and humanitarian needs of the refugees from the Central African Republic, MSF teams operate regular programs in Abéché, Am Timan, Massakory, Moissala and Tissi.