Children are bearing the brunt of five years of fighting in Central African Republic as thousands are trapped in armed groups, many suffer sexual violence, tens of thousands go hungry and one in four have fled their homes, the United Nations children's agency said Friday.
The new report pleads for millions in funding for one of the world's most "neglected" crises.
Deeply impoverished Central African Republic has faced interreligious and intercommunal fighting since 2013, when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the capital, Bangui. Mostly Christian anti-Balaka militias fought back, resulting in thousands of people killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Violence has intensified and spread in the past year after a period of relative peace as armed groups battle over lands rich in gold, diamonds and uranium.
Fighters often target civilians rather than each other, attacking health facilities and schools, mosques and churches and camps for displaced people, the UNICEF report said. At least half of the more than 640,000 people displaced are children.
"This crisis is taking place in one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, and one of the most dangerous for humanitarian workers," said Christine Muhigana, UNICEF's Representative in Central African Republic. "Conditions for children are desperate."
Children are often separated from their parents amid the violence, becoming vulnerable to armed groups who now control four-fifths of the country, UNICEF said. Thousands of children, mostly boys, are thought to be in armed groups. Thousands more, most of them girls, are sexually exploited and abused.
One former child soldier told the U.N. agency that "you are given a weapon and you use it. . If told to kill or attack, you do it." Other former child soldiers, freed from the armed groups, later returned so they could make money, he said.
"Whether by the ex-Seleka or the anti-Balaka, children's rights are trampled on," said Olivier Mirindi-Chiza, chief of UNICEF's field office in the city of Bambari.
Frustration with the fighting spilled over this week as opposition parties and civil society groups demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Simplice Mathieu Sarandji's government.
"The people are helpless," said Ferdinand Alexandre Nguendet, president of the collective known as Rassemblement pour la Republique.
The groups also called for part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission to withdraw, alleging that Pakistani and Mauritanian contingents didn't react to a deadly attack earlier this month.
More than 42 people, including two priests, were killed on Nov. 15 as rebels with the group Union for Peace in the Central African Republic attacked a displaced persons camp in Alindao in the central part of the country, according to witness Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission chief, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, later acknowledged that the mission "unfortunately ... was not able to react to prevent this type of violence."
And in a speech days after the attack, the prime minister acknowledged the government's limits. "I knew that we did not have all the necessary means to protect our people; our defense and security forces were not well-armed," he said.
Young people, both Christians and Muslims, in Bambari have been organizing joint marches calling for peace, Mirindi-Chiza with UNICEF said.
"I believe the only way towards that peace is through dialogue," Mirindi-Chiza said. "It won't be perfect, but the killing will stop, families can go back home, and children - the future of this country - can finally get the opportunity they so desperately need."