DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The rebels invaded on stolen motorcycles at 5 a.m., shooting into the air to announce their arrival in the secluded village in Central African Republic. They went house to house, breaking down doors and separating the men from the women and children.
After taking the men to a nearby base, the fighters slaughtered them with machetes, witnesses said. Fifteen are confirmed dead in the attack at the end of July on the northwest village of Ouham Bac, though all the bodies that were dumped in a nearby river will never be counted.
One 30-year-old survivor told The Associated Press he had to walk on foot for more than 20 miles (35 kilometers) with a machete wound to the head after the rebels stole his motorcycle as he lay bleeding on the floor of his thatched hut. It was nearly a week before he and his wife were reunited with their 9-year-old son.
"We just ask the world not to forget us," he says, too terrified to give his name for fear the rebels will find him and his family.
Central African Republic's rebel leader-turned-president, Michel Djotodia, who was recently sworn into office five months after seizing power, has pledged to return the country to democracy and stability. But Djotodia's Seleka rebels are accused of continuing to carry out atrocities in some of the most isolated corners of the deeply impoverished country in the heart of Africa.
The attacks, far from the disintegrating capital of Bangui, underscore the rebel leaders' lack of authority over their soldiers in the provinces.
The Seleka rebels are blamed for attacking communities that have fought back against the rebellion by forming self-defense groups. Rebel violence also has been centered near the hometown of ousted President Francois Bozize in the northwest and may be aimed at his perceived supporters, observers say.
Father Aurelio Gazzera, a local diocesan Caritas director, has ventured to the isolated communities where scores have been killed since mid-July. Those who are unable to flee have gone into hiding, he said.
"In one village we noticed a movement and we stopped there. A terrified woman fled at our sight," he said. "We shouted that we were not armed, and finally about a dozen people came out and greeted us."
In total, some 206,000 people are now internally displaced within Central African Republic, and more than 60,000 others have fled to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations refugee agency. More than 4,000 have fled to Chad since mid-July.
The violence has not been limited to the north: In another attack near the southern border with Congo, Seleka rebels burned scores of homes to the ground. Twenty-eight deaths already have been confirmed, though as many as 200 decomposing bodies may still be in the fields surrounding the village, says a local aid group.
"The countryside is ridden right now with a nauseous smell," said a report by Charles Kounchou from COHEB, the non-governmental organization operating in the area.
The Djotodia government did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press on the massacre reports, though it has repeatedly blamed the violence on other armed groups that are not part of Seleka.
Seleka is an unwieldy coalition of existing rebel groups who joined forces in December 2012 with only one objective — to overthrow the Bozize government after a decade of perceived neglect and marginalization. The rebels sensed his growing vulnerability and took aim at the capital. Thousands of rebel fighters invaded Bangui last March and soon began looting aid groups, U.N. offices, even an orphanage.
The newly reported massacres in the provinces are only the latest misery to befall residents in this country with a long history of coups and misrule. Life expectancy was the second-lowest in the world — 48 years — even before the rebellion started in late 2012. Central African Republic has never even built a hospital with its own money since independence from France in 1960, Gazzera notes.
Observers say the current crisis, though, poses a particularly grave threat to Central African Republic because the country is devolving into pure anarchy — a place where regional criminal networks can increasingly poach elephants and mine illegal diamonds with impunity to fuel conflict.
According to a U.N. report earlier this month, violent clashes also have broken out now between opposing rebel factions, highlighting the potential for a further deteriorating situation.
U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic has warned that the world cannot afford to ignore the deepening crisis.
"Conflict will continue to impose suffering on large numbers of people; it will deepen the religious and ethnic divide; and it may destabilize the wider region," he said this month.
Lewis Mudge, a researcher with Human Rights Watch's Africa division, said many survivors have identified their attackers as being of Chadian or Sudanese origin, raising the specter of regional participation in the conflict.
Gazzera, the Catholic priest, said he too has met with Seleka fighters who do not even speak Sango, the national language of Central African Republic, including during his recent visit to attacked villages.
"The colonel was lounging around on a chair. He spoke only Arabic. The vice colonel translated the conversation," Gazzera recalled. "We said we had come to visit the villages where the violence and the massacres had taken place. The colonel replied that this was not true and nothing happened. I made him repeat this twice."
The African Union recently pledged to fortify an existing regional peacekeeping mission to nearly 4,000 troops, though its presence is currently minimal outside the capital.
"The Seleka have committed grave human rights abuses with impunity while to a large extent the rest of the world has watched in either ignorance, apathy, or both," wrote Mudge, the Human Rights Watch researcher.
"The humanitarian situation teeters on the verge of a catastrophe."