When the parents of 14-year-old Yves Samson Madjigoto fled the fighting between rebel forces and government troops around this northwestern town in the Central African Republic (CAR) a year ago, he felt vulnerable.
His best bet was to ally himself with one of the sides in the conflict, he reckoned.
Madjigoto is one of a growing number of school-age boys who have opted to join the rebel group Armée Populaire pour la Restauration de la République et de la démocratie (APRD), which is active in CAR's northwestern region. The group is one of those fighting the government of Gen Francois Bozize, claiming he overthrew a legitimate government in March 2003, has mismanaged public funds and divided the nation.
"My parents are said to be in the bush near the border with Chad and I have not seen them for a year now," said Madjigoto, adding that he decided to join the rebels for security reasons. "I decided to go into the bush with some friends after we survived an attack by presidential guards on our way to school."
There are about 300 other boys with the rebels in the bush around Paoua, he added.
"I cannot give an exact number of child soldiers in the rebellion, but all I can say is that there are hundreds of them in the bush," said Bertin Wafio, the commander of the APRD contingent around Paoua. He said he would welcome any relief organisation willing to take care of the children.
"I am ready to discuss the demobilisation of these children with any organisations that promise to protect, educate and train them," said Wafio. He said the children were accommodated in camps for security reasons, claiming that they were the targets of the presidential guard that is pitted against the APRD.
Some of the boys said they had taken part in military action against the presidential guard.
"I am in a dilemma because I would like to go back to my village, but I fear that presidential guards will come again to chase us away," said a boy who asked not to be named. Life is difficult in the camp, he added.
"There is no proper food, clean water and education in the bush and we are exposed to diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea and skin diseases," he said, pointing to a wound on his left leg. Wafio said some of the children in the camps were as young as 12.
There are an estimated one million inhabitants in the conflict-affected northwestern region of CAR, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"If there is security in my village I will go back for my studies, which have been delayed for two years due to troubles in our region," said Madjigoto as he read a discarded piece of newspaper he found in the road.
The APRD is led by a renegade soldier, Lt Bedaya N’Djadder, and has been active for more than two years.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions