Q&A: Why have one in five fled their homes in CAR?

People on car

The Central African Republic has been in turmoil since rebels seized power in March 2013. The UN has warned that the country is heading toward a humanitarian disaster.

What is life like in CAR?
Map showing the location of the Central African Republic and the countries that border it

Most people are terrified as lawlessness has overtaken the country, which is bigger than Spain and Portugal combined. Armed men from rival groups trawl many areas looting, killing, burning crops and homes. Many villages are empty, with people either hiding in fields or in the bush. Some 935,000 people, 20% of the 4.6 million population, have fled their homes.

At least 2.2 million are finding it difficult to feed themselves and almost half of those living in the capital, Bangui, have fled since December, many to a makeshift camp at the airport.

Journey into fear

In pictures: Surviving CAR anarchy

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Why is it so bad?
People arriving at a camp near the cathedral in Bossangoa, Central African Republic

Lack of security means that the UN and other agencies are unable to help those in remote areas; schools and hospitals have been looted by the former rebel coalition, Seleka, that took power. About 70% of children are no longer going to school, and some are being recruited as soldiers.

A small regional peacekeeping force deployed to the country about a year ago but was unable to stop the rebel takeover and subsequent chaos. Rebel leader Michel Djotodia became the first Muslim leader in the mainly Christian country. Although he officially disbanded Seleka, the ex-rebels have continued to launch attacks, prompting the emergence of local Christian civilian protection groups known as "anti-balakas". Fuelled by ethnic rivalries, the conflict has also now become sectarian in nature.

Profile: Michel Djotodia

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Could it get worse?
Young people patrol with rifles near a house destroyed by fire on 11 October 2013 in Bogangolo, CAR

Yes. Some observers have warned it is not an exaggeration to say it could turn into a sectarian genocide. The effect of Mr Djotodia's resignation under pressure from CAR's neighbours is not clear. Some say it could take the heat out of the religious tensions, while others fear it could unleash a new wave of revenge attacks.

Added to the mix, the Ugandan rebel movement, the Lord's Resistance Army, is based in the country.

Fears of sectarian genocide

CAR children ‘face sexual abuse’

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Who are the rebels?
An ex-Seleka soldier stands guard, Central African Republic

"Seleka" means alliance - they are a mixture of different groups, mostly from the mainly Muslim north, where people have long complained of being neglected by various Christian-dominated governments that have ruled the former French colony since independence in 1960.

Mr Djotodia used to be CAR's envoy in the neighbouring Sudanese region of Darfur, where he is believed to have recruited fighters from the Janjaweed militias accused of atrocities, as well as mercenaries from Chad. He has been fighting Mr Bozize for many years. They signed a peace deal in 2007 but Mr Djotodia accused the ousted president of not respecting it and launched a new rebellion. It is not clear who the country's new leader will be but he or she will inherit a difficult task.

CAR: Religious tinderbox

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Why does it matter?
 People prepare to cross by boat the Oubangui river to reach Congolese city Zongo on 10 October 2013 in Bangui, CAR

Apart from the appalling humanitarian situation, the conflict could draw in its neighbours. Some officials suspect that some of the local Muslim Seleka warlords may have a radical Islamist agenda after studying in the Middle East. The country is also rich in virgin forests and minerals - and corruption in the diamond and timber trade has already fuelled much of the country's instability, while its people remain among the poorest in the world.

How Islamist militancy threatens Africa

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Has CAR ever been stable?
Self-proclaimed emperor of Central African Empire, Jean-Bedel Bokassa on 4 December 1977 on the throne after crowning himself in Bangui, CAR

No. Since independence from France in 1960 there have been eight coups. Its most notorious leader was Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who crowned himself emperor at a coronation where he wore a costume inspired by Napoleon and rode in a carriage flanked by soldiers dressed as 19th Century French cavalrymen. He was variously accused of being a cannibal and feeding opponents to lions and crocodiles in his personal zoo.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, a rebel leader turned politician from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, is also on trial at The Hague for alleged war crimes committed a decade ago when his fighters came to help put down a coup by Francois Bozize, who was himself ousted by Seleka in March.

'Good old days' under Bokassa?

Jean-Pierre Bemba's day in court

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What is being done?
A French soldier at Bangui airport, CAR

The African Union has taken over command of the peacekeeping operation, with 4,000 soldiers now on the ground.

France, with UN approval, has also deployed 1,600 troops to try to end the violence, but fighting has continued, with more than 1,000 killed in clashes since December.

Why is France sending troops?

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Why hasn't this stopped the violence?
Graffiti reading "No to France" in a suburb of the capital, Bangui - 9 January 2013

It is hard for the peacekeepers to provide security throughout the vast and under-developed country. As regional peacekeepers have arrived in towns, armed gangs have left to prioritise remote areas elsewhere.

The peacekeepers have also added to the tension with some Muslims suspecting French troops of siding with Christians, while some Christians see Chadian soldiers in the AU force as siding with Muslims.

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