KAGA-BANDORO, Central African Republic UN and EU aid chiefs promised help on Friday to victims of a "forgotten crisis" in Central African Republic, where armed groups are preying on civilians four months after a rebel takeover plunged the country into chaos.
In the town of Kaga-Bandoro, deep in the jungle 350 km (220 miles) north of the capital Bangui, inhabitants have fled constant attacks by gunmen to live in the nearby forests and fields, surviving on roots and the leaves of manioc plants.
The school, government offices and U.N. agency buildings in the town of 26,000 people have been pillaged since the Seleka rebel group seized power in Bangui in March, ending any semblance of state control outside the capital.
"We want to draw the attention of the international community to what is happening to you," Valerie Amos, deputy U.N. security general in charge of humanitarian affairs, told locals. "Central African Republic will no longer be a forgotten crisis."
Since the interim government led by rebel leader Michel Djotodia seized power, its fighters have been accused of reprisal killings and other atrocities.
Aid groups say health services across the country are close to collapse. Attacks and looting are common.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) this week accused the international community of turning its back on the landlocked former French colony.
"LIVING LIKE ANIMALS"
Pascal Zoumbeti, mayor of Kaga-Bandoro, told Amos and EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva that armed groups had raped 37 women in the town, prompting the population to flee their mud huts to hide deep in the jungle.
"We are living like animals," Zoumbeti said. "The attacks have stopped in the last week because the armed groups no longer know where or who to attack."
The only humanitarian group to remain is the International Red Cross.
Georgieva said hunger was widespread and babies were being born malnourished.
"It is on the conscience of the world that we have forgotten Central African Republic," she said, noting that malnutrition rates were twice last year's high levels.
"This is a crisis coming on top of an existing crisis."
Average life expectancy in Central African Republic was just 48 years even before this year's conflict.
Georgieva pledged $20 million in EU aid this year and called on the international community to redouble its efforts to ease the suffering of its 4.5 million people.
Seleka, a grouping of five rebel movements, launched an insurgency in December, accusing former President Francois Bozize of reneging on a previous peace deal.
Fighting has since displaced some 206,000 people in Central African Republic and pushed 55,000 refugees across its borders.
Albert Vanbuel, the town's Catholic bishop, said the crisis was the worst he had seen in 20 years in the mineral-rich country, riven by coups since independence from France in 1960.
Josiane Noutene said she fled to the forest with her family of 15 when the rebels began their march towards the capital.
"When we saw the two planes circle in the sky before landing, and they told us it was the United Nations and European Union, we told ourselves this is our chance for salvation coming from the sky," Noutene said.