Feature - Bush war leaves Central African villages deserted

By Stephanie Hancock

BODOULI, Central African Republic, Aug 30 (Reuters) - The village of Korosigna in northern Central African Republic is barely recognisable to those who once lived there.

Every house is either demolished, abandoned or burned to the ground. Weeds and bushes have taken hold. Many homes are barely visible as the forest has moved in and engulfed the ruins.

According to locals, government soldiers attacked Korosigna without warning in January 2006, part of a two-year-old bush war fought against rag-tag rebels across northern parts of the former French colony, landlocked in the heart of Africa.

Like countless other villages in northern Central African Republic, it has sat empty ever since, its inhabitants too terrified to come back.

"They came primarily to kill us," said Kode Grégoire, the village chief, standing on a pile of debris which was once his home. "They said nothing. They started shooting and we fled. Then they burnt our houses."

President Francois Bozize is preparing to hold a national dialogue in coming months with rebel groups and political foes to try to end the fighting.

He has signed peace pacts with two rebel groups this year but stability has proved elusive.

Roads once packed with villagers selling produce and going to market are totally deserted. Only aid workers and rebels still move about, locked in an uneasy co-existence after rebels killed a Doctors Without Borders volunteer two months ago.

While government forces are still in control of key towns in the north such as Paoua and Bossangoa, the rest of the region -- purportedly under rebel control -- is haunted by an eerie calm.


Civilians duck into the bush if they hear an engine approach, fearful it could be the army.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates at least 265,000 people have been forced from their homes since the rebels began their bid to overthrow Bozize in late 2005.

The lucky ones have crossed into neighbouring Chad or Cameroon as refugees: those too old, sick or terrified to move have been left behind to eke out a living in the forests.

"Life in the bush is very hard," said Mbaidoum Alfonse, a 70-year-old farmer whose son was shot dead by the army when his village of Bodouli was attacked.

"There is no drinking water, there is no health care, there are no schools, we sleep badly and we eat badly."

According to aid workers in the region, the majority of attacks on villages have been carried out by government forces. Many witnesses say it is Bozize's elite Presidential Guard with their distinctive green berets who are responsible.

Often the violence follows a similar pattern: the rebels strike government positions and the army retaliates by attacking nearby villages suspected of harbouring them.

Many of the internally displaced civilians in the country return to their villages for only a few hours each day, leaving again at night to sleep hidden in the bush.

"There is no school in the bush so I come, I teach, and then together with the children we leave each day by 2 p.m.," said Bekiya Valentine, the village pharmacist in Bemal near the border with Chad, who started teaching as an act of good will.

In other areas, "bush schools" have been set up in the jungle, away from the main roads.

"We are trapped," said Jean-Jacques Majitoloum, a teacher who fled his home 18 months ago and teaches hundreds of children in a forest clearing. "We can't leave, we can't see our family."

In one empty village, an old man tending his fields cuts a lonely figure. His legs are so crippled he can barely move.

Asked why he did not leave with the others, he replied: "I cannot walk to reach the bush. I'm not scared -- I don't fear death anymore. If they want to kill me they will do it, and there's nothing I can do."


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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