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Refugee Borders and Scars

Gado refugee site is barely 20 kilometers away from the border between Cameroon and Central African Republic (CAR). The site is on the Cameroon side, with the refugees coming from CAR. Most of them arrived in 2014, escaping brutal mass violence that continues to tear apart their small nation. There are approximately 22,000 refugees at Gado, and they are divided into Gado 1 and Gado 2—two sites that are separated by only a few meters.

The homes of the refugees are made from wood and covered by large UNHCR sheeting. The transition to more permanent homes made out of mud bricks and other materials has been slow, but the organizations are working with the populations to speed it up, helping the more vulnerable among them to build, and encouraging the families that can build on their own to do so. The camp feels crowded, with the homes close to each other. I still don’t know if it’s out of choice, or if it was as a part of the design and maybe limitations set by local authorities or international organizations.

Non-governmental organizations and international agencies stay at a border town called Garoua-Boulai. It is a 30-minute drive from the refugee site, and it has all the feel and vibe of a border town: busy and somewhat chaotic. If you are going north on the main road and make a left in the middle of town, you find yourself quickly and surprisingly at the border. All that’s there is a long pole barrier, then an area of about 100 yards where there is nothing, then another long pole barrier. On this side there are just a few border police officers, and on that other side, you can see soldiers.

We spoke with a border officer (who did not let us take pictures), and he said that the soldiers belong to an international force. He talked about the lawlessness and the great quantities of weapons on the other side. He said that he would not walk those 100 yards across the border, “even if they paid me one million cifa.”

We did not stay there long after that.

I have been visiting refugees now for eleven years. I still cannot imagine how it feels to be so close to home yet having to focus on building a new life in a new country. Both the physical and psychological scars must also be deep, and I wonder how much that border—which they can almost touch—makes their scars hurt even more.

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