- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2001

ZONGO, Congo — In ironed suits, chatting into mobile telephones, the elite of the Central African Republic can barely bring themselves to glance at their new twig-and-straw dwellings in this rebel-held town across the Ubangi river from their homes in Bangui, capital of their country.

"It's a complete nightmare. We have swapped a villa with air conditioning for the bush. But if we go home, we'll be killed," said Henry Ballot, a magistrate from Bangui, recently.

Following a failed coup attempt in May against President Ange-Felix Patasse, tens of thousands of people fled the capital of the Central African Republic, many crossing the Ubangi into Congo.

Most were of the Yakoma people, the same ethnic group as the former military ruler and opposition leader, Andre Kolingba, who admitted he was behind the insurgency four months ago.

"The presidential guard started killing the Yakoma, whether they were involved in the coup or not," said Sebastian Djengbo, 36, owner of a bus company in Bangui.

"My buses were taken. I was detained by the police and told to face a wall. At the last minute, the soldier who was suppose to kill me let me escape over a fence," he added in a makeshift shelter in Zongo.

The southern Yakoma have historically dominated the government, army and civil service of the Central African Republic. As traders, they were the first in the area to make contact with the region's French colonizers in the late 19th century, and thus had access to education, money and administrative posts.

Gen. Kolingba seized power in a bloodless coup 20 years ago and kept it until 1993, when he was defeated in elections by Mr. Patasse, a civilian, who was re-elected to a second six-year term in September 1999.

However, Mr. Patasse, the first northerner to lead the country since independence from France in 1960, was unable to replace the dominant Yakoma with members from his own Sara tribe because of their technical expertise. As a result, the loyalty of the country's ruling elite has always been questionable.

During the May coup attempt, there were instances of summary executions and harassment of the Yakoma.

Few have returned to work despite threats of warnings and dismissal.

But while the country's scant public services suffer in their absence, the towns and villages along the left bank of the Ubangi housing the Yakoma are struggling to cope with the influx.

The population of Zongo, formerly 15,000, has nearly doubled. Families are living in tents along the town's main streets and next to the river.

Every empty house has been rented out, and the inns and hotels are full.

"There has been a suspected outbreak of meningitis in the town. Scabies, malaria and diarrhea are rampant, and we are running out of medicine," said Dr. Paulin Lisimo, head of sanitation for the Zongo region.

"We are facing a very serious health situation caused by so many people living in close proximity," he added.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees plans to build a camp at Mole, 28 miles inland from Zongo, but admits few of the refugees want to move from the town.

"They're intellectual, urban people. They don't want to live in a refugee camp," said a representative from the UNHCR's Zongo office, which opened in June. "Mole is a three-hour drive away. We're going to have to start by building a road to the site," she added.

In Zongo, the refugees can easily receive money, news and visitors from Bangui, despite the Central African Republic closing its frontier with Congo in July to stop the cross-border flow of arms and rebels. Even their mobile telephones work in the town.

Yakoma women, who seem to be less at risk than the men, traverse the river daily to sell fish in Bangui, returning to Zongo in the evening to sleep.

"More than 150 people come from Bangui to Zongo every day. Before May, we were seeing less than 100 people," said a customs official in Zongo.

But the local representatives of Uganda-backed guerrilla leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, who controls Congo's northern Equateur province, want the refugees to leave.

Stray bullets fired from Bangui into Zongo have injured Congolese civilians.

The Congolese also fear an attack by the Central African Republic's army to target key Yakoma individuals.

"These refugees are political people. We've got enough problems of our own. Refugees are sleeping in the schools which are due to open" this month, said Hubert Levi, the mayor of Zongo.

"A 4-year-old boy got a bullet in his leg this week. It was fired from Bangui," he added.

The U.N. office in Bangui hopes to reintegrate the Yakoma back into Central African Republic society before tribal divisions harden further.

"We have to continue telling the displaced people and refugees that nothing will happen to them if they return. But it's going to take a long time to persuade them to come back," said Gen. Lamine Cisse, the U.N. secretary-general's new representative in Bangui.

Cooperazione Internazionale (COOPI), an Italian nongovernmental organization that is providing assistance to the displaced people, gives additional help to those returning home.

"Some of these people's houses have been destroyed. Others have been looted. We are providing them with cement and wood to fix their houses, as well as cooking utensils, mosquito nets, blankets and food," said Claudio Tarchi of COOPI in Bangui.

The Patasse government in Bangui has assured the safety of the Yakoma people, but human-rights activists say words are not enough.

"They are still scared. Yakoma people are being threatened on a daily basis. We're on the path to genocide," said Theophile Sonny of the Human Rights Observatory in Bangui.

Meanwhile, the exiled Yakoma in Zongo are seething in squalid conditions. Zongo has limited running water and no electricity.

"I won't be returning until Patasse loses power. If I have to help in that process, I will. Returning home means death at the moment," said Joseph Mozara, until recently a law student at Bangui University.

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