Central African crisis threatens to spill over into Cameroon

Anti-balaka fighters at the border between Cameroon and the Central African Republic, near the Cameroonian town of Garoua-Boulaï.
 
 
In Garoua-Boulaï, a town located right on the border with the Central African Republic (CAR), residents are growing fearful that their neighbouring country’s conflict will spill over to their side. Indeed, hundreds of Central African fighters have been using the border zone as a staging ground for their battles. Gunshots fired on the CAR side of the border are making the residents of Garoua-Boulaï increasingly jittery.
 
Over the last several days, violent clashes between ex-Seleka and anti-balaka fighters have rocked northwestern CAR. Thousands of civilians have fled their homes to avoid the conflict.
 
Garoua-Boulaï, located in western Cameroon, and Beloko-Cantonnier, in northwestern Central Africa, are separated by only a few dozen metres that mark the border between the two countries. The anti-balaka, primarily Christian rural militias, have recently established a base on the Central African side, which they are using as a staging ground for their counter-offensive against the ex-Seleka rebels. Local media have also reported the presence of hundreds of former members of FACA (the former name of the Central African armed forces) who began pouring into the area before Seleka rebels ousted President François Bozizé in March 2013. These fighters are taking advantage of the movements of refugee groups across the borders to cross over into Cameroon and stock up on supplies.
 
As a result, the Cameroonian security presence at the border crossings and in Garoua-Boulaï has been reinforced several times.
 
Anti-balaka fighters from the Central African Republic pose near the border with Cameroon, just a stone’s throw from the Cameroonian town of Garoua-Boulaï.
 
 
Contributors

“A rocket landed on the Cameroonian side”

Abdou Wadell is a cameraman and lives in Garoua-Boulaï.
  
Frequent clashes have taken place along the border in the last few months, causing dozens of families to flee Garoua-Boulaï for other provinces in Cameroon. On January 21, the ex-Seleka forces launched a rocket against an anti-balaka position, which ended up landing in our town. [Several media sources have claimed that Cameroonian soldiers then killed several ex-Seleka fighters, which the Cameroonian authorities have not confirmed].
 
Central African Republic refugees in the Cameroonian town of Garoua-Boulaï.
 
Despite the current relative calm and the strengthening of the border post [now guarded by members of the Rapid Intervention Brigade, an elite unit of the Cameroonian army], the families who have fled do not dare to return home because they believe the conflict can still reach them here. Moreover, more CAR refugees are continuing to cross the border into Cameroon, with some estimates stating that roughly 600 are in Garoua-Boulaï already. Dozens of families have taken refuge in a church, and many others are staying with private residents. Some of these refugees are angry and calling for revenge. Residents of the town are very afraid that the conflict will spill over into their homes.
 
Until late December, anti-balaka fighters were taking advantage of the fact that refugees were crossing the border to themselves enter the town, because the border was not well secured. They came to stock up on supplies and were able to move around town without impediment.
 
“Fighters were able to stock up on supplies in town using intermediaries”
 
They took over some empty houses in the “Lycée” neighbourhood. I followed some of them, who were getting together regularly in a house to hold meetings. They would fight on the other side of the border and were using our city as a staging ground. Furthermore, they often bought machetes at the local market, pretending that they would use them in the fields. When vendors realized what they were actually doing, they stopped selling to them.
 
After a while, the city’s residents contacted the authorities about the problem. The police have by now sent most of the fighters back over to the Central African Republic side. That said, they’re still able to stock up on supplies in the city by using intermediaries. From time to time, the police have been conducting raids to look for weapons and anti-balaka fighters. I’ve also seen some ex-Seleka fighters, but they are a lot more discreet because the anti-balaka have a larger presence here. Maybe they’re coming here to gather intelligence on their enemy.
 
Anti-balaka fighters taking a break in front of the police station on the border with Cameroon.
 
For the purposes of my reporting, I often sneak into Central African Republic territory. I don’t go through the border post; instead, I travel through the bush, on a moped. On Tuesday evening, I ran into a young Muslim CAR man whose family was kidnapped by anti-balaka forces. He had managed to escape. I brought him to the other side of the border and he is currently staying with me.
 
 
An anti-balaka soldier in front of a police station on the Central African Republic side of the border.
 
 
All of the photos above (except for the photo of refugees) were taken by anti-balaka fighters. One of our Observers in Garoua-Boulaï obtained the photos and sent them to FRANCE 24.

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