BANGUI, Central African Republic – Armed fighters stormed the family's house at 3 a.m., demanding money and taking everything of value. Then they fatally shot Belvia Salo's father in front of the 11-year-old who had awoken amid the commotion.
After killing him as she and her siblings cried, the men raped her mother and abducted her into the night, never to be seen again.
Belvia sat awake in the house with her father's body until the sun rose. The only relative she could think of was an uncle whose home she had visited during a school vacation, but it was 13 kilometers (8 miles) away. So off she went at dawn on foot, along with her 14-year-old sister, Nelyo, who tried as best she could to remember how to get there. Their 5-year-old little brother Tomte demanded to know why they were leaving and where were his parents.
"I told him that the Seleka had taken over our neighborhood and so we had to leave our house, but that we would come back when they were gone," Nelyo said, recalling the July attack, tears welling in her eyes. "I have not been able to tell him yet that our father is dead."
Belvia and Nelyo now live with more than 18,000 other people on the grounds of a Catholic mission in the beleaguered capital, fearful of the nightly attacks on Christian homes by the mostly Muslim ex-rebels who rule the country. Attacks on civilians began not long after the Seleka forces took power in March, and the killings have left an untold number of orphans like the two sisters.
Central African Republic was already one of the most difficult places in the world for children to grow up, said Bob McCarthy, UNICEF's emergency coordinator there. Now the near anarchy has traumatized many youngsters.
"Children see total lawlessness and total impunity since the Seleka took over in March, and I think it reinforces this notion of hopelessness, of no protection," he said. "They see adult family members arrested, detained, and beaten, and homes looted. It's terribly destructive to their emotional well-being and their sense of place in the world."
Neighbors and relatives of the Salo family panicked when they found the father's body with no sign of the girls or their mother. Only hours later did the children show up at their uncle's home, which they had to flee this month amid violence in the capital that has left more than 600 people dead.
Despite all they have suffered, the Salo sisters are more fortunate than some. They have two uncles who are now looking after them. Still, they are also occupied with their own children. One has 11 and the other eight.
Belvia has taken the tragedy the hardest, her uncle says. She doesn't talk much and when she does it's a sweet whisper. He encourages the girls to play with their cousins but on one afternoon it was all too much for her. She used the corners of her purple wax print patterned skirt to wipe tears from her eyes. She buried her face in an aid worker's chest. Her body shook as she sobbed.
The U.N. children's agency says it is working to identify youngsters who have become separated from their parents amid the ongoing conflict or who, like Belvia and Nelyo, have been orphaned. Psychological teams and trauma specialists are urgently needed, UNICEF has said.
At least 189,000 people are displaced in Bangui alone, and half of them are children.
The girls are craving a return to normalcy, and ask when they can go back to school. Belvia misses French dictation exercises; her older sister is gifted at math and hopes one day to become a doctor. That way she can treat sick children, like her younger brother who is now suffering from bronchitis after nights of sleeping in the outdoor camp for the displaced.
Their uncle Tite Arriere Mbolisays the girls don't ask about their mother as much as they used to. The family has contacted the Red Cross repeatedly and is still hoping to learn what ultimately happened to her.
"But the girls know now after all this time that she too is gone," he says, choking back tears. "I just want a good life for them now."
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Online: UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org