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Muslim flight from C.African Republic leaves broken homes, swamps UN

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 14 Feb 2014 16:46 GMT
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Muslims gather at a camp for displaced people at Mpoko international airport in Bangui, CAR< as they wait to leave the capital, February 13, 2014. REUTERS/Luc Gnago
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By Misha Hussain

DAKAR, Feb 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Haoua Mahamat boarded a military plane to Chad on Wednesday with three of her 10 children, fleeing attacks by Christian militia on Muslims in Central African Republic, little did she know it was the last flight to safety.

The next day, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), which financed the repatriations, stopped its flights due to a lack of funding. It has received just a fifth of the $17.5 million it requested from donors a month ago.

Chad also halted evacuations due to mechanical problems with its military plane. About 2,000 people are stranded at Bangui airport, the IOM said, most of them of Chadian origins, like Haoua's family.

"Two of my daughters and one granddaughter remain at the airport waiting to be brought home," said the 50-year-old who lived in the Miskine district of north Bangui. "My five other children have disappeared."

Haoua is one of over a million people forced to flee their homes after French and African Union peacekeepers failed to stop months of religious violence in Central African Republic, once a model of coexistence between Christians and Muslims.

The former French colony was plunged into chaos when Muslim Seleka rebels, many of them from Chad and Sudan, seized power in March. They terrorised the majority Christian population for months, raping, looting and killing at will.

Despite being Muslim, Haoua's husband was killed and she was shot in the leg trying to prevent Seleka fighters from seizing her daughter. Since September, a Christian militia, known as 'anti balaka' or 'anti machete' in the local Sango language, has attacked Muslims they accuse of abetting Seleka.

More than 2,000 people have been killed since December in what Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, described as a wave of 'ethnic-religious cleansing'.

With Seleka now withdrawing after its leader Michel Djotodia was forced to resign last month, tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing northwards from 'anti-balaka' attacks.

Thomas Gurtner, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Chad, said over 60,000 people had arrived since December - a number expected to reach 150,000 in weeks, straining U.N. resources.

"Around 60 percent have come from Bangui while others in the north fled spontaneously as anti-Muslim militia closed in on their villages," Gurtner told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

UNEMPLOYMENT, MALNUTRITION

Haoua's parents were nomads who left Chad 50 years ago for greener pastures south of the border. Born in Central African Republic, like many other second- and third-generation Chadians, Bangui became her home and Chad is an unfamiliar place.

Gurtner said the IOM was struggling with Chadians like her returning to stressed Sahel areas and looking for scarce jobs in the capital N'Djamena. The landlocked desert nation houses half the 1.6 million displaced people in the Sahel and is battling some of the worst malnutrition in the region.

"There is huge unemployment in Chad itself. We need to find better ways to integrate these young people because they cannot just be sent out into the countryside," said Gurtner.

Haoua knows life will be hard with no job or land. Her husband's family in Am-Timan in southeast Chad have all but forgotten her. "I prefer to suffer in Chad than to be killed by anti-balakas. I'm not going back," she said.

On the packed two-hour flight that took her to safety, there were no seats and it was difficult to breathe. Many fainted but Haoua held on tight and thought of the children she left behind.

About 133 children have been killed or maimed in the last two months, including intentional beheading or mutilation, according to the United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Convoys of trucks packed with people and their belongings, and escorted by the Chadian military, are the only option but the journey is fraught with danger. This week, 21 Muslims were killed when their lorry broke down. (Editing by Daniel Flynn and Janet Lawrence)

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