After hiding in the bush for more than a year, families in the northern Central African Republic (CAR) regions of Ouaham and Nana Grebizi are starting to return to their roadside villages.
Clashes between government forces and the Armée Populaire pour la Restauration de la Démocratie (APRD, People’s Army for the Restoration of Democracy) rebel movement towards the end of 2006 led to the exodus of tens of thousands of people from dozens of villages along the road linking the towns of Kabo and Kaga Bandoro, about 100km to the southeast.
Such sudden large-scale population movements took place across huge swathes of the north, with almost 200,000 civilians fleeing their homes.
It was not the actual battles between soldiers and insurgents that prompted the flight as actions by government troops to deny the rebels shelter and sanctuary.
Many people said the army considered anyone left in the villages to be rebels.
"Tens of thousands of homes have been burned to the ground …in different parts of northern CAR, with some villages being completely destroyed during reprisals by armed forces," according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
"[A]rbitrary arrests, torture, summary execution, forced recruitment, gender-based violence and looting of private property" were also common, UNHCR stated in a briefing document.
Keen to stay close to their fields of manioc and groundnuts, which provide the only livelihood for most, the displaced tended to set up temporary homes close to their villages. In the absence of many international humanitarian actors they survived as best they could.
"When we conducted an assessment mission here in December 2006, all of the villages on this road were totally empty," Joseph Benamse of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told IRIN.
"Even if people came back to their villages to collect drinking water, they would run away as soon as they heard a vehicle approaching," he added.
A few of the villages are still abandoned but life has begun to return to most. All along the road, villagers could be seen rebuilding their homes and laying new straw roofs, often not far from APRD checkpoints manned by youths armed with crude hunting rifles.
"At first, about a year ago, some people started coming back during the day," Maurice Daba, a resident of Waki II, a village 34km southeast of Kabo, told IRIN.
"In October  we began to move back permanently after aid workers told us it was calm and most people have now returned," added Daba.
Food is the most pressing concern. “We did manage to plant last year but bandits [now the biggest security threat across northern CAR] made it difficult to reach our crops so we were not able to harvest much,” said Daba.
"Now we don’t have seeds to sow this season. We will get some if we get money, but money is tight. I don’t see how we can get seeds before the rains start in a few weeks," he added.
Daba and other Waki villagers survive on wild roots, some of which need to be soaked for a day before eating, he explained, adding that the last time he had seen a food distribution was in September 2007.
Residents of Bakaba, 18km northwest of Kaga-Bandoro, told a similar tale of lacking seeds and tools for the coming planting season and of having to survive on food they could forage from the bush.
However, the soil in much of CAR is very fertile, and bush meat provides an essential source of protein for many. Mangos, papayas, grapefruits and oranges, which ripen at different times of the year, have also helped to temper levels of acute malnutrition.
And the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is distributing in the area, either directly through schools or NGO partners such as CARITAS, to some 30,000 displaced people in the Kago-Bandoro area.
Help at hand
A recent surge in humanitarian actors, from just five NGOs in 2006 to more than 20 in March 2008, has helped to mitigate the hardship.
A couple of thousand people living along the Kabo-Kaga-Bandoro axis are benefiting from a cash-for-work road rehabilitation scheme run by ACTED and Solidarité (which also distributes essential seeds and tools along this road), with funding from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Office.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), with UNHCR, have been sensitising both rebels and state forces to human rights, explaining the provisions of international instruments, such as the Geneva Conventions and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
Bisimwa Ruhana-Mirinde, IRC’s medical coordinator in Kaga-Bandoro, believes these efforts have paid off. "Travellers along the road are no longer forced to make payments at barriers. Fewer people are now being beaten up in their villages. Food distributed by aid agencies is not looted any more," he told IRIN.
IRC also took over the regional hospital in Kaga-Bandoro in late 2006, at a time of frequent clashes between rebels and government forces, who controlled territory to the north and south of the town respectively.
"It was a kind of phantom hospital, with no medicines, just one doctor and only five or six consultations a day. Now we see about 150 patients a day and have a working operating theatre," Boris Varnitzky, IRC country director in CAR, told IRIN.
The primary healthcare system in the area is also being revamped with help from Merlin, a British NGO. Thanks to this programme, 11 dilapidated and looted health facilities are being rehabilitated and, like Kabo hospital, care and medicines are free.
However, CAR’s near-bankrupt economy means there is a long way to go before healthcare provision returns to "normal", as Arsen Mossio, the head of one health centre near Kaga-Bandoro, explained. "I’m owed 27 months of salary," he said.