"We fled because we had seen soldiers wounded, houses burned, women raped," says Charles Banganya, a refugee waiting for a World Food Programme (WFP) aid distribution in Zinga. "We have been through all this before in earlier wars and we had no intention of living through the same experience. You do not wait for death. A wise man can tell the danger from afar. That is why we are in exile now."
The refugee exodus from Sud-Ubangi happened quickly. Those who fled say they simply picked up what they could and headed over the river, using whatever crafts came to hand, with some drowning.
Sud-Ubangi lies next to Equateur province, where most of the clashes [http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=87136] took place.
The sheer volume of the exodus has left relief agencies struggling to keep up. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 107,000 people have fled DRC for the Republic of Congo. Many more are displaced within the DRC itself.
CAR hosts about 17,000 refugees, settled temporarily in sites near the Ubangi river in the Lobaye region. UNHCR estimates at least 60 percent of the refugees are children, many having fled orphanages.
Speaking after a visit to Zinga, WFP regional director for West and Central Africa, Thomas Yanga, warned that initial predictions of a short-term refugee presence had been wide of the mark.
"We anticipate that the refugees will be there for at least a year," said Yanga, adding that WFP had responded as quickly as possible to the influx, liaising closely with the local authorities. UNHCR and others have pointed to refugees vastly outnumbering the local population in areas like Zinga and Mongoumba, which have their own nutritional problems. Yanga acknowledged fears among sections of the host population that the influx of refugees might jeopardize their own food security, but said WFP's provision of food aid, including items like salt, beans and oil, had alleviated such concerns.
"From what I've seen, food needs have been entirely covered," said Yanga, adding that WFP would brief other UN agencies on medical, shelter and other needs.
"Housing and food have been our biggest problems so far," says Calvin Andoma, a teacher from Libenge. "We have been really exposed to the cold here. We need sheeting for our huts."
This is the dry season and temperatures drop after the sun goes down. "It is bitterly cold at night," complains Madame Ida. "The children are getting malaria, there is a lot of diarrhoea and some cases of typhoid." Other refugees talk of several deaths in Zinga.
Refugees and relief agencies have faced a similar situation in southeast CAR, with thousands of refugees arriving in Haut-Mbomou after fleeing attacks by the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army.
In Sud-Bangui, the refugee exodus was triggered by serious clashes between the Boba and the Lobala. Many of the Boba refugees in Zinga come from the riverside town of Libenge, scene of clashes between rebels and government troops during DRC's 1996-2003 civil war.
Clashes between the Boba and the Lobala were first reported in late October. Boba refugees acknowledge that there have been longstanding tensions between the communities since at the least the 1940s, but nothing like the kind of violence witnessed recently in places like Dongo, south of Libenge.
"For a long time there has been a dispute about access to ponds containing fish," says "Mr Jonathan", designated refugee spokesman in Zinga. "There was a pond that was specially allocated to the Boba, but there was a break in the family line of succession and the Lobala tried to take over." Neither local nor outside mediators from Kinshasa could break the impasse and it was the Lobala who initiated the conflict, he said. "They did not like the kind of solutions being put forward, so they resorted to traditional violence."
The version from Kinshasa is that a Lobala militia group, made up in part of demobbed soldiers, staged an attack on Dongo in late October, targeting police and security forces. There were subsequent reports of Dongo being deserted by the civilian population. The Congolese government announced that the town had been recaptured in mid-December by the Congolese Armed Forces (FARD) and has since urged civilians to return.
But refugees like Mathieu Balimbala say it is difficult to get up-to-date information. "We are just refugees living across the river. We don't know what is going on," Balimbala told IRIN. "We would like to go back and see if we can live in peace again, but that is not for now."