In Central African Republic, militia violence leaves villages devastated
"We first heard gunshots. Then we saw the horses arrive, each carrying two or three men, armed with Kalashnikovs, rifles, bows and arrows," Charles Tombe says.
"They shot at everyone -- we fled into the bush. There are corpses over there, rotting."
Tombe, 52, ran a small medical centre, which he said was burned down along with all the other houses after the village of Bekoro Misso was looted.
He is one of numerous eyewitnesses AFP interviewed about militia violence that has erupted in northwest Central African Republic, sapping hopes of stabilising a dirt-poor, fragile state.
Tombe and thousands of others have sought refuge in the small dusty town of Paoua. Many survivors recount nightmarish stories of gunfire and machete attacks.
Two rival armed groups, calling themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of the Central African Republic (MNLC) and Revolution and Justice (RJ), are jockeying for control of the area.
Up until the end of last year, they divided territory and checkpoints -- a crucial source of income where businessmen, travellers and farmers are charged a fee to pass through.
But the murder of an RJ leader in November set off a chain reaction of killing and counter-killing.
Retaliatory attacks swiftly spread to the local population, suspected of conniving with the other side.
The better-armed MNLC is being supported, according to several witnesses, by fighters on horseback from the Fulani nomadic ethnic group, who have come from Chad.
A 24-year-old motorcycle taxi driver named Prince, from the village of Bedoua, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Paoua, says his mother and younger brother were killed before his eyes.
"They even burned a house with people inside," he says.
Sixteen-year-old Lanissa Ne Oumangue says she fled with her year-old baby after her village, Bemal, 50 kms from Paoua, was attacked by MNLC thugs on January 3.
Her husband was shot dead in cold blood, she says. Armed men, she adds, threw an infant on the ground and then killed it.
Mired in poverty but rich in diamonds, gold and uranium, Central African Republic has been battered by a five-year conflict between militias that began after then-president Francois Bozize was overthrown.
Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting and more than a million people have fled their homes, according to the UN Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was also forced to shut seven health centres in January.
In the last few weeks, more than 60,000 people have taken refuge in Paoua, a town whose normal population is 40,000, according to the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Host families are taking in people who are displaced, despite the enormous strain of feeding them. On the local market, the price of maniochas doubled and that of sugar by a third, partly because supplies, trucked in from neighbouring Cameroon, have drastically fallen because of the violence.
Bernadette Corta, 24, says she has more than a hundred people who have taken refuge in her two houses.
"If we eat, all of us eat, otherwise none of us eats," she says firmly, adding that the closest well to her home has now run dry.
The latest arrivals in Paoua are holed up on land owned by the 20 local churches, sleeping under plastic sheets distributed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), or under the mango trees.
One worry is of long-term impoverishment, for many cotton farmers fled "at a critical moment, during the harvest," depriving them of their income, says Jean Ospital of MSF.
NGOs and the UN have so far failed to establish the death toll in the areas outside Paoua as many areas are too dangerous to visit.
A trip to the village of Bedaya, 20 kms from Paoua, reveals why.
The village is almost lifeless. The mud houses are deserted, there are no children or adults, and kitchen utensils lie abandoned by the ashes of an old fire -- a possible indication of the haste in which people fled after being attacked.
At first glance, the only inhabitants seem to be half-starving dogs with patchy fur, roaming around, searching for scraps of food.
But as Cameroonian soldiers with a UN peacekeeping force arrive, a handful of men slowly appear, saying they are trying to find food for their families.
In Paoua, thousands of hungry people crowd around a truck parked in the square of the Holy Family Church.
Emergency food from the World Food Programme (WFP) is unloaded but disputes erupt when some begin to realise there are not enough rations to go around.
Bags of food are torn apart as people fight over rice and children throw themselves onto the ground to pick up grains in the dust.