BANGUI - In the latest violence to rock the crisis-prone and poor Central African Republic, children have become deliberate targets of armed gangs, mainly because of their family's faith, aid workers say.
"Before now, children were collateral victims, but today some of them are targeted directly," said Ombretta Pasotti, who coordinates work by the Italian NGO Emergency at the paediatric hospital in Bangui, which took in the first child casualties.
"Attacks against children have sunk to a vicious new low, with at least two children beheaded, and one of them mutilated, in the violence that has gripped the capital...," the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said in a December 30 statement.
In all, UNICEF said it had verified 16 killings of children since December 5, while 60 more youths were wounded in clashes that have broken out between Muslim former rebels and militias from the Christian majority.
The UN agency's representative in CAR, Souleymane Diabete, said that in addition to "being directly targeted in atrocious revenge attacks", more and more children were being forced to join the armed groups.
UNICEF appealed to sectarian fighters to "halt grave violations against children", to release those in their ranks and to avoid attacks on health and education workers.
In just three weeks, some 370,000 people have been displaced to dozens of makeshift camps in an upheaval affecting almost half of Bangui's population, relief workers said. About 100,000 residents have fled to a tent city at the airport, where African and French troops are based.
At the hospital, David, 13, clutched his mother but his gaze was vacant. One of 38 children admitted last month, he had a bullet in the arm and was among many youngsters to receive free emergency surgery in a shabby unit with discoloured walls.
"Some children are victims of stray bullets and shell fragments... Some were wounded 'by chance', but here we also have children who were shot because they are Muslims," Pasotti said.
Burundian soldiers patrol near the Cocoro market in the PK5 district of Bangui. PHOTO/AFP
Burundian soldiers from the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA) stop an armed man at the Cocoro market. PHOTO/AFP
The landlocked nation of 4.6 million people has endured a succession of coups, rebellions and mutinies since independence from France in 1960, but the latest strife is the first to take on a dangerous religious dimension, after rebels of the mainly Muslim Seleka coalition seized power in March last year.
'It is hard for us to work'
Christians have taken up arms and launched attacks on Muslim civilians, leaving many casualties each day in Bangui as well as in the largely lawless provinces, where almost 800,000 people have been displaced.
In one hospital bed, a boy not even 10 years old was drowsing, with a large bandage around his head. He was injured by a slashing cut from a machete. One of his neighbours in the ward had multiple wounds from a grenade blast.
"We do our best, but because of the insecurity, it is hard for us to work, let alone the lack of supplies that reach us with difficulty, and above all we lack blood" for transfusions, the coordinator said.
Deeper into the premises, another medical team works to deal with another effect of poverty and conflict - undernourishment. In the courtyard, many mothers were gathered to cook the available food in heavy pans, as well as doing the laundry.
More than 100 children were crammed into the nutrition unit, some of them direly underfed. Outside town at the airport, Antonov cargo planes sometimes land with metal crates stamped with UN markings, but aid workers say the food is never enough.
President Michel Djotodia has disbanded the coalition that brought him to power at the head of a transitional government, but many Seleka fighters have gone rogue in atrocities that provoked the Christian reprisals.
'Children can't go home for fear'
In less violent times and with the support of several non-governmental organisations over two years, staff at the Bangui paediatric hospital managed to "reverse the curve" of child mortality from 15 to 5 percent.
"Since the violence resumed, we've gone back up to 13 percent," hospital director Jean Chrysostome Gody told AFP.
"We have nearly 100 sick patients for 54 beds and some children can't go home for fear of the violence," added a doctor who specialises in nutrition.
A woman carrying her child walks past the Cocoro market in the PK5 district of Bangui. PHOTO/AFP
People from the Nigerian community of Centrafrica arrive at the Bangui International airport to take a flight for Nigeria. PHOTO/AFP
Alima Hamadou's child was rushed to the hospital in a coma. He has since recovered, but his mother and all four of her children have stayed on the premises, waiting for Bangui to calm down.
"The situation has never been so bad," said a hospital nutrition specialist outside a tent of the charity Action Against Hunger that has been put up on open ground to help take in the excess of patients.
The director of the children's hospital was concerned about the morale of his staff. "We need to hold on, see the good side of things. We have support from new doctors, from UNICEF and partner NGOs," Gody said.
"This is our struggle and I would like to hope that one day all this will be a thing of the past."
But the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Thursday warned that with the flight of civilians to overcrowded camps, the risk of disease was heightened, particularly for children.
WHO teams last month found that measles had broken out at the airport site and another in the town of Damala, and announced an immunisation campaign starting Friday and intended to reach more than 60,000 youngsters, with the help of Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF.