Many who fled the 2013-2014 conflict in the Central African Republic are returning home to find their houses destroyed or occupied by other displaced families – a further source of tensions in the conflict-torn country.
"It's complicated to rebuild," said Ali Halid, looking at the cracked walls of his house in Carnot, a town in the west of the Central African Republic (CAR), some 150 kilometers (93 miles) from the border to Cameroon.
Halid and his family fled Carnot to safety in Cameroon in late 2013. Earlier that year, a mostly Muslim rebel alliance known as Seleka briefly seized power in a coup. In reprisal, armed militias known as anti-Balaka raged through the western Mambere-Kadei region taking revenge on Muslims.
As looting, burning of homes, and horrific ethnic and religious violence spiraled out of control, some 582,000 people fled CAR, mainly to Cameroon, Chad, DRC and the Republic of the Congo. Around 687,000 more people were internally displaced by the bloody conflict.
For Halid, life as a refugee in Cameroon was tough; he had no job and had to pay rent. With the violence in CAR ebbing in late 2016, he decided to return home alone to see whether he and his family could start over again in Carnot.
Returning to occupied homes
Luckily, his house was still standing. But someone was living there and Halid had to pay them to leave – a common situation in a country with so many internally displaced and so many destroyed homes.
"The return of Central Africans is a major issue," explained Pacome Ngome, a UNHCR protection officer in Carnot.
"Homes and the land of displaced people were stolen or occupied by those who stayed. It is sometimes difficult to accept their return because [the occupiers] don't want to become homeless and jobless," he told DW.
The situation is exacerbated by the lack of registered titles deeds that record the rights of occupants to particular land or housing – making it difficult for those who fled to prove their traditional ownership.
"People here are deeply attached to their ancestors' lands and their jobs. Some of them [who left] simply refuse to head back fearing what they'll find. Others have now lost everything and are living on the margins of society," Ngome said.
One organization working on finding ways to solve the problem is the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). "We spot occupied houses and say to residents the rightful owner will come back," Jan Egeland, the Secretary-General of the NRC told DW during a visit to the town.
"We help them to find another place to stay … [because if they] stay in this place and the rightful owner returns, there will be more conflicts," Egeland said.
A dearth of housing
The Norwegian Refugee Council also recently built new homes for 600 people at a site in Carnot known as PK5 camp.
Apsatou Moudibo lives in PK5 with her husband. She returned to the region two weeks ago to find her house had been completely destroyed in the conflict. "I couldn't stop crying for three days," Moudibo told DW. Without a place to live, others remain marooned in makeshift refugee camps even though the Mambere-Kadei region is now considered relatively safe.
"Many of my family members are still [in Cameroon] mainly because their houses were destroyed," said Souleman Adamou, the head of the Carnot Muslims Committee.
"They want to come back but they can't."