Homes are being torched and child soldiers are roaming the streets, as the Central African Republic continues to be plagued by inter-militia violence.
The cycle of violence is deeply set, as communities become mired in distrust and a will for revenge in tit-for-tat attacks.
Hundreds of people have been killed in recent weeks, as the largely Muslim Seleka rebel group, which ousted the country’s president in March, and a largely Christian militia named Anti-Balaka – “Balaka” meaning “machete”, the Seleka weapon of choice – have targeted each other, and unarmed villagers.
“The entire population of 4.6 million people is affected,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “And half of them are children.”
He described 2013 as the year CAR descended into chaos, and called for a commission of inquiry into reports of atrocities.
|Memorial for French soldiers killed in CAR|
“More than 600,000 people are displaced, and nearly 70,000 have fled the country,” the UN chief added.
Many are now in makeshift camps in the capital, Bangui, under the protection of French and African Union soldiers – while others have gone to the town of Bossangoa, about 300km north of the capital.
On the road to Bossangoa, Al Jazeera encountered armed children among a group of Anti-Balaka fighters.
“All the children we have with us are ready to fight,” said one of the vigilante leaders. “We are overwhelmed. When things are tough, you have to shoot back and cause fear to save yourself.”
In the town, former homes of Muslims still smoulder. Their occupants have long since fled. Some 7,000 Muslims have taken refuge in the shadow of African peacekeepers here, while 36,000 Christians have packed into the grounds of the nearby Catholic Church.
Meanwhile, in the French capital, Paris, President Francois Hollande paid tribute to the two French soldiers killed in CAR.
“They did a nobel mission, which was to save people in the Central African Republic,” he said during their funeral service.
Hollande has asked for European nations to help with peacekeeping efforts in Central Africa, and said that French troops would be replaced by African Union soldiers in the coming weeks.