At least 470 Muslims from the Peuhl ethnic minority, trapped for several months in the Central African Republic town of Yaloke, around 200km from capital Bangui, need to be relocated as a matter of urgency, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has said.
Dalia al-Achi, public information officer for the UNHCR in Bangui, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that the group, who had initially fled Bangui in April 2014, were growing desperate as living conditions worsened. She said the group required urgent humanitarian assistance and needed to be relocated to another part of CAR or perhaps to neighbouring Cameroon or Chad.
“It is quite simple: it is now about life or death. Are we going to watch them die, or are we going to take heed to what they are saying and try to save them,” al-Achi said.
More than 700 Peuhl Muslims escaped Bangui after anti-Balaka fighters, mostly made up of Christian vigilantes, started targeting them.
After spending two months on the run, hiding in the bushes as they made their way towards the western half of the country, in the hope of reaching Chad or Cameroon, the group arrived in Yaloke, where they have been ever since.
While they fled, more than a 150 of them were killed by anti-Balaka fighters. Another 42 died in Yaloke from illnesses and injuries. The UNHCR says the remaining 474 residents were facing severe malnutrition and the risk of disease. More than 30 per cent were suffering from malaria, while at least six people had tuberculosis.
“Forty-two have died since they reched Yaloke, and others are becoming weaker by the day. This is totally unacceptable,” al-Achi said.
“They didn’t expect to live here for so long, so their primary form of nutrition has also dried up with the death of their cattle.”
The UN said the displaced group was battling to integrate into the local community because of the threat posed by anti-Balaka fighters in the vicinity. Despite the presence of international troops, the group is still subjected to continuous threats, including physical aggression, and looting by anti-Balaka militias.
Gemma Cortes, public information officer for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Bangui, described the humanitarian needs at Yolake as “enormous”.
Cortes told Al Jazeera that delivering aid to many parts of the country had been difficult because of the recent resurgence in violence. She said Yolake was just one of the many places under duress, and the Peuhl ethnic minority, were one community of many who were now under attack.
“Our main concern is access. With Yolake, it has been off and on, and this has severely hampered our work,” Cortes said.
The UN said in a statement that its officials had visited the group on December 18 to assess their situation.
“It found that more than 90 percent want to leave to seek refuge in Cameroon or Chad. People pleaded for assistance with vehicles and security to help them leave the country,” the statement read.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch released a report saying that hundreds of displaced Muslims were now trapped in camps in the western half of the country, living in abysmal conditions and under constant duress.
“Those trapped in some of the enclaves face a grim choice: leave and face possible attack from anti-Balaka fighters, or stay and die from hunger and disease,” Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in the report.
HRW alleged that both the interim government and UN peacekeepers were blocking people from leaving the enclaves.
Responding to HRW’s report, General Babacar Gaye, the UN special representative to CAR, told Al Jazeera that the displaced were free to leave.
HRW said that without protection from the UN, those who leave would be slaughtered by anti-Balaka fighters.
The CAR fell into turmoil following a coup in March 2013, when Muslim-led Seleka fighters removed Francois Bozize from power.
The Seleka-led coalition were involved in a series of brutal attacks on the majority Christian population, prompting the formation of the anti-Balaka militia, who then targeted the Muslim community in towns and villages across the country.
Thousands of people have been killed since March 2013. At least 420,000 people have been displaced internally and more than 400,000 have fled to neighbouring countries. Al Jazeera