New York — The Seleka, a coalition of rebel groups that took power in the Central African Republic in March, has killed scores of unarmed civilians, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The Seleka has also engaged in wanton destruction of numerous homes and villages.
The 79-page report, "'I Can Still Smell the Dead': The Forgotten Human Rights Crisis in the Central African Republic," details the deliberate killing of civilians - including women, children, and the elderly - between March and June 2013 and confirms the deliberate destruction of more than 1,000 homes, both in the capital, Bangui, and in the provinces. Many villagers have fled their homes and are living in the bush in fear of new attacks. Human Rights Watch documented the deaths of scores of people from injuries, hunger or sickness.
"Seleka leaders promised a new beginning for the people of the Central African Republic, but instead have carried out large-scale attacks on civilians, looting, and murder," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "What's worse is that the Seleka have recruited children as young as 13 to carry out some of this carnage."
Human Rights Watch carried out extensive research in the country from April to June, including numerous interviews with victims, relatives of victims, and witnesses. Researchers assembled detailed accounts of attacks on civilians in both Bangui and the provinces.
The Seleka should immediately end its killings and pillage, restore order, and allow access to desperately needed humanitarian assistance, Human Rights Watch said. The Seleka leadership should control its forces, denounce killings by its members and supporters, restore civilian administration throughout the country, and ensure accountability for the crimes committed.
International bodies and concerned countries should help the African Union peacekeeping mission to carry out its job and should impose targeted sanctions on those responsible for human rights abuses, including Seleka leaders.
"The Central African Republic truly is a forgotten human rights and humanitarian crisis," Bekele said. "Driven from their homes by the Seleka, countless people are living in the bush in tents made from trees and leaves, and without access to food or water. They need immediate assistance and protection."
Among the killings Human Rights Watch documented, in Bangui's Damala neighborhood, the Seleka killed 17 people on March 27. On April 13, a Seleka vehicle drove into a funeral procession. The mourners, enraged, threw stones at the Seleka, whose members opened fire on the crowd, killing at least 18 civilians on the Ngaragba Bridge near the Ouango and Kassai neighborhoods. On April 13 and 14, the Seleka carried out an extensive looting operation in the Bangui neighbourhood of Boy-Rabe, killing scores of civilians, including children.
Outside the capital, and away from the eyes of the small African Union peacekeeping force, the Seleka has attacked villages with total impunity. Human Rights Watch recorded more than 1,000 homes destroyed in at least 34 villages in the north between February and June. In one instance, a self-appointed Seleka official coordinated the killings of five men who were tied up and executed.
One witness noted: "[He] went door to door in the village to ask people to leave their homes and come to a meeting to talk with the Seleka. The first few left their homes, five of them, and were grouped under a tree ... their arms were attached to each other. They were then shot down one by one."
The report also highlights numerous murders of people associated with the army under ousted president, François Bozizé. For example, on April 15, Seleka forces forced nine men suspected of being former soldiers into a vehicle and drove them to the Mpoko River, outside of Bangui. Seleka members summarily executed five of the men. The survivors gave Human Rights Watch a step-by-step description of how they were driven to the river, made to line up, and readied for execution until a Seleka member realized that the men had not in fact been soldiers under Bozizé and spared those who had not yet been killed.
In interviews with Human Rights Watch, representatives of the transitional government, many of them former Seleka leaders, including the transitional president, Michel Djotodia, downplayed the scale of the killings, claiming that most were the work of "false Seleka" or those loyal to Bozizé. But Human Rights Watch research points to a consistent pattern of abuse by forces credibly linked with Seleka.
Human Rights Watch also documented crimes that had been committed under Bozizé and interviewed former prisoners who were recently released from the Bossembélé military training center outside of Bangui. Detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were held incommunicado and in inhumane conditions for months or years, many of them tortured.
They and other sources told Human Rights Watch that Bozizé would visit the center and that he had a private villa there. Detainees told Human Rights Watch of at least two men being forced to dig holes before being shot dead and buried by the Presidential Guards. The majority of detainees at Bossembélé were Muslims from the north who were accused of being rebels.
The Seleka has failed to investigate or prosecute any of the abuses committed by its own members. Instead, it has pursued justice for crimes committed by the former government. On May 29, the national prosecutor announced an international arrest warrant against Bozizé, who fled CAR; recent reports indicate he is in France.
The absence of thorough investigations and prosecutions has eroded public confidence in the judicial system and in the rebel government, which has promised elections in 18 months.
"The Seleka might have real grievances against the former regime, but nothing excuses this level of violence against civilians," Bekele said. "The Seleka seem more focused on looting and targeting the general population than on reestablishing a functioning government that can protect people from abuse."
In recent weeks, violence has increased in northern Central African Republic around the Bossangoa area. On September 7two employees of the French non-governmental organization the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development were killed outside of Bossangoa. Their killers are reported to be Seleka fighters.
On September 13 transitional president Djotodia dissolved the Seleka coalition and announced official state forces were in charge of security. No detail was provided as to how these forces would neutralize the thousands of Seleka fighters across the country.