Nairobi — Seleka rebels killed at least 37 civilians, wounded 57, and forced thousands to flee when they razed a camp for displaced people in the Central African Republic on October 12, 2016. United Nations peacekeepers deployed outside the camp in the town of Kaga-Bandoro failed to halt the attack.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 victims and witnesses in Kaga-Bandoro and in the country's capital, Bangui, between October 14 and 21. They said that the mostly Muslim Seleka forces, possibly with assistance from Muslim civilians, shot, stabbed, or burned to death the civilians, including at least four women, five children, three older people, and four people with disabilities. The casualty numbers are most likely higher because some victims were buried quickly. In addition to field research, Human Rights Watch, using satellite imagery analysis, identified at least 175 destroyed homes in the neighborhoods around the camp and 435 destroyed huts in the camp itself.
"This vicious attack targeted residents who were already forced from their homes by fighting and had already been through so much," said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Deadly attacks like these show why UN peacekeepers were given a mandate to protect civilians with all necessary means - and why they need to enforce it."
The UN has 12,870 forces in its Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), including 70 police officers and 200 soldiers who were in Kaga-Bandoro at the time of the attack. Witnesses said the peacekeepers failed to stop at least 60 armed Seleka forces from crossing a UN-guarded bridge and attacking the civilians, although some peacekeepers later opened fire and killed 12 Seleka on the outskirts of the camp. No national security forces, such as police or gendarmes, have been in the town since the Seleka took it over in December 2012.
On October 31, MINUSCA issued a report on Kaga-Bandoro that documented 37 civilian deaths and assigned primary responsibility for "grave human rights and humanitarian law violations" to Seleka forces, though it attributed two of the deaths to anti-balaka militia. The report praised MINUSCA forces for having taken "strong measures to protect civilians during the crisis."
The UN should urgently deploy more of the mission's forces to the volatile central region, expand their patrols and, consistent with the mission's mandate, use appropriate force to protect civilians under imminent threat, Human Rights Watch said.
In addition, the national government, the UN, and donors to the Central African Republic should increase their support for the Special Criminal Court (SCC) - a new judicial body with national and international judges and prosecutors that has a mandate to investigate and prosecute grave human rights violations committed in the country since 2003. In August, justice minister Flavien Mbata announced that the international prosecutor for the SCC would be named before the end of 2016.
The new court offers a meaningful opportunity to hold accountable commanders on all sides of the conflict who are responsible for war crimes, such as those committed at Kaga-Bandoro, Human Rights Watch said.
Such attacks are also subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In September 2014, the ICC prosecutor announced the opening of an investigation in the Central African Republic into crimes dating from August 2012.
Fighting has raged in the Central African Republic since December 2012, when the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels, claiming to represent the country's aggrieved Muslim minority from the northeast, moved southwest into more populated non-Muslim areas, killing thousands of civilians. In mid-2013, Christian and animist militias, called the anti-balaka, formed to fight back, themselves committing serious human rights abuses.
In response to atrocities by both sides, the African Union (AU) increased the numbers of peacekeepers in the country in 2013. The AU was transferred to a UN mission in September 2014.
On October 12, the town of Kaga-Bandoro, capital of the Nana Grébizi province, had approximately 30,000 inhabitants, plus about 3,000 displaced people from other parts of the region who had sought shelter there. Another roughly 7,000 people were sheltering in a displacement camp in a town called l'Évêché, behind the town's Catholic parish.
The Seleka attack began between 8 and 9 a.m., apparently as a reaction to the killing of a Seleka fighter the previous night. Armed fighters, some in civilian clothes, crossed the bridge, which separates the Muslim neighborhood from the rest of the town, and almost immediately started shooting at civilians and attacking them with machetes and knives.
"People were yelling and telling me to flee," said a 70-year-old man from the Catholic Mission neighborhood. "As I ran I saw bodies on the ground. The Seleka were shooting at everybody. I ran to the church, but it was attacked, so I ran to the displacement camp. Just a few minutes later the camp was attacked too."
Within minutes, Seleka fighters moved past UN peacekeepers who were protecting the l'Évêché camp. Some peacekeepers opened fire, killing 12 Seleka, but could not stop other Seleka from entering the camp, attacking its residents, and burning grass huts to the ground.
Immediately following the assault, Seleka forces also attacked at least three villages along the road between Kaga-Bandoro and Botto, killing at least four people and burning 75 homes.
The attacks displaced people from Kaga-Bandoro and the surrounding villages. At least 20,000 of them are now in a makeshift camp around a UN peacekeeping base near the Kaga-Bandoro airstrip. Between October 18 and 21, Human Rights Watch observed squalid conditions at the camp, including insufficient numbers of toilets and food shortages that require an urgent humanitarian response. The conditions place a particular burden on people with disabilities.
UN officials told Human Rights Watch on October 20 that they would deploy more police in Kaga-Bandoro in January 2017, doubling the number to 140. The increase will be helpful but should be expedited, Human Rights Watch said.
Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, MINUSCA is authorized to take all necessary means to "protect... the civilian population from threat of physical violence" and to "implement a mission-wide protection strategy." The protection is also urgently needed to secure aid deliveries, Human Rights Watch said.
Seleka leaders in Kaga-Bandoro told Human Rights Watch that their fighters did not participate in the October 12 attack. However, several witnesses and victims identified Seleka fighters by name. Two residents, interviewed separately, for example, said they saw Seleka General Saleh Zabadi on a motorcycle near the provincial hospital, one of the sites where victims and witnesses said there had been attacks and killings. On October 20 and 21, Human Rights Watch saw Seleka fighters, many in civilian clothes but carrying arms, moving freely around the town's Muslim neighborhood.
"Seleka are openly circulating around town with their arms, sending a message that they feel untouchable by the law, a message not lost on civilians," Mudge said. "Arrests and prosecutions are urgently needed to break the country's deadly cycle of violence."
Central African Republic in Crisis
The Central African Republic has been in crisis since late 2012, when the Seleka began a military campaign against the government of Francois Bozizé. The Seleka took control of Bangui in March 2013. Their rule was marked by widespread human rights abuses, including the wanton killing of civilians. In mid-2013, anti-balaka militia organized to fight the Seleka. Associating all Muslims with the Seleka, the anti-balaka carried out large scale reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians in Bangui and western parts of the country.
Thousands of civilians have been killed by both sides, hundreds of thousands have fled their homes, and nearly half-a-million people - many of them Muslims fleeing anti-balaka attacks - have taken refuge in neighboring countries. Fighters on both sides have committed rape, and they continue to use sexual violence to punish women and girls suspected of interacting with people on the other side of the sectarian divide.
The Seleka in Nana Grébizi Province
AU and French peacekeeping forces pushed the Seleka out of Bangui in early 2014, forcing the group to the central and eastern regions of the country. Ethnic divisions, rivalries, disagreements over resource control, and disputes over strategy quickly tore the Seleka apart. By late 2014, the Seleka split into several factions each controlling its own area.
Two Seleka groups are in Kaga-Bandoro: the Popular Front for the Renaissance of Central Africa (Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique, FPRC) and the Central African Patriotic Movement (Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique, MPC).
While the two factions have jockeyed for power in Kaga-Bandoro, they have also united when mutually beneficial. In June, they created a "mixed brigade" with about 40 fighters to conduct joint patrols. On October 21, the FPRC political cabinet director, Lambert Lissane, told Human Rights Watch that the brigade members move around town on motorcycles without uniforms. Lissane maintained that the brigade is unarmed but, on October 20 and 21, a Human Rights Watch researcher saw armed men on motorcycles whom residents identified as members of the mixed brigade.
The Violence in Ndomete
In early September, anti-balaka militia established a roadblock on the road between Kaga-Bandoro and Ndomete, 10 kilometers away, apparently after MINUSCA pressured the Seleka to remove a roadblock in Ndomete, which the Seleka refused to do. Militia and rebel fighters use the roadblocks to extort money from civilians.
On September 16, Seleka fighters descended on Ndomete and killed six civilians, four witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Initial reports by the national government indicated that as many as 26 people had been killed but neither the UN nor Human Rights Watch were able to confirm that number. Lissane, the FPRC political leader, told Human Rights Watch that Seleka fighters were preempting an imminent attack by the anti-balaka. The UN and Human Rights Watch did not find evidence to support Lissane's claim. A resident of Ndomete said:
The Seleka came on motorcycles and with pickup trucks in the morning. They started to shoot at people in their homes. They found me outside my house and debated whether to kill me or not. As they talked, I watched as some Seleka found a [artisanal] hunting [shot]gun in my neighbor's home. They assumed he was anti-balaka. He said he was not and offered to pay 200,000 francs [approximately US$340], but they [the Seleka fighters] said it was not enough and they cut his throat.
In the aftermath of the Ndomete attack, MINUSCA increased its presence on the road between the town and Kaga-Bandoro and a MINUSCA police unit was sent to Kaga-Bandoro.
The Violence in Kaga-Bandoro
On October 11 representatives of the town's Muslim organization marched toward the administrative buildings to deliver a manifesto calling for the re-installation of the Seleka road block at Ndomete, the cessation of checks by the UN at the bridge leading into the Muslim neighborhood, dialogue between the government and armed groups, and the replacement of the Rwandan MINUSCA police unit in town, which they accused of targeting Muslims.
Tensions were high in the Muslim neighborhood when the body of Mahamat Oumar, a Seleka fighter, was discovered early in the morning of October 12 in the TP (Travaux Public) neighborhood. Oumar's body was transported to the local mosque, where a crowd gathered. Seleka leaders, including the MPC general Mahamat Al Khatim and the FPRC's Lissane, told Human Rights Watch that they tried without success to calm the growing and agitated crowd.
Between 8 and 9 a.m. fighters from the Muslim side of town crossed over to the non-Muslim side. The first group of about 20 people was armed mostly with knives, machetes, and grenades, witness said. A second group of about 20 people came with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, followed by about 20 more men on motorcycles. UN peacekeepers on the bridge were unable to halt the fighters. As soon as the Seleka crossed into the non-Muslim side, they attacked civilians.
An early target was a school where a teacher training course was being held. One participant said:
A group of Seleka fighters came into the courtyard of the school. It was about 15 men. They were armed with knives and grenades. When we saw them we ran to the church. But other Seleka arrived on motos and cut us off, so we ran into the neighborhood. Some [Seleka fighters] were wearing mixed uniforms and civilian's clothes. They started to shoot directly at us. One teacher, Kango, was sick and he could not keep up, he was captured and stabbed to death. I watched as they killed him. I learned later that another teacher, the director of the training center, was also killed when they found him in the neighborhood.
Some civilians sought safety at the provincial hospital, on the border between the two neighborhoods. However, Seleka fighters killed and seriously wounded people as they tried to enter the building. A 37-year-old man who was injured said:
I wanted to run to the hospital because I knew there were peacekeepers there, but there were Seleka in front of it. One saw me and yelled, "You are anti-balaka." Just next to me they shot a man running for the hospital. I decided to try to enter the hospital. Two Seleka grabbed me, threw me to the ground and one stabbed me in the chest with a sword. My intestines spilled out, but I was still in front of the hospital, so I put them back in and put pressure on the wound. I staggered to the hospital and found a doctor who did an emergency surgery.
Human Rights Watch interviewed the man three days after these events and saw a large wound on his chest and stomach.
A 43-year-old man said he saw the Seleka kill a sick elderly man: "The Seleka shot him with a homemade gun, but then they walked up to him and finished him off with machetes."
Another man, 37, watched attackers kill his 40-year-old brother: "He was shot twice while he was running and he fell. Then two men ran up and stabbed him to death in his back with a knife."
The Seleka fighters targeted suspected anti-balaka, but killed many civilians. A 30-year-old woman from the Gbaya neighborhood interviewed in the hospital said:
They found my 17-year-old son and took him outside and started to hit him with machetes. As they were giving him the final blow I put myself in front of them to save him. I had a baby on my back but they hit me in the arm with the machete anyway and cut it open. I screamed, "He is not anti-balaka, why do you want to kill him?" A fighter said back, "Don't stop us from killing your people. You killed one of ours, we will kill yours." They did not hit me with the machete again, but instead they killed my father in law, who was just next to me, with machete blows to his head. He was 60 years old.
The woman showed Human Rights Watch the bandage on her left arm, above the elbow, where she said she was struck. Her son was also recovering in the hospital.
Seleka fighters were able to quickly move past UN peacekeepers who were guarding about 7,000 people in l'Évêché. Some peacekeepers opened fire, killing 12 Seleka fighters.
As soon as they entered the camp, Seleka fighters began shooting at civilians, including women and children, witnesses said.
A woman of about 60 from the nearby village of Ngoulekpa I, who had been living in l'Évêché for three years, said:
When I first heard the shots I went back into my hut to hide. A short time later, I could feel heat coming from other huts that were set ablaze. I went outside and saw my neighbor's hut burning. I turned around and I saw that mine was burning as well. I started to run to the MINUSCA base, but a young Seleka fighter that I recognized saw me and shot me in the leg. I was helped by others who were fleeing and I was taken to the hospital at the MINUSCA base.
Human Rights Watch interviewed the woman on October 19, and observed what looked like a gunshot wound on her left lower leg. She was receiving medical care from MINUSCA.
A 23-year-old man said he looked for his 17-year-old wife, his two-month-old child and his wife's three-year-old sister after the attack:
When the attack started I ran to the MINUSCA base hoping to find my family there. When people started to arrive I did not see them so I went down to the camp to look. I saw two dead bodies but it was not them. I found my family near our house... My wife had been shot in the stomach. Our baby had been shot in the head. My wife's sister looked like she had been shot in the leg. Everything around them was burned and destroyed. We had to bury them in a mass grave.
A 40-year-old widow and mother of six from Ngoulepa II, north of Kaga Bandoro, said she could not take all of her children as she fled:
It seemed like all of the sudden there was shooting everywhere and the kids were running left and right. I just ran and took some of the small kids with me. I learned later that my son Justin Soubanoyo was killed. He was 6 years old. He was shot in the side.
A 15-year-old boy from the Catholic Mission neighborhood said he saw his friend, also 15, get killed: "From my hiding place I saw Vianny running. He was shot in the right arm and fell. A group of five men fell onto him and stabbed him to death. When he was dead they saw me and they chased me, but I ran and hid behind a house. Vianny was a student, he was not anti-balaka."
People with disabilities were both targeted in the attack and killed in the fires. As the attack started, "Janet," a resident of the Catholic Mission neighborhood, sought shelter at a neighbor's home with a local man, Bakoudou Kankandi, who is deaf and does not speak. Seleka fighters soon broke down the door asking if there were men in the home. Janet told them no, she said. "They made us come out of the house and told us to go to the MINUSCA base," Janet said. "But when they saw Bankoudou, they said, 'You said there were no men here. Is this not a man?' I said, 'No, he is deaf and dumb, he does not understand.' But they shot him anyway."
At least three older people with disabilities were left behind at the displacement site and burned to death in the fire, survivors said.
A relative of Gilbert Bingimale, an older man who could not walk, said that the family had to leave Bingimale in the hut so they could save the children. "It was burned down and when we came back later we found him still there. He must have hidden thinking he would be safe. All his skin had burned off."
A relative of Pauline Pharama, a 70-year-old blind woman, said he could not reach Pharama after the attack started. He said he returned the next morning and found her body charred and eaten by dogs.
After Seleka forces destroyed the l'Évêché camp, the violence continued in areas around Kaga-Bandoro, witnesses said. A 31-year-old woman from Baïko, a neighborhood in the northern part of town, said:
I saw people running from the neighborhood and I was nervous. Around noon I heard motorcycles approaching and I hid in the bush near the house. The Seleka came to our compound. They were in civilian clothes, but they were armed with guns and swords. My niece was there with her five-day old baby, Emmanuel Sadrak. She tried to flee, but a Seleka shot her. The bullet killed her and the baby. My sister ran out of the house and tried to help her, but she was also shot. She is not dead. After they shot them, the Seleka pillaged the house. We tried to bring my niece to the hospital, but she was already dead. We buried the baby there at the house.
Due to security concerns, Human Rights Watch could not reach villages on the roads leading out of Kaga-Bandoro. In the days following the attack, however, displaced people from those villages streamed into the town. Villages along the road to Botto, west of Kaga-Bandoro, were apparently attacked on the afternoon of October 12. A resident of Beguete I, a village along this road, said:
Late in the morning people started to run down the road saying that the Seleka had attacked the town center. A few minutes later some motorcycles carrying Seleka drove by, but they quickly turned around. They then came back with more fighters. They started to shoot at the villages along the road. We heard the shooting and we fled. From a distance I saw them burn my village.
Seleka FPRC fighters had destroyed villages along this road in February 2015, but some residents had rebuilt their homes. Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch indicates that at least 75 homes on this road were destroyed in October. "I had just rebuilt my house and only spent five months in it before it was burned down again," said a newly displaced 47-year-old widow from Zefio, five kilometers from Kaga-Bandoro, "I'm exhausted."
On October 13, the day after the attack, some people left the makeshift displacement camp at the UN base in Kaga-Bandoro to look for possessions that might have been left behind after the attack and looting in other neighborhoods, but they too were targeted. One woman said she saw a man killed near the abandoned Bomou area:
I heard a moto arrive and I hid in the bush. Three Seleka arrived and saw a man. They called him over saying, "We won't hurt you." So he approached them. They spoke for a moment and I heard the man yell, "Don't kill me!" But a Seleka pulled out a knife and stabbed him in the neck. I crawled away, but I turned around and saw the man's body at a distance.
In a meeting with Human Rights Watch, General Al Khatim, the military head of the MPC, insisted that Seleka fighters did not participate in the October 12 attack, blaming armed Muslim civilians from the town instead. He accused MINUSCA of failing to protect civilians.
Lissane, the political director of the FPRC, also said that no FPRC fighters had participated in the attack. He justified the assault, however, saying that anti-balaka fighters had used the camp as a base. He maintained the camp was attacked because anti-balaka fighters had started a fight outside the camp with members of the Muslim community. While anti-balaka were living around the l'Évêché camp, they were armed with machetes, a few artisanal hunting guns and a handful of grenades, according to witnesses and camp residents. No one else interviewed by Human Rights Watch confirmed Lissane's version of events.
The attack at l'Évêché has increased tensions and mistrust between people in Kaga-Bandoro and MINSUCA forces. Human Rights Watch heard numerous rumors in the town that Pakistani peacekeepers had supplied the Seleka with guns, munitions, and support before and during the attack, but found no evidence to support this claim.
In an interview with local media, the minister of public security, interior and territorial administration, Jean-Serge Bokassa, seemed to encourage negative attitudes toward the Pakistanis. "What is the role of the Pakistani contingent in Kaga-Bandoro?" he said on October 15. "Their connivance with armed groups has lasted too long."
Background: A Legacy of Displacement Camp Attacks
Saint Notre Dam Parish - Bangui
On May 28, 2014, a group of armed civilians, possibly mixed with Seleka fighters, attacked the Notre Dam Parish in the Fatima neighborhood of Bangui, killing 17 people. The parish had served as a displaced camp for thousands of residents displaced from Bangui since a major offensive launched by the anti-balaka on the capital on December 5, 2013. At the time, local camp officials told Human Rights Watch that roughly 5,800 people lived in the camp on the day of the attack.
The attack occurred just after a heated street battle between the anti-balaka and Muslim self-defense groups. Muslim militiamen told Human Rights Watch they believed that some of the anti-balaka had sought shelter among the displaced people at the church. The 17 deaths recorded by Human Rights Watch were all civilians, including women and children.
Saint Joseph's Parish - Bambari
In June 2014 a deadly cycle of sectarian violence escalated in the Ouaka Province, resulting in at least 62 deaths between June 9 and 23. The attacks, by both Seleka and anti-balaka fighters, were retaliatory in nature, indicating a growing cycle of tit-for-tat revenge killings between the communities. Most of the victims were men who were chopped to death by machetes. The violence culminated with a brutal attack on July 7 by suspected Seleka rebels on thousands of displaced people taking shelter at Bambari's Saint Joseph's Parish and the adjacent Bishop's residence. The attack killed at least 27 people. The Seleka fighters were under the command of General Ali Darassa, the head of a group that would later emerge as Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (l'Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC).
Ngakobo/SUCAF - Ngakobo
On December 3, 2015, Seleka UPC fighters attacked a displacement camp at Ngakobo, approximately 60 kilometers from Bambari, which housed an estimated 4,500 displaced people, killing eight. Ngakobo was attacked again on October 15, 2016 by armed men, killing 13 civilians. UPC representatives denied to international media that its fighters were responsible for the attack. Human Rights Watch was not able to verify the circumstances of the attack or who was responsible for the more recent attack.