Johannesburg — Anti-balaka fighters killed at least 72 Muslim men and boys, some as young as nine, in two recent attacks in southwestern Central African Republic.
The assaults, on February 1 and 5, 2014, were in the village of Guen, in a region where abuses have been rampant, but not widely reported. Human Rights Watch interviewed survivors who had fled to a nearby village.
In a separate attack in the southwest, armed Seleka fighters, supported by Peuhl cattle herders, killed 19 people on February 22 in the village of Yakongo, 30 kilometers from Guen.
Both villages are near a main road between the larger towns of Boda and Carnot. Although French and African Union (AU) peacekeeping forces are deployed in those larger towns, they do not regularly patrol the road between them. Minimal help is being sent to villages in the region to prevent attacks on civilians.
"These horrendous killings show that the French and AU peacekeeping deployment is not protecting villages from these deadly attacks," said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher.
"The Security Council shouldn't waste another minute in authorizing a United Nations peacekeeping mission with the troops and capacity to protect the country's vulnerable people."
A Human Rights Watch researcher spent several days in Djomo, east of Carnot, where he spoke at a Catholic mission with survivors of the Guen attacks.
Lacking any humanitarian support, these victims - all Muslims, and mostly the elderly, women, and children - had sought refuge at the mission, where, even there, the anti-balaka continued to assault them.
The anti-balaka militias rose up across the country to fight the Seleka, a predominantly Muslim coalition that took control of the capital, Bangui, on March 24, 2013.
The anti-balaka quickly began to target Muslim civilians, particularly in the west, equating them with Seleka or the coalition's sympathizers. While some anti-balaka possess heavy arms, the majority of the fighters in the southwest are poorly armed with either homemade hunting shotguns or machetes. The anti-balaka often kill their victims with machetes.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that anti-balaka forces from the north entered Guen in the early morning of February 1. They set upon the Muslim neighborhood of the town and immediately started to shoot people as they fled.
A widow in Guen told Human Rights Watch: "My husband ran away with our four-and-a-half year old son ... but he [the husband] was shot in the stomach. I ran and took our child, and the anti-balaka fell upon him [my husband] with their machetes. I wanted to stay with my husband, but my brother pulled me away into the bush." The child survived.
The anti-balaka did not spare children in the February 1 attack. The father of 10-year-old Oumarou Bouba told Human Rights Watch:
"I took my son when the anti-balaka attacked. As we were running away, he was shot by the anti-balaka. He was shot in the right leg and he fell down, but they finished him off with a machete. I had no choice but to run on. I had been shot too. I later went to see his body and he had been struck in his head and in the neck."
On February 5, after looting Guen's Muslim neighborhoods, the anti-balaka attacked a property where hundreds of Muslims had sought refuge. In this attack, the anti-balaka divided approximately 45 men into two groups, led them out of the compound, forced them to lie on the ground, and executed them. The anti-balaka spared women, small children, and the wounded.
One man who had managed to hide among the wounded told Human Rights Watch: "They divided the men into two groups and shot them. Then they cut them with machetes. There was nothing the victims could do; they were killed like wild dogs. They lay there and they were shot."
The attack on Guen occurred in a context of widespread insecurity in the southwest, particularly on the road between Boda and Carnot, where the Seleka and allied Peuhl fighters attacked the village of Yakongo on February 22.
The transitional government of President Catherine Samba-Panza should investigate these killings and hold to account the attackers and those orchestrating the violence.
The international community should also improve the protection for civilians and fast-track the authorization and deployment of a UN peacekeeping force.
On April 1, the European Union confirmed it would send 1,000 peacekeepers to the Central African Republic to provide support to the AU and an eventual UN mission. These peacekeepers should be deployed as soon as possible.
"The massacres in the southwest demonstrate the utter lawlessness of both the anti-balaka and the Seleka," Mudge said. "Both the government and the peacekeepers need to act quickly and effectively to protect civilians, promote security, and enforce the rule of law."
The Guen Attacks
The anti-balaka killed at least 27 people as they attacked Guen on February 1. One resident told Human Rights Watch, "I left the house in the morning, and a crowd came into the town shooting their traditional guns. It was clear they were anti-balaka. I grabbed my son and we ran into the bush."
Survivors suspect that the town was targeted due to its location in the diamond-producing areas of the southwest and the wealth associated with its Muslim residents. Human Rights Watch found that the anti-balaka extensively looted Muslim properties.
One resident said: "After the fall of the Seleka, anti-balaka from all over were coming to Guen. They knew it was a mining zone and that people had many possessions. Muslim refugees from mining areas north of Guen were also moving through the town."
Witnesses, local officials, local anti-balaka leaders, and anti-balaka officials from Bangui confirmed that the anti-balaka group that carried out this attack is run by Maturin Kombo, an anti-balaka leader from the village of Tedoa, north of Guen. His second-in-command is Edmond Beïna.
After the attack on February 1, the remaining Muslims of Guen sought refuge at the home of a Muslim local leader and prominent businessman, Ali Garba.
Several hundred Muslims stayed in Garba's compound while the anti-balaka groups looted and pillaged their homes and shops. After days of harassment and threats, the anti-balaka on February 5 attacked Garba's compound, breaking down the wall around it. Witnesses and anti-balaka fighters told Human Rights Watch that Kombo and Beïna, who were giving orders, coordinated the attack.
One survivor told Human Rights Watch that when the anti-balaka fighters entered the compound, a fighter announced: "There are the people we need to kill. Why leave them alive? We need to kill them and take their things."
Beïna ordered his fighters to take a group of approximately 45 men and boys outside the compound. As they were walked out, the men were told: "You are going to die. We will exterminate you." The same witness heard Beïna say: "We will kill the men first. Then we will take their possessions."
The men were separated into two groups, roughly 30 meters apart on the main road that runs through Guen, and Beïna ordered them to lie face down.
Beïna then fired an ammunition clip from his Kalashnikov into one group. Witnesses said he yelled for another clip as he moved to the next group and discharged it into the second group. The anti-balaka used machetes to hack to death those who appeared not to have died in the shooting.
Two people survived, both under age 18. The one who spoke to Human Rights Watch said:
"We started yelling, 'Don't kill us!' but his men were yelling back, 'Kill them!' When Beïna fired on our group some of his men fired their homemade guns and I was struck. I was hit twice, once in the leg and once in the buttocks and I was struck in the head with a machete.
There was blood everywhere around us. I saw another youth from Guen who was not hit by a bullet or the machete, but he was also covered in blood. We both stayed in the blood until it got dark and then we got up and ran into Ali's [Garba] house."
Some men from the group were kept aside and told they would dig a mass grave. One told Human Rights Watch:
"Beïna told the men to lie down and he shot them with his Kalashnikov. The first group had [approximately] 25 men, and the second had 20. Beïna fired on the men.
Then the anti-balaka finished them with machetes. Beïna was calm throughout it all ... I think they divided the men into groups to more easily kill the people. The second group was surrounded and when they saw the first group killed, they knew they were going to die."
Instead of digging a mass grave, this witness fled to a neighboring village.
Human Rights Watch spoke with the head of the anti-balaka group from Tedoa, Maturin Kombo, who confirmed that he controlled Guen on February 5. However, he said there was no massacre, telling Human Rights Watch: "We only killed 25 Seleka there. We took their Kalashnikovs and gave them to the gendarmes."
Two state gendarmes, who serve as local authorities, are based in Guen, but lacking basic resources, such as weapons or uniforms, they were unable to respond.
On February 6, local authorities and religious figures from neighboring villages, having heard about the killings from survivors who had been at Garba's, collected the bodies to bury in a mass grave. They counted 45 dead at Garba's house.
In the days following the attack, the survivors were afraid to stay in Guen, where the anti-balaka group from Tedoa remained. They moved to the neighboring village of Djomo, 5 kilometers away, where they sought refuge at the local Catholic parish.
Their security at this parish, however, was tenuous, as they were surrounded by anti-balaka fighters. The nearest international armed presence, French and AU troops, is in Carnot, several hours away by 4x4 vehicle on a rough road.
Vulnerability of Muslims in Djomo
On February 28, a Peuhl cattle herder entered the Catholic parish trying to hide with the other displaced people. However, fighters of the local anti-balaka group in Djomo spotted him as he entered the camp, took the man away, and executed him. A witness told Human Rights Watch:
"The Peuhl man arrived during the day, around 2 p.m. The anti-balaka must have seen him entering the camp. He was maybe 27-years -old and he never told us his name.
He arrived and sat down next to us, but he did not say much. He must have heard that people from the bush were coming and hiding here [at the Catholic parish].
Just a few moments later the anti-balaka came from the other side of the camp, they looked around the camp and came over to our group where they found him.
They said, 'This is who we are looking for.' They told him to get up. The Peuhl did not say much, he just got up and walked away with them. They had a man on each side of him and they walked him out of the camp. A few moments later we heard one shot."
People who buried the man's body confirmed he had been shot once and then struck in the neck and head with a machete.
On March 6, the anti-balaka from Djomo went to the Catholic parish searching for the local imam from Djomo, Abdoulaye Liman, who had sought refuge at the parish with the remaining Muslims from Guen.
The anti-balaka began to walk the imam out of the parish, but the parish priest convinced the anti-balaka to release him.
However, several moments later, witnesses told Human Rights Watch, anti-balaka fighters under Beïna's command entered the compound and told the other fighters to take him, saying "No, we don't have the need for this papa." When the parish priest tried again to intervene, he was told: "A priest is not a god. We have killed priests before. We can kill you too."
While trying to protect the imam, the priest was struck by an anti-balaka fighter and fell to the ground. The anti-balaka led the imam outside the church compound as he pleaded for his life.
Witnesses heard a single shot a few moments later. After a few minutes, the anti-balaka fighters returned to the compound with their machetes dripping blood and told the refugees to go bury their imam.
The leader of the fighters, identified as a young man named Jean from Kombo's anti-balaka group, then announced, "I am without pity."
The people who buried the imam said he had been shot once through the side and that a machete had been used to split his head open and cut his throat. Imam Abdoulaye Liman was one of the oldest Muslim authorities in the region. Local residents said he was 102.
After the killing of the imam, many of the 500 displaced people at the Catholic parish decided that it was too dangerous to stay there. Hundreds started to depart.
Anti-balaka fighters that night killed at least one person - Aladji Rafaou - in the periphery of the parish as the displaced Muslims tried to flee.
"The anti-balaka are killing people in seemingly safe places where they have sought refuge," Mudge said. "Those people fleeing the anti-balaka urgently need protection."
On April 1, AU peacekeepers transported the remaining displaced in Djomo, 158 people, to Carnot. While this small group has received transport from AU peacekeepers, the majority of those who have fled for towns closer to the Cameroonian border have done so without such protection from peacekeepers.
Yakongo Massacre by Seleka and Peuhl
On February 22, Seleka fighters, supported by Peuhl cattle herders, attacked the village of Yakongo, killing at least 19 civilians. During the attack, the village's anti-balaka fighters fired back on the Seleka and Peuhl, who retaliated, killing two anti-balaka fighters.
While some Seleka and Peuhl provided a distraction in the village by negotiating the purchase of manioc (cassava) and peanuts, others from the group surrounded homes, stole manioc and food supplies, and set the homes alight.
The village chief told Human Rights Watch: "When I heard the shots I ran outside and I saw a Peuhl lighting a house on fire. I told my wife to get our four kids and we ran into the bush ... At 7 p.m., I went to the village and found my brother had been killed. I saw several bodies and saved a baby whose mother's throat had been cut."
Another survivor showed Human Rights Watch the wound on the stomach of her nine-year-old son. The child had been grazed by a bullet, but was not seriously injured.
One victim of the attack, Felix Sadal, was two years old. People who buried his body told Human Rights Watch that he and his mother, Mary Ponforo, were shot with the same bullet. The child died in his mother's arms.
Human Rights Watch went to Yakongo, 20 kilometers on a bad trail off the main road from Boda to Carnot, and identified the 21 graves. A researcher counted 61 homes that had been burned.
"Peacekeepers are providing security in the main towns, but smaller communities in the southwest are left exposed," Mudge said. "International peacekeeping forces should redouble efforts to prevent attacks and protect people from these horrific assaults."