NDELE, Central African Republic (AP) — The gunfire starts here as soon as the sun rises, echoing across the town as women make their way to the well and the fortunate few children who still attend school head to class on rutted red paths lined by banana trees.
One group of rebels is nestled in the forest on the outskirts of town; their longtime enemies are positioned within walking distance on the other. Sometimes they shoot simply to announce their presence to the other.
Mostly, though, they terrify townspeople who already have endured years of upheaval and rebellion, and who are now confronting an increasingly complex and toxic array of armed fighters.
"Be brave! Be brave!" children aged 8 and 9 shout to reassure each other as the gunfire crackles in this town fatigued by the daily threat of stray bullets.
The newest rebellion to roil Central African Republic is estimated to have forced some 173,000 people from their homes since December across the already deeply impoverished country in the heart of Africa.
It also has put a country that is bordered by some of Africa's most troubled nations firmly in the hands of rebels who critics say are more consumed with controlling the country's natural resources than bringing development and prosperity.
Most residents of Ndele fled into the surrounding countryside when rebels took the northern town of 13,000 in the far north in their first power grab before making their way south to Bangui, the capital, by March.
Each day brings the threat of new uncertainty in Ndele as young fighters in camouflage and turbans continue to arrive in town. Every one has a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
The sweet scent of mangoes ripening on the ground mixes with the smoke from freshly fired weapons.
"Each day there is more gunfire and the government has not addressed the problem," says Jean-Jacques Lundi, a father of seven who repairs those abandoned motorcycles that haven't been commandeered by rebel groups. "Until they disarm, life cannot return to normal."
In announcing its formation in December, the rebel alliance known as Seleka said it wanted to redress decades of neglect by the federal government, particularly by longtime President Francois Bozize.
For example, the road several hundred kilometers (miles) long between the provincial capitals of Ndele and Birao, for example, has not been repaved since this country the size of France, its former colonial ruler, gained independence in 1960.
"During the Bozize regime, we were completely forgotten," says Khalil Rakess, the secretary-general of Seleka for the Ndele region, whose camp is in an old Department of Forestry building.
"Seleka is going to improve life for the residents of Ndele," he says.
His colleagues lounge in plastic lawn chairs, showing off their rocket-propelled grenades. They wear a mixture of stolen army uniforms and Adidas track suits, and take down notes with International Committee of the Red Cross pens.
Yet four months after the rebels seized Ndele, most schools remain closed and unemployment has soared to around 70 percent. Public servants have not been paid, and light bulbs gather thick red dust without electricity.
Residents like Jean-Bosco N'Dackouzou say the rebels too have profited at the expense of civilians. Over the course of several days, they took the computers he was using to train unemployed people in town, plus two generators, solar panels, even his kitchen utensils. They shot 37 of his goats for food, he said.
"We are being held hostage and you steal from us," he says of the rebels.
Rebels also have looted non-governmental organizations and even take barrels of the fuels that the United Nations uses to operate humanitarian flights to the town.
The town of Ndele sits in an isolated corner of northern Central African Republic, not far from the country's borders with its troubled neighbors Chad and Sudan. The capital, Bangui takes is at least two days away by road, and cellphone reception is sporadic at best.
Ndele has suffered waves of armed rebellions dating back to 2006. In the latest spasm, bandits with Kalashnikovs loot hospitals and steal cars, and extort "taxes" from farmers but deliver no electricity or other public needs.
The Darfur region of Sudan is nearby, and the latest scare has been triggered by the reported arrival of janjaweed fighters, notorious for their role in putting down the Darfur rebellion, alongside members of Seleka.
Seleka denies their presence, but armed Sudanese men could be seen on a recent afternoon riding in Seleka trucks. They do not speak the national languages of Central African Republic and are known to be from Darfur, townspeople say.
The town is also newly awash in weapons with the return of Seleka rebels who took part in overthrowing Bozize in March.
The Seleka fighters — mostly derived from a group active here since 2006 known as UFDR — have set up shop in an old forestry department building. On the other side of town is a group known as the CPJP, consisting of fighters who did not join the rebel alliance.
Tensions remain as evident by the sporadic gunfire.
"UFDR, Seleka, CPJP — all these different groups, it's unexplainable," says Assistant Mayor Youssou Fezane, struggling to be heard over the hail of celebratory gunfire on a Thursday afternoon from rebels celebrating their return from the capital.
"It's the responsibility of these groups to explain their ideologies. I just want for there to be peace."
Given their administration of Ndele, some are already questioning whether the Seleka administration now in Bangui will put good governance above personal enrichment.
"I don't know their hearts but people are suffering everywhere. If the government in Bangui doesn't bring security, people will continue to live in fear," said Nicodemus Vetung, the Cameroonian priest at the Catholic mission where hundreds sought refuge in the early weeks after Seleka fighters invaded the town.
Hundreds of people huddled for more than a month at the mission, where Vetung and two Senegalese nuns pushed aside pews to make room for families to sleep. Others sought refuge at the red dirt airstrip outside town.
The nuns were recently withdrawn by their church for their safety.
The only children coming to school by vehicle these days, though, are those of the rebel leaders.