Lone children paint terrifying picture of Central Africa violence

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AFP) - It's hard to single them out from the noisy crowd in a makeshift camp housing thousands of people displaced by deadly violence in the Central African capital.

They're children, all alone, traumatised by the massacres they witnessed in Bangui, days after a wave of sectarian violence came to a head in the capital, prompting France to deploy 1,600 troops to assist an African peacekeeping force already on the ground.

"The children say that the armed men come into the house", says Unicef worker Eloge Lusambya at the Don Bosco camp who has the delicate task of talking to kids left scared and in desperate situations.

"They force their daddy to go out, they shoot. Mummy tries to escape, they shoot. The children stay hunkered down at home."

Some 21,000 people have congregated in the camp, where teenagers play volleyball next to a big white tent belonging to Unicef, the United Nations children's agency.

Shading from the sun under a huge mango tree, others play table football with a little orange replacing the ball, and a little further on, children recite poems that talk about peace at a theatre workshop.

Standing in the middle of this frenzied activity, Brother Pierre Claver, who works with Unicfe, holds a wad of pink and white pages listing the number of "unaccompanied children", as they are known in humanitarian-speak.

"We have not yet counted everyone but for the moment, we have 230 including 74 who are now orphans due to the situation", he says, referring to the violence largely pitting Muslims against Christians that has left more than 600 dead over the past 10 days.

The other youngsters found themselves alone in the general terror and mayhem of the unrest when entire districts of the capital were deserted, but their parents are not necessarily dead and remain missing.

"The main thing for them is that they feel safe. That they find their zest for life again after having lost it completely," Brother Claver said.

The testimonies of the children themselves provide a glimpse into the terror that swept through Bangui on the night of Dec 4 to Dec 5, when Christian militia massacred Muslim civilians in retaliation for the attacks on Christians by former members of the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels, who took power in a March coup.

Jocelin, 12, used to live with his grandmother in Bozoum, some 400km away from the capital, but fled his home when the country plunged into chaos after the Seleka rebels took power.

He went to see his sister in Bangui, and was alone when the violence erupted in the capital.

"I saw four people. Two had machetes, two had weapons. They killed the neighbours' children. I think about it a lot, it scared me," he says quietly.

"The Seleka came to our district, they attacked us," says 13-year-old Saint-Cyr.

"They entered the houses one by one, to loot and to kill." Saint-Cyr was taken to the Don Bosco camp by his neighbours, and does not know where his relatives are.

"I think a lot about my parents and grandparents. They might be dead, I don't know," he says, standing next to a football field.

Jocelin is later taken to the Saint-Anne orphanage, where eight orphans have joined the ranks of the 40 or so others already present before the latest unrest kicked off 10 days ago.

"Without schooling, without activities, these children are in constant danger," says Father Leon, who helps rehabilitate and train young people in Bangui.

"If ever on the streets they are promised nguinza (money in Sango, the Central African language), then..."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.