Via social media, priest recounts horror of Central Africa violence

Libreville (AFP) - "Heavy gunfire in Zemio. Impossible to go out. They have cut the phones and we can't go out -- it's just too dangerous. So I am posting on Facebook."

The sense of fear and urgency is palpable as Jean-Alain Zembi, a priest in Zemio, a southeastern parish in the Central African Republic (CAR), sends a stream of messages to his Facebook feed recounting the horror of ongoing violence.

"The information simply must get out as we are holed up here and the shooting is continuing", Father Zembi, 33, told AFP in Libreville via Whatsapp on Tuesday.

His account of the violence in his parish came just hours before Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report indicating armed groups had killed hundreds of civilians in a spree of bloodletting in CAR.

That report came just ahead of the impending opening of a Special Criminal Court, a new judicial body that will probe rights violations in the country since 2003.

According to HRW, investigators have found evidence of more than 560 civilian deaths and the destruction of more than 4,200 homes by militias since late 2014.

On Sunday, a humanitarian source said at least 15 people died in clashes between UN peacekeepers and former rebels in the central market town of Kaga-Bandoro.

Mainly Muslim Seleka rebels briefly seized power in March 2013 and deposed Christian President Francois Bozize only to be ousted itself amid reprisals by Christian anti-Balaka militia.

In Zemio's case, violence sparked on June 28 as phone links were cut and unidentified armed groups took over the town near the Congolese border some 1,000 kilometres (625 miles) from the capital Bangui.

Zembi has reposted on his feed a picture dated Sunday showing a group of people, including a priest, standing over a group of shrouded bodies in a ditch.

"There were six bodies on the ground in the streets around the presbytery. We had to risk going out and recovering them if we wanted to avoid sanitary contamination. Other bodies are still in the streets -- but nobody picks them up."

- Common grave -

"We've no coffins here so we've had to dig a common grave," Zembi told AFP.

With phone links cut, wifi is the only means of communication with the outside world for locals, aid workers and UN peacekeepers based in the region.

On June 28, a group of armed men entered Zemio to pillage and then burn down local businesses, forcing residents and more than 3,000 refugees from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo to flee.

Two days later Father Zembi began posting the scale of the town's suffering to his Facebook account.

"Zemio has been ablaze since Wednesday June 28, 2017. Help us," read his initial post on unrest which has displaced some 20,000 people, according to the UN's humanitarian affairs office OCHA.

The Zemio death toll is not clear but is believed to be at least six.

- Diary -

"Humanitarian workers are compelled to limit temporarily their activities in Zemio," the UN's humanitarian coordinator for the country, Najat Rochdi, said Tuesday, prompting Father Zembi to lay bare the scale of the crisis.

"There is total insecurity. People have nothing to eat, no drinking water and lack necessary medical care. Houses have been torched."

"Almost all the displaced families are without shelter. How will they manage after the crisis?" asked the priest whose posts sparked indignation among those following his Facebook diary of distress.

"The gunfire means we can't venture out to pick up bodies" still lying in the streets.

In a post taken two days after the violence flared and accompanied by pictures of local children caught up in the unrest, Father Zembi warned that urgent aid was needed.

"Look carefully at the faces of these child victims of the war in Zemio," he wrote.

"Perhaps they will die in a few days given the situation. These faces ask you a solitary question: If they were your children, what would you do?"

On Monday, he welcomed the arrival of a UN aid team bearing "some tarpaulins and some water bottles."

Another post shows him conducting an open-air mass -- "a beautiful celebration" -- in the grounds of his church which is now a refuge, he says, for "at least 1,500 people."

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