At least 600 people have fled their homes on the outskirts of Ziguinchor, the main city of Senegal’s Casamance region, after clashes between the Senegalese army and separatist rebels.
On 4 September families were seen streaming out of the Diabir neighbourhood – which is just outside of Ziguinchor proper – toting mattresses, televisions, clothing, suitcases and other belongings on their heads, on bicycles or on donkey-carts. People also fled their homes in nearby Baraf.
Many families walked toward areas of Ziguinchor; they told IRIN they were going to join relatives who live in the city. But as of late afternoon at least 150 people were sitting on luggage or on the ground in an area on the edge of Ziguinchor called Grand Yoff.
“We have nowhere to go,” said one man, standing next to his wife and four young sons.
“Rebels came into Diabir,” he said. “Initially we all hid under beds and did not move. Then eventually we decided to leave because we were afraid something worse was to come.”
Heavy weapon fire could be heard in the centre of Ziguinchor throughout the morning of 4 September. The mortar fire followed an attack by rebels of the separatist Movement for the Democratic Forces of Casamance on an army base.
Into the night on 4 September humanitarian organizations and local authorities were evaluating the situation and determining people’s immediate needs.
“It is yet not clear exactly how many people fled their homes,” said Christina de Bruin, head of UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Ziguinchor and UN area security coordinator. “A rapid estimation is that at least 600 people – 85 households – have left the areas of Diabir and Baraf.”
Photo: Nancy Palus/IRIN
|A woman and her children are among hundreds who fled their homes on the outskirts of Ziguinchor|
She added: “For UNICEF protection is the first concern. We need to find out first whether people are safe and whether any children are separated from their families.”
UNICEF and other agencies are readying emergency stocks in case of need, including mosquito nets, water filters, tarpaulins and jerry cans.
UNICEF’s de Bruin told IRIN the situation appears to have reached a new level of gravity. “For a long time the situation in Casamance has been described as ‘neither war, nor peace’. But things have degraded significantly in the last month and these latest events, sadly, have a direct impact on the population.”
The governor of Ziguinchor on 4 September called an emergency meeting with UN agencies and their partner organizations.
The UN has temporarily suspended movement of staff outside of Ziguinchor.
The incident marks the third time since 21 August rebels have clashed with the army.
Casamance is the site of one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts, sparked when MFDC separatists launched a rebellion in 1982. The region – where agriculture is the main source of local income – is hit by sporadic violence as a definitive settlement has yet to be achieved, five years after the government and rebels signed a peace agreement.
Vast parts of the lush region are not cultivated because of land mines and the recent fighting has many people afraid to return to their fields and so they risk losing what they recently planted.