BANGUI, The United Nations Mission in the troubled Central African Republic, known by its French acronym, MINUSCA, has given armed groups in the north of the country 48 hours to clear out.

The Mission wants to clear a 50 kilometre perimeter around the town allowing displaced persons to return.

Over the last three weeks, some 60,000 people mostly women left everything behind to escape clashes between the armed groups Justice Riot (RJ) and the National Movement for the Liberation of the Central African Republic (MNLC).

They ended up in Paoua, where some 40,000 residents took them in.

Now the food and water is running out.

Charles Tombe, 52, who ran a small medical centre, is one of numerous eyewitnesses 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.

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.

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.

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.