BANGUI An early start to the rainy season in Central African Republic has worsened the plight of hundreds of thousands of people sheltering from religious violence in makeshift camps, raising the risk of malaria and dysentery, aid workers said on Tuesday.
The former French colony has been torn apart by violence that has killed thousands since Seleka, a coalition of mostly Muslim northern rebels, seized power a year ago. Attacks intensified in December when militias drawn from the majority Christian population stepped up reprisals on Muslims.
With French and African peacekeepers powerless to stem the violence, the U.N. refugee agency says at least 700,000 people have fled their homes, many of them living wild in the bush or in shambolic camps dotted across the poor, landlocked country.
Six months of heavy rains typically begin in early April but on Sunday a downpour struck the riverside capital, Bangui.
In the city's largest camp, where 70,000 people are packed together beside the runway of M'poko International Airport, residents waded through up to 30 cms (12 inches) of muddy water.
Most of the displaced have makeshift shelters made from tarpaulins and palm leaves on the swampy soil.
"The area is flooded and we cannot sleep properly. The children are getting sick and the elderly too are getting sick," said Pierrette Yagossa, a student living there. "We aren't getting any aid to build more tents."
The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) said it was seeking sites in the capital where the soil is more absorbent.
"All the conditions are favorable for puddles and standing water, which is always a risk for waterborne diseases like malaria and acute diarrhea." said Judith Leveillee, the deputy head of UNICEF in Central African Republic.
MACHETES AND GRENADES
Aid workers are encouraging people to return to their homes but many are reluctant, citing the risk of revenge attacks, especially against Muslims. At its peak the airport camp of M'Poko housed close to 100,000 people.
The United Nations on Monday proposed a nearly 12,000-strong peacekeeping force to stop the country sliding towards what a top U.N. rights official called "ethnic-religious cleansing". The force is not expected to be operational before late summer.
The Red Cross said it collected 11 bodies over the weekend from across Bangui, some hacked to death with machetes or blasted apart by grenades.
"Those who say the violence is calming down are living a lie. We are the ones who collect the bodies and I can assure you it is not," said Pastor Antoine Mbao Bogo, the local Red Cross president.
Amy Martin, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Bangui, said the rains would make it much harder to reach isolated parts of Central African Republic. Thousands of Muslims sought shelter in the remote north, creating a de facto division of the country.
Close to 300,000 people have also fled to neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Many face food and water shortages and have no shelter, aid workers say.
"These vulnerable people continue to suffer after surviving the carnage we are witnessing in CAR. We urgently need more resources to help them," said Thomas Gurtner, Humanitarian Coordinator for the United Nations in Chad.
(Additional reporting and writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Janet Lawrence)