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Deserted villages and abandoned lives

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'Ghost villages' of Central Africa

By Mike Thomson
Today programme, Central African Republic

In the last three years, over 300,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in the Central African Republic.

Abandoned village
Villages are abandoned as former residents say it is still too dangerous
It is one of the poorest countries in the world, suffering 11 coups in the last 10 years.

Rebel forces have been fighting government troops since 2003 when the current President, Francois Bozize, took power.

The rebels claim that the north and west of the country has been totally neglected, allowing bandits to roam at will and schools, hospitals and roads to crumble.

Elections, scheduled to be held in 2010, and peace talks currently taking place in the capital Bangui, are supposed to offer new hope.

But people still live in danger. Gangs of armed bandits prey on the vulnerable, make many areas of the vast territory dangerous.

Large areas - such as the countryside in the north-west near the town of Paoua - have thousands of families still camped in the bush after their villages were ransacked by government forces nearly two years ago.

Rebel leaderAwash with gunsWarlordAbandoned villageWidow villageHumanitarian disaster Read Mike Thomson's reports from Central African Republic

Stretching for 50km outside the town are ruined and burned villages, empty of inhabitants.

One such village, Beogombo Deux, is completely deserted. Crumbling walls, punctured with the occasional bullet hole, are covered with thick vegetation. The school house stands empty, with writing still on the blackboard.

The village chief, Jacques Berte, explains that government soldiers visited the village and accused its inhabitants of helping local rebels.

"We were sitting peacefully at home in the evening when they burst into the village and started shooting at us. It all happened so quickly. We didn't know what was going on," he says.

"The first person to die was my oldest son. He was just 19. He had only been married for six months….and it happened right in front of me.

"They let me go because they thought I was too old. But they shot my boy. The bullet hit him in the back and then came out his chest. He just fell down and died. Another man tried to run from his house and they shot him in the back. They went inside and found his older brother and a boy. Then they took them both outside and shot them."

Anonymous soldiers
We can't even cross the road because if you step out of the bush, government soldiers will shoot at you
Nyewotam Berte

Villagers suffer illnesses, such as malaria. Jorge Jimeno, from the Mentor Initiative aid agency which specialises in treating those with malaria, explains that the disease is the country's biggest killer.

"The people here have it up to eight times a year. The big problems is for children under five."

Now villagers are caught between the warring factions. Nyewotam, the wife of village chief Jacques Berte, says that the community was caught in the middle.

"We can't go back to our villages because it is still very, very dangerous," she says.

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Abandoned school house

"We can't even cross the road because if you step out of the bush, government soldiers will shoot at you. They were sent to protect us but instead they're killing us because they claim we're supporting rebel groups.

"When rebel soldiers first came to this area they protected us. But when they get into battle with government forces people get killed in the crossfire.

"Not only that but now we have to pay the rebels taxes. For instance, whenever we go to market with our crops we have to give them money and sometimes they just take our crops by force. They've become very dangerous."

Bush village gathering
Thousands live in the bush, making them vulnerable to disease
Those exiled from their homes and living in fear are not optimistic about the efforts at peace being made in the capital.

"To me, dialogues and peace agreements are like elections," says Nyewotem Berte. "We've been electing politicians for a long time but this never brings peace to our villages.

"We are living in the bush like animals, drinking the same water as them. All we want is peace, not words."


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