BOSSANGOA/BANGUI - You cannot escape the stories of torture and killings here in the Central African Republic.
Parents tell of seeing their children drown or burn to death; wives tell of their husbands tied up and shot; children speak of their relatives hacked to pieces - as the failed state at the heart of Africa descends into anarchy.
And from the darkness come death-squads unleashing unprecedented brutalities on civilians.
These are the country’s new “security forces”, which are made up of mainly Muslim former rebels known as the Seleka, or “the alliance”.
They comprise mercenaries from Chad and Sudan and “liberated” prisoners from CAR who helped to install incumbent president Michel Djotodia in March in exchange for a king’s ransom.
However, the Seleka’s grand prize for its efforts remains elusive in a country with a history of coups and which has been raped by an illegal diamond trade that benefits only a few.
To make matters worse, the Seleka is not a united organisation. Djotodia formally disbanded the group in September.
Civilians say the various Seleka factions have nothing in common - apart from their will to kill and pillage, causing more than 400,000 people to abandon their homes since early this year, leaving around 40 percent of the population in dire need of support.
“Here come the crazies, the sickos,” says one taxi driver in the capital, Bangui, as one of the now ubiquitous machine gun-mounted pick-up trucks careers down the opposite highway.
“All they know is killing,” he adds.
In the capital, everyone whispers about the latest, some say daily, disappearances.
Over a 48-hour period, the bodies of two murdered soldiers were laid out in the street, a magistrate was gunned down in his car, and two people were shot dead when they protested against the killing.
Senior members of the new regime are said to be running torture facilities in the heart of the crumbling city, holding mostly political prisoners.
“We know that behind the Air France agency there’s a building where they take guys there and they imprison them. Sometimes they torture and kill them,” said one western diplomat, on condition of anonymity.
Desperate for protection in a vacuum left by fleeing police and military, Central Africans, especially those in outlying villages heading north to cattle country, have reformed self-defence groups called “anti-balaka” or “anti-machete” that were used to fight highway banditry in the 1980s.
Armed with poisoned arrows and bows, daggers, bayonets and machetes, and hiding in malaria-infested swamps and forests, they have pitted themselves against the disparate Seleka forces, which carry heavy weapons and enjoy impunity.
The anti-balaka attacks “have sometimes been carried out in coordination with better-armed former army elements that remain loyal to former President François Bozizé and seek his return to power”, Phillippe Bolopion, Human Rights Watch’s UN Director told the United States Congress last week.
Sometimes espousing radical anti-Muslim rhetoric, their targeting of the wider Muslim community - which comprises about 10 percent of the population - has been no less vicious than the attacks made by the Seleka.
The cycle of revenge has this time transformed a well-worn political and economic crisis into a deepening sectarian divide that has prompted several UN warnings of genocide.
Halima Adamou lost her 20-year-old twin brother when anti-balaka fighters hijacked a truck heading for Bangui.
The anti-balaka hauled passengers from the vehicle, separated them by religion, and then executed seven Muslim men.
“He was killed by a knife,” she said. “They cut his throat.”.
Muslim reprisal attacks
The backlash is seen in ever-spiralling reprisal attacks, especially in the north-west.
About 200 miles from Bangui, a former Seleka group, now calling themselves the Forces Nouvelles, are exacting a deadly revenge on the homeland of former President François Bozize. They have been razing villages, gunning down civilians and rounding people up for torture.
“When Seleka came to Bossangoa, I saw with my own eyes that they put people in containers at the police station and killed them. There was blood everywhere,” said one of more than 36,000 people who had fled to a Catholic mission in the town of Bossangoa in the northwest.
“They kill and slaughter the people like goats,” he added, requesting anonymity out of fear of reprisals.
But Seleka leader Abdullai Mahamat denies that his troops are responsible for any of the violence in the area.
“I’m controlling my troops,” he says, claiming those who have fled villages were anti-balaka fighters. “The farmers are still there, looking after their fields,” he added.
“If they say Seleka have attacked them, it’s lies. Only these anti-balaka groups have attacked people, mostly Muslims, and it was when they failed to capture Bossangoa, they said it was Seleka,” he says.
He also insist that foreign forces and some of the 3,500 child soldiers have gone home - as per Djotodia’s orders.
But, as he speaks, he is surrounded by men who only speak Arabic in a country where Sango and French are the official languages.
A few boys within sight also try to mask their youth with headwear pulled down over part of their faces.
Living in fear
Around 2,000 Muslims are holed up a few hundred metres away at a school.
Many have fled after witnessing the execution of partners, and children and are unsure of when they will be able to return, if ever.
“I can’t go home as there’s no-one in the neighbourhood. All the Christians have left their houses,” says Adamou. “And even I don’t know what my opinion is of them anymore.”
At the church grounds, priests say that Seleka commander General Yaya has threatened that he will kill the people inside if they do not return to their homes.
The entrance is guarded by a mere four of the 200 regional troops stationed in Bossangoa.
Dofio Rodriguez has heeded the general’s warning. He returned home after he witnessed the Seleka cut his brother’s throat and throw his body into the river, along with several others only a month ago.
The local police station is now commonly cited as a torture centre, where people disappear or are held for ransom, an accusation that Mahamat denies, saying that his forces “only arrest criminals” and that it the facility is currently empty.
Rodriguez thought his village of Bopilette, around 30km away and where some 3,000 farmers eke out an meagre living by digging for gold nearby, would be safer - despite rumours that highway patrols had killed three of his family.
But two days after arriving in early November, some men arrived in the village at night, creeping through the bushes.
At 5am the next morning, they opened fire on the villagers, killing indiscriminately.
“There were 30 people dead, but others were shot whose bodies we did not find,” says Rodriguez, who stayed behind to bury the dead.
Five children under the age of five were also killed, he says.
While medical emergency charities Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross are doing outreach work in some villages, those they are reaching represent a fraction of the wounded and sick.
“The biggest concern about this crisis is for me still a lot of civilians who live out in the bush and have no access to any healthcare and who really fear for their lives,” says Renate Sinke, MSF’s Project Coordinator in Bossangoa.
In addition to facing the conflict’s biggest killer - malaria - ”they risk not going to their fields, so therefore we are really afraid malnutrition will go up”, as harvests go untouched.
Abandoned, razed and looted homes dot the 150km dirt road south of Bossangoa.
Fruit lies fallen under bowing trees and fields grow high. Priests at the Catholic Mission say that Christians are not allowed to travel unless given special papers by Seleka, and FOMAC are only allowed 5km from Bossangoa.
The situation remains tense with leaders and western diplomats discussing ways to neutralise the danger being created by the disparate armed forces.
CAR Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye, a former human rights lawyer, says that peacekeepers should be allowed anywhere in the country.
Like many western diplomats, he agrees that the approcimately 5,000 Seleka should not be absorbed into the police and army, as it would sanction abuses, as well as bloat an already defunct payroll.
He calls it a “unilateral decision” and expresses deep concern for CAR “on a humanitarian, security and human rights basis”.
He sounds exhausted. But it is control of the country which remains key.
Like Djotodia, who recently admitted that he was not in control of his forces, he also sounds desperate for a way to stem the abuses and quell the rising hatred.