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Catastrophe unfolds in a lawless place

GBARAIN, Central African Republic - In this forgotten corner of Africa devastated by a forgotten conflict, no men work, no women cook, no children attend school.

GBARAIN, Central African Republic - In this forgotten corner of Africa devastated by a forgotten conflict, no men work, no women cook, no children attend school.

Here, there is not a soul in sight.

Empty homes stand silently side by side: straw roofs burned away, dry mud walls scarred black by flames, earthen floors covered with ash and debris. Some, smashed in, don't stand at all.

This tiny village is one of hundreds torched and reduced to rubble by security forces hunting suspected rebels over the last year in the Central African Republic's troubled northwest, according to government officials, soldiers, humanitarian workers and villagers in the region.

The conflict has displaced at least 220,000 people, but with arson the primary weapon and major battles rare, it's a quiet war that doesn't grab headlines - or desperately needed aid. "It's a forgotten crisis, if it was ever remembered in the first place," actress Mia Farrow, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, said during a recent visit.

Only a half-dozen foreign-aid groups operate here, and the ones that do are baffled there are so few.

The United Nations says tens of thousands of women have been raped by different factions. Hundreds of thousands lack access to clean water and shelter. Thousands of farmers have been unable to seed their fields, prompting warnings that food shortages may be on the horizon.

Watching from afar as tall yellow grass sprouts around their charred homes, the displaced keep away from roads that carry army troops and presidential guards, running in panic at the mere sound of approaching vehicles.

They sleep in the open, surviving on swampwater, leaves, and what's left of their crops.

"Why don't we move back? We're afraid to. Everybody is afraid to," said Emmanuel Lockoulet Djerada, mayor of another ruined village a few miles from Gbarain whose entire population of several thousand has lived in the bush for more than a year. "There is nobody to protect us. We are at the mercy of God."

Battered by coups and mutinies for decades, the Central African Republic, a country slightly smaller than Texas, is no stranger to war and conflict. President Francois Bozize came to power in 2003 at the head of an insurgent army that swept down from the north and seized the capital in a hail of mortar-fire, ousting President Ange-Felix Patasse.

The rebellion in the northwest appears to have evolved in 2005, in part out of widespread banditry and a complete breakdown of law and order. The country of 4.3 million has just a few thousand soldiers, and they, like the police, are rarely seen outside major towns. Diplomats in Bangui estimate that the government controls just 2 percent of the national territory.

Compounding the crisis, another, separate rebellion erupted in the northeast in October, seizing half a dozen towns before retreating in the face of a government onslaught weeks later. The government accused Sudan of supporting those rebels, saying they had launched attacks from Sudan's war-wracked Darfur region, the latest beaten back in March by French fighter jets. Sudan denies the allegations.

Earlier this month, the northeastern rebels signed a power-sharing peace deal with the government, which could end the conflict in that area.

The United Nations wants to send peacekeepers along the Central African Republic's northern borders to stop fighters and weapons crossing over from Darfur - not because of the northwestern conflict.

"This is a humanitarian disaster, a catastrophe," said Farrow, who came here, like the media accompanying her, to investigate the effect Darfur was having on the Central African Republic, and discovered another, deeper conflict grinding away in the northwest. "This is a completely lawless place. These people are completely abandoned."

The northwestern rebels have yet to articulate clear goals, but say they are fighting corruption and impunity.

There's a lot to rebel against.

A landlocked country, poor even by African standards, the Central African Republic is ranked at the bottom of the U.N.'s Human Development Index - 172 out of 178 nations. Life expectancy is 39. Only about half the nation is literate. Access to health care is scarce - there aren't many more than 100 doctors nationwide.

Despite its wealth of timber, diamonds, gold and uranium, little has been spent on development. The country's main highway, running north from Bangui, is just a crumbling two-lane road that devolves into a dirt track outside the capital. An entire chunk of the northeast is inaccessible during the seven-month rainy season.

The capital gets few visitors - or investors. Decent hotels are so scarce that the main state-run Hotel Oubangui - with 60 riverside rooms and elevators that barely function - recently threw out paid guests, dumping their luggage at reception to make way for 30 South Africans on a state visit.

Authorities initially dismissed the insurgents as bandits, but after organized attacks on the northwestern towns of Markounda in September 2005 and Paoua in January 2006, the government acknowledged their existence - and ordered presidential guards to hunt them down.

Diplomats, U.N. officials and local journalists give conflicting accounts of who leads the insurgents, although most agree they are part of a loose coalition called the Popular Army for the Restoration of Democracy and the Republic.

Nobody knows how many people have died, but Djerada, the mayor of Beboura II, said security forces killed 25 civilians on four sweeps last year in his tiny district alone. Men were executed in their fields, and two women were burned alive, he said.

Bozize has acknowledged "some serious lapses in behavior during military operations" on the part of his troops, and says he is working to stop abuses.

Lea Doumta, an adviser to the prime minister, said presidential guards accused of carrying out most of the village burnings "are not educated."

"They are suspecting everybody of being rebels," Doumta said. "They think all the people are against them. Some are, but not all."