Central African Republic: Where have all the people gone?
The dirt roads here are ominously empty. So are the villages.
Every few kilometres the thick bush recedes to reveal a few mud brick houses with straw roofs. Sometimes a dog or a goat stares from a doorway. Many of the homes have been burnt.
But where are the people?
An hour's drive on a rutted track north of the dilapidated town of Bossangoa, past dozens of abandoned hamlets, we stopped at the sprawling village of Lere.
We shouted towards the bushes, and I found an old wheel hub to bang. After about 15 minutes, three nervous-looking men emerged from the long grass.
"We were scared. We thought you might be Seleka," said Guy Sawa, a gaunt 34-year-old farmer carrying a battered machete.
"When we heard the cars we ran away - when they come into town they just start shooting."
His brother had been in such a rush to hide that he'd fallen and cut his knees.
Seleka is the former rebel alliance that recently overthrew the president of the Central African Republic (CAR) and then disintegrated into banditry, score-settling and horrific brutality.
Inter-communal violence has followed, increasingly along religious lines, with Christian self-defence "anti-Balaka" forces targeting Muslim communities thought to be allied to the Seleka.
"We don't want war. We're here to reassure the population," a Seleka commander, Sylvain Bordas, had told me the day before at a roadblock closer to the capital, Bangui.
But the empty villages to the north tell another story.
Lere has been empty for months.
"I will take you to where we hide," said Guy Sawa, setting off into the undergrowth at a fast pace.
Half an hour later, we reached a clearing and more than a dozen civilians standing beside a makeshift shelter. In all, roughly 400,000 people in CAR are thought to be in a similar plight.
"We live like animals here. No clean water. No food. No medicine. No salt. No soap," said Mareus Faiton-Haena, a 32-year-old teacher, who said the community felt trapped by the Seleka on one side and armed Muslim pastoralists on the other.
Beside him, 22-year-old Flavie Degbem told me she had just buried her one-week-old daughter who died of an unknown illness. She said the Seleka had shot dead her brother.
Guide to Central African Republic
- Crisis has affected entire population of 4.6 million people
- 10% have fled their homes
- 25% need food aid
- Unknown number killed - several hundred in one area in two weeks
- Too dangerous to go to rural areas where most killings occur
- 3,500 child soldiers
- Most schools and hospitals outside capital looted and not functional
- Currently 2,500 African peacekeepers and 600 French troops - to be increased to 3,600 and 1,200
Two hours to the south we spotted some shadows behind a row of trees. They emerged cautiously after we'd stopped our car.
Ghislan Marto and five colleagues from the anti-Balaka were carrying crude homemade shotguns and amulets, which they insisted made them "immune" to the Seleka's more sophisticated AK47 automatic rifles.
"We are here to defend our village," said Ghislan, 30. But his men said they had not exchanged fire with the Seleka for two months.
Earlier, in Bangui, I'd met the African Union's representative, a feisty Djiboutian woman named Hawa Ahmed Yusuf.
She, like everyone else in town, was waiting for a new resolution from the UN Security Council and, following that, an announcement from France's President Francois Hollande, that his army would rush reinforcements into CAR.
Ms Yusuf insists confidently that "we can break the cycle" of coups, rebellions and autocrats in CAR, acknowledging that the African Union continued to rely heavily on outside funding.
"Our continent is always facing so many challenges. Our heads of state try to be ready but always we're facing the question of logistics and funds.
"As Africans we can make a difference. But sometimes as an African woman I'm very embarrassed to see this country and all the victims - women suffering, young girls raped without justice. But I hope all these things will be stopped with the support of the international community."
Almost everyone I've met here so far has expressed a similar hope that French troops, and an expanded African force, can end the current instability. As in Mali at the start of the year, expect a rapid advance, a surge of stability, and then a much tougher, messier search for longer-term solutions.
Towards evening we stopped in the market town of Bossangoa, where some 40,000 civilians are currently seeking shelter - Muslims at a mosque, Christians in the grounds of the Catholic church.
"The relationship on the streets between Muslims and Christians is broken. Perhaps forever," said Father Dieudonne. "But if Seleka leave town, maybe the relationship can survive."
Significantly, negotiations have been take place in order to move the Seleka fighters to two villages outside Bossangoa, in the hope that the country's shattered state institutions can take their place, backed up by troops from the regional peacekeeping force Fomac who are already patrolling the town. If it works, it could be a significant breakthrough.
Smoke from hundreds of cooking fires hung in the twilight air around the church as Estani Gbeya wandered through the crowds wearing an Arsenal football shirt - a team he'd never heard of.
He is eight but looks much smaller. Now he's an orphan. Disease killed his mother a year ago. Last month a Seleka fighter shot dead his father in their village, called Betoko.
Perched on a concrete step, Estani used a grubby sleeve to rub the tears from his eyes.
"All the Muslims were looking to kill us with any weapons they had," he says.
"They killed my father and took away his body. We felt so sad and tearful and we ran away. Now my aunty is taking care of me. I don't know if I should stay here or go back to our village. If we go back, what if Seleka kill us, then what will I become?"