The UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic must take bold measures to protect civilians amid an escalating wave of sectarian attacks in the central regions of the country, said Amnesty International after visiting some of the most affected areas.
Despite the deployment of a new UN peacekeeping mission on 15 September, dozens of civilians, including several children, have been killed and thousands more displaced in recent weeks.
While the capital city, Bangui, has been rocked by renewed violence since early October, populations living in the central regions of the Central African Republic (CAR) have been particularly hit by a surge in conflict between different armed groups.
“If the UN peacekeeping mission is to have any credibility, it must take stronger steps to effectively protect civilians from the raft of abuses they are facing,” said Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
“With Seleka, anti-balaka, and armed Peulh fighters carrying out attacks in the central regions of the Central African Republic, the situation is extremely volatile and dangerous. Unless urgent steps are taken, it could degenerate into the kind of untrammelled sectarian violence we saw earlier this year in the west.”
In a visit to the central regions of CAR Amnesty International documented recent attacks on civilians in the towns of Dekoa and Bambari, and in several villages near Bambari, including Yamalé, Batobadja, Matchika, Tchimangueré, Gbakomalékpa and Baguela. The mostly Muslim Seleka forces, now split into at least two armed groups, have been clashing with mainly Christian and animist anti-balaka militia in the region over the past months.
All sides, Seleka, anti-balaka and armed Peulhs (members of the Peulh ethnic group, many of which belong to a Seleka spin-off group), are systematically targeting civilians that they believe support the other side’s fighters.
On 10 October, a Seleka attack in and near the town of Dekoa, 260 km north of Bangui, killed 14 civilians. Among those killed in the day’s violence were three women and four children. Nine of the victims were killed in the Catholic Church compound, including five who were directly targeted as they tried to hide in the living room of the compound’s main residential building.
Five other victims were killed later in the day by Seleka forces that were fleeing into the bush. Two other civilians whom Seleka fighters took hostage to use as “guides” have not been heard from since.
However, French military forces arrived at the church compound not long after the attack began. They engaged Seleka forces in prolonged combat killing at least six Seleka fighters, including the “colonel” who led the attack. A smaller number of UN peacekeepers also helped stop the killings.
“French forces aided by UN peacekeepers prevented a large-scale massacre in Dekoa,” said Stephen Cockburn.
In and around the town of Bambari, 380 km northeast of Bangui, numerous attacks have taken place in recent weeks, and the pace of attacks appears to be increasing.
On 29 September, anti-balaka fighters killed a Muslim civilian, Abdou Salam Zaiko, after his car broke down. At least two additional Muslim passengers were also reportedly killed during the attack. Tensions rose dramatically when Zaiko’s badly mutilated body was brought back to Bambari, his home town.
Later, on 1 October, in an apparent revenge attack, a mixed group of Seleka and armed youths attacked a camp for displaced persons in Bambari, killing five civilians and injuring several others.
The killing of Zaiko and some of his car’s passengers was one of a string of incidents in which Muslims from Bambari have been targeted by anti-balaka militia.
On 8 October, seven Muslim passengers in a car owned by a civilian, Saidu Daouda, were killed by anti-balaka fighters after the vehicle was ambushed on the road. All of the Christians in the car, as well as one Muslim woman, were allowed to escape.
“They captured a bunch of people, both Christians and Muslims, and they let all of the Christians go, including the driver. All of the Muslim men whom they caught were killed. They undressed their bodies to humiliate them, and cut them into pieces, chopping off their hands and feet,” Saidu told Amnesty International.
Muslims in Bambari emphasized that because of the attacks, they could no longer travel outside of the town. “PK 5 [five kilometres from the town centre] is about the limit for us,” one explained. “We’re like prisoners here.”
Other attacks have involved ethnic Peulhs, a large pastoral nomadic group. Six members of a single Peulh family were killed in an anti-balaka attack on a Peulh encampment near Bambari in late September. Among the victims were two children and a woman. One of the survivors—who was related to the people who were killed—described what happened:
“The anti-balaka first invaded a compound of three huts on the edge of the encampment belonging to Bodo. We were all on high alert already, and when we heard his family being attacked the rest of us managed to flee. The next day we returned to the encampment and found all the bodies. Some people had been nearly decapitated; one person’s feet had been cut off. We buried them in a common grave.”
Armed Peulh raiders have recently been responsible for a string of attacks on villages near Bambari, including Yamalé, Batobadja, Matchika, Tchimangueré, Gbakomalékpa and Baguela. The number of people killed in these attacks is still unclear, as some bodies are reported to be lying exposed in remote areas that are unsafe to access.
Forced to flee
The recent violence has sparked a fresh wave of displacement in the area. Thousands have fled, many taking shelter at the church of Notre Dame des Victoires, on the western edge of Bambari. Others have walked as far as Grimari, 80 km east of Bambari.
On 26 October, an Amnesty International researcher encountered several weary groups of civilians fleeing the villages of Yamalé and Malépu, fearful of further violence, and headed for Grimari.
“Both Bambari and Dekoa are now ghost towns, full of empty houses, closed shops and abandoned buildings. International forces present in the country must step up their efforts to protect civilians and ensure they can return home and live in safety,” said Stephen Cockburn.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), deployed on 15 September 2014, has not yet been able to stop or prevent most of these abuses. International forces are stretched thin—in part because MINUSCA is still several thousand troops short of its mandated numbers—and have not been able to prevent escalating violence in the country’s central region.