By Godfrey Byaruhanga, Amnesty International’s Central Africa Researcher, in Ndele
Northern Central African Republic (CAR) is still a dangerous place for humanitarian workers.
It was in the early hours that a group of heavily armed men forced their way into the compound of an international humanitarian organization and made off with two cars.
The incident, on 2 June, drove home the weakness of the CAR security forces – unable to prevent or respond to the incident or provide adequate protection from the dangers humanitarian workers face.
The armed men told the NGO’s security guards they were Chadian soldiers, though the claim has yet to be substantiated.
CAR security forces and MICOPAX (Mission for the consolidation of peace in Central African Republic) troops were unable to respond quickly to the robbery due to broken-down vehicles and fuel shortages.
In any case phone networks are frequently switched off at night.
Roadblocks which might have intercepted the robbers had been removed months earlier because government soldiers had been using them to extort money from travellers and local people.
Fearing for their security, humanitarian workers in Ndele suspended their work for several days.
The day after the robbery, members of an armed group – Convention des patriotes pour la justice et la paix (CPJP) – recovered one of the stolen vehicles following a fire fight with the robbers.
The second vehicle is understood to have been recovered later.
A MICOPAX commander in Ndele told us that they were having difficulties telling the difference between government soldiers and members of the CPJP, who wear virtually identical uniforms.
An uneasy truce reigns in the Bamingui-Bongoran prefecture. The CPJP threaten to end it if the government does not accept negotiations which would lead to a peace accord, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of its fighters.
Meanwhile, another armed group known as the Union des forces démocratiques pour le redressement (UFDR) controls part of the prefecture, making many people nervous that armed conflict and human rights abuses may resume.
This is after all a country that seems to bounce from one human rights or humanitarian crisis to another.
It’s a feature that stretches beyond CAR’s borders to virtually all of its neighbours.
Governments have a duty to protect people from human rights violations but instead of rising to that responsibility the authorities in CAR either ignore the plight of victims or subject them to further violations.
Assayed Abdelkader, a 22-year-old slender Chadian member of the Peul ethnic group, is one such victim.
Abdelkader’s troubles started 16 years ago. When he was only six years old, he was separated from his family and incorporated into a group of Peul nomadic pastoralists. He has no recollection if he was taken forcibly from his parents, whom he has never seen since.
Then, earlier this year, members of the Front populaire pour le redressement (FPR) abducted Abdelkader and his brother, and took them to a camp in northern CAR, where they forced him to become their cook.
After a week in captivity he escaped in the middle of the night but was intercepted by members of the CPJP who handed him over to gendarmes in Ndele who have orders to transfer him to the Chadian authorities. Abdelkader’s brother is believed to be still held by the FPR.
But the news of his transfer is no comfort for Abdelkader – the Chadian authorities have previously subjected suspected or known opposition fighters to serious human rights violations.
For now Abdelkader remains in custody, awaiting a pending transfer that is likely to lack any judicial process or guarantees for his safety. The transfer is only delayed because CAR security forces in Ndele lack the means to take him to the border.
Meanwhile, Abdelkader’s compatriot Daoudou Mani and his family were in an FPR camp in January 2012 when it came under attack by a joint force of CAR and Chadian government soldiers.
One of his two wives and several children were killed in the assault. He escaped with his second wife and eight children but was subsequently arrested and detained by CAR security officials.
A source told us that the gendarmerie in Ndele found 3.5 million CFA francs (approximately US$ 7,778) on Daoudou.
On learning that the gendarmerie was holding him and his money, members of the presidential guard – which reports directly to President François Bozizé and is often accused of human rights violations – reportedly extorted the cash from the gendarmes at gunpoint.
Ministry of Defence officials told the gendarmes to take Daoudou to the border and hand him over to the Chadian authorities. But as they had no vehicle, the gendarmes handed him to a representative of the Chadian government in Ndele who in turn took him to the Chadian border, and he has not been heard from since.
Officially, Chadian soldiers entered the CAR in January 2012 to fight the FPR, but they nearly caused a resumption of armed conflict the following month when they threatened to attack and disarm the CPJP.
Sources in Ndele told us that during the two days that the Chadian soldiers spent in the town, they raped women, extorted money and stole from local traders. Security forces in the town were powerless to stop such abuses.
Concerned about the human rights violations and a prospect of renewed fighting with the CPJP, local officials called for top government officials in the capital, Bangui, to intervene. The Chadian soldiers eventually left on 4 February.
When we raised these concerns with senior government officials in Bangui, they denied that any such violations took place and one even claimed that the Chadian soldiers had only had sexual relations with their CAR girlfriends.
Many of the people we interviewed about the violations by Chadian soldiers said that the victims were reluctant to admit being raped. This was both due to their fear of being stigmatized by the community and rejected by their husbands and/or their families, and because they had little expectation for redress from the authorities.
Central African Republic: Catch Kony, but don’t forget his victims (Blog, 7 June 2012)Central African Republic: Civilians bear the brunt of decades of violence and abuses (News story, 20 October 2011)
Central African Republic: Action needed to end decades of abuse (Report, 20 October 2011)