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Dublin: 10°C Thursday 28 January 2021

Suitcase or coffin? The choice thousands of people faced in CAR

A total of 2,599 people died by gunshot, machete attacks or grenades in a six-month period.

Source: Médecins Sans Frontières Ireland/YouTube


For an Irish person reading that seemingly-crass phrase, the coffin ship comes to mind.

But it is not the 1800s we are discussing here. Médecins San Frontieres/Doctors without Borders (MSF) used the term to describe the findings about a recent survey in the Central African Republic.

The mortality research was conducted amongst a group of more than 30,000 refugees who fled to Chad during the peak of the violent crackdown against the minority Muslim population.

The organisation discovered that 2,599 people died while undertaking the journey between November 2013 and April 2014. That is about 8% of the 32,768 people who had originally composed the 3,449 families.

The vast majority of the deaths were caused by gunshot, machete, grenade or other blast wounds.

One third of the people surveyed had lost a family member, with almost as many losing two relatives.

Among the dead were 209 children under the age of 15 and 227 men and women over 60 years old.

The journey to Chad proved fatal for 322 people who were trampled in the rush to board vehicles, suffocated in overcrowded conditions, or died during attacks perpetrated whilst the convoys were en route.

Suitcase or coffin? The choice thousands of people faced in CAR
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  • Central African Republic

    Outside the church, Muslims gather to pray. Although international forces on the ground are growing in number, they are still unable to secure the protection of the civilian population, in particular the Muslim communities who have either fled or live in a few enclaves.Source: Yann Libessart/MSF
  • Central African Republic

    Displaced people at the airstrip in Carnot.Source: Yann Libessart/MSF
  • Central African Republic

    In Carnot, approx 900 Muslim displaced people are sheltering from attack in a Catholic church. MSF provides medical care, water and food supply and sanitation.Source: Yann Libessart/MSF

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, between December 2013 and January 2014 several hundred thousand people fled abuse and violence in CAR, seeking refuge in neighbouring Chad and Cameroon.

Today, nearly the entire Muslim population in the western half of CAR has left the country.

Epicentre, MSF’s epidemiological research centre undertook this research to understand the levels of violence perpetrated against those who fled and their families.

“The shocking levels of violence documented in our study should not leave the impression that the worst is over,” said Dr. Mego Terzian, president of MSF.

“MSF teams continue to work inside enclaves in the Central African Republic where thousands of people remain trapped, protected by international forces, but with no chance to escape. Living conditions in these areas are very precarious. The population have few prospects and face daily threats.”

Opinion: The worst crisis you’ve never heard of… is the CAR crisis the next Rwanda?

Column: The forgotten crises that don’t make the evening news still deserve our attention 

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