“I was 100 percent Central African. From the moment of Bokassa, Kolingba, up until Bozizé and Djotodia, I have been Central African,” he says, rattling off the names of former heads of state of CAR. “But from the time I arrived here, I recognized in my head that I’m a Chadian, 100 per cent,” says Haroum, who is classified as a returnee.
The Chadian government, along with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), has worked towards recognizing those Central Africans who claim to have Chadian ancestry. In 2013, Chadian President Idriss Deby called for Central Africans who were originally Chadian to come to his country if they felt persecuted. Landlocked Chad shares its southern border with Central African Republic, and Haroum’s dilemma is particularly found in southern Chad as RFI witnessed.
According to the UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) statistics from February 2014, more than 60 flights were organized by Chad and another 16 by the International Organization on Migration, as well as numerous truck convoys arranged by the government and facilitated by IOM. Returnees and refugees from the Central African Republic who fled in 2003 also speak of being picked up by Chadian government convoys.
“All of my documents are here and I’m finally recognized as a Chadian. Because I never want to return to the Central African Republic,” says Haroum. He has received his Chadian birth certificate and is waiting for his Chadian identification card.
The distinction is a hazy one, but the Chadian government does differentiate between refugees and returnees. The government and agencies do not discriminate, however, in terms of aiding refugees, returnees, and the local population in need.
“The returnees are Chadians who lived in other countries, and when they were faced with hostility, they returned to their own country,” says Abdoulaye Brahim, government official of Logon Orientale province, where a large number of CAR returnees have been living in camps since early 2014.
While the UNHCR has backed the official recognition of returnees, it asserts that the assessment of returnees is leveled squarely on the Chadian government.
“When the return took place, the Chadian government was obviously very much involved with that,” says Edward O’Dwyer, deputy representative of UNHCR in Chad. “UNHCR supported the process of their stabilisation back at home in the context of a broader approach at the time. And we continue to do that,” he adds.
But can nationality be considered a heart and mind issue, instead of a distinction of national borders? Logon Orientale government official Brahim believes so.
“After all, even those whose parents who were born in the Central African Republic, they are Chadian. Those who are not naturalized, they have Chadian identity inside of them,” says Brahim.
“And that’s the reason why they get their Chadian papers here, and why we call them returnees,” he adds.
Inter-community tension in the Central African Republic descended into sectarian violence in 2013. Refugees and returnees in the Chadian camps say they remember living in peace with their neighbours, no matter what their religion, ethnicity or political persuasion. The rise of Seleka, considered a Muslim rebel militia, backed by then-president Michel Djotodia, stirred up hatred between Muslim and Christian communities. Muslim returnees in the camps say that they were targeted, compounding their desire to leave. Deby gave them the opportunity.
Statelessness affects 10 million people around the world and in Africa, more than one million people are stateless– people who are not recognized as a national by any country– according to UNHCR. The UN agency has made combatting statelessness by 2020 as one of their primary goals.
The issue of identity, especially on the African continent, is closely linked to the borders created by a number of western imperialist governments during the ‘Scramble for Africa’ Berlin conference in 1884-1885. Entire populations, who were related through language, tribe and social customs, were suddenly divided by the stroke of a pen.
Peul herders, an ethnic group of traditional nomads, are a prime example of people caught in the returnee-refugee debate.
“First of all, we come from a people of herders and we moved around all the time,” says Garba Issa, a thin Peul herder with facial tattoos living in Danamaja camp.
“We don’t have one country. We would go anywhere in the world. We are citizens of the world,” he says, speaking of their quest for good pasture for their cattle. Anti-Balaka armed rebels stole Issa’s cows and those of his fellow herders, changing their existence in a single move.
“Looking at the circumstances and how we got here, we are now scattered between Chad, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic,” says Issa. “The government put us here, and we must be patient to find out what the government wants to do with us.”
While many Muslim Central Africans have proudly declared their returnee status, not everyone agrees with this move to embrace their Chadian roots. According to numbers cited by OCHA in June 2017, more than 72,500 people are registered as Chadian returnees, while some 73,000 are considered Central African refugees.
Al-Hadi Omar al Abit, an imam from Nanga Boguila, CAR, says that religion does not define one’s nationality, and should not be a catalyst in choosing allegiance with one country or another.
“The history of religion is not a country,” says al Abit. “You can find a Chadian Christian and Central African Muslim, and CAR is a secular country. I can be Christian, I can be Muslim; that depends on me.”
The keenness of some Central Africans to recognize Chadian roots is understandable: outgoing UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien earlier this month warned that CAR is heading towards a genocide if the international community fails to respond to the escalating violence.
The document process is in motion for returnees, and many in the returnee camps already have their new birth certificates.
Muslims were persecuted, says Imam al Abit, but he believes that is not a reason to abandon CAR.
“The way they left CAR pushed them to say this, it is anger that pushed them to say this. They are always Central African; you can’t abandon your country ,” says al Abit.
“They came here because of the war and they will have peace in CAR and they will return to the country like other Central Africans,” he says.