- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

MBOKI, Central African Republic Rafael Calezo had been walking for five months when he arrived in the Central African Republic recently.

Dressed in a torn shirt and trousers held up by string, he carried his daughter, who was silent from malnutrition.

"Our journey was terrible. One member of our group died from snakebite. Another gave birth on the way," he said, chewing the beans he foraged for that morning.

The 700 refugees who have entered the Central African Republic's eastern province, Haut-Mbomou, this year fled last September following the fall of the rebel-held town of Raga in southern Sudan a trek of nearly 400 miles through the bush on foot.

"When the government troops came, there was bombing and many deaths. Then soldiers from both sides burned down our houses and looted our shops," said Adula Hissan, a trader.

"In Sudan, I owned a Toyota truck," he added.

Staying in an abandoned school here in Mboki, the asylum seekers have no blankets against nighttime drops in temperature and eat only what fruits they can find nearby.

"All these refugees have parasites, and many have malaria. The men have hernias from carrying children. There are also cases of leprosy," said a doctor from the French medical group Doctors Without Borders.

Mboki, 1,500 road miles east of Bangui, the Central African Republic's capital, was designated by the government as a resettlement center for Sudanese refugees after the first wave arrived in 1965. Now, an estimated 25,000 Sudanese live mainly in mud-and-straw shelters on the outskirts of the town of 5,600 people.

"We are expecting another several thousand refugees to arrive during the next few weeks. They are still in the bush. We don't know how the town is going to provide for them," said Peter Binza, head of the Mboki refugee committee.

Barely connected to the outside world the last time the postal service operated in Mboki was 1974 the community has little means to help the refugees. Money only circulates when a government plane arrives with the salaries of civil servants, and the last time wages were paid was in January 2001.

"Because we are located so far from Bangui, nobody cares what happens here. Now everybody is working on the land to produce food in order to survive," said Mayor Alphonse Gbanda, toiling in his own field.

The hospital closed this month on orders from the Red Cross in Bangui a move that doctors say has led to the deaths of at least 14 patients who could have been saved.

"As people know, the hospital is not functioning. They're choosing to die at home," said Arthur Maka, acting head of the hospital.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has agreed with the Red Cross to run the hospital, which has reopened with a volunteer staff of nine.

"A lot of money we gave the Red Cross has disappeared, so we have stopped giving money to the organization," said the UNHCR representative in Mboki.

But the head of the Red Cross, Francois Farra-Frond, denied the insinuation of corruption.

"I used to be a minister of finance, in charge of billions … This is all lies by people who have resented my campaign against theft. I am prepared to go to court to defend myself," he said in Bangui on Friday.

The schools are also scarcely operating amid accusations from the refugees that the government is replacing teachers who speak Arabic and English, the languages used by the Sudanese, with French-speaking teachers. "We are well-educated people. You don't know how much it pains us to see our children grow up without an education," said Grace Achiro, a nurse who had her children smuggled to relatives in Uganda so they could attend an English-speaking school.

Aid to maintain the wells has also disappeared, which means much of the water in the town is no longer potable.

The UNHCR had planned to withdraw support from the area because of the successful integration of the Sudanese and Central Africans, who are from the same Zande people.

The Central African Republic has good relations with Sudan there is a force of 50 peacekeepers in Bangui but its government has little interest in the welfare of refugees associated with Sudanese rebels.

"The world has forgotten the war in Sudan. But the fighting continues, and people are still fleeing. We sincerely hope international assistance is not withdrawn, especially for the new arrivals," said Mossa Dionysius, 53.


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