Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic captured and executed at least nine civilians, including seven women, on September 6, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. The executions around the town of Bria in the Haute-Kotto province came almost two weeks after the same group killed 11 civilians after a clash with a rival militia.
"These executions and killings are brazen war crimes by fighters who feel free to kill at will, despite the presence of United Nations peacekeepers," said Lewis Mudge, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The peacekeepers are allowed to use force to protect civilians, and should seek to anticipate these attacks and to intervene early."
Rebels from the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique, FPRC), captured and executed the nine civilians, who had been working or going to their fields outside a displaced people's camp. The same group killed at least 11 civilians fleeing the town's Borno neighborhood, three kilometers from the camp, on August 25 after fighting between the FPRC and anti-balaka militia. Human Rights Watch found evidence that the group killed at least four more civilians around Bria on September 16.
Human Rights Watch also found evidence that anti-balaka groups killed at least eight civilians in the area since June. Tensions have increased between the two groups since 2017, with unlawful killings by both. Both groups deny attacking civilians.
The FPRC, drawn from the predominately Muslim Seleka group that briefly took power in the country in 2013, control most of Bria. Though previously aligned with anti-balaka against another group, it has fought anti-balaka in the region since mid-2017. The anti-balaka emerged in 2013, largely from existing self-defense groups to resist Seleka abuses, and have committed serious abuses against civilians, particularly Muslims, across the country. They attack civilians in the forests and fields outside Bria, on the Irabanda road, but some fighters also stay in the "PK3" displacement camp in Bria.
Fighting since May 2017 has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes. More than 50,000 now live at the "PK3" camp. Camp leaders confirmed that anti-balaka base themselves at "PK3" for short periods.
Between September 19 and 22, Human Rights Watch interviewed 39 people in and around Bria, including crime victims, victims' relatives, two FPRC commanders, and a former anti-balaka fighter.
Residents and camp officials said that tensions in the town were high when the fighting broke out in the Borno neighborhood on August 25. The fighting was short-lived as the anti-balaka fled. The FPRC fighters then turned on fleeing civilians, chasing them into their fields across the Kotto river, witnesses said.
One 40-year-old survivor said: "[My relatives]and I got split up as we crossed the river and they were captured by the Seleka. From my hiding place, I watched how they were both stabbed in the chest and killed. Before they killed them, the Seleka yelled, 'You are the mothers of the anti-balaka!' They were both left for dead as the Seleka went on to kill more people."
FPRC fighters captured and executed 9 civilians on September 6 in the bush and fields near the displacement camp where they live, witnesses and family members said. Several victims bore signs of torture and were found with their hands tied. Witnesses said that the fighters were under the command of General Jaboud Tijani.
A family member of 53-year-old Suzanne Yassimeya, one of the victims, said: "She knew it was dangerous outside the camps, but she had to go to the fields. Otherwise her family would starve... When we found her body, her hands were still tied up and she had been shot in the stomach."
In the September 16 attack, fighters attacked unarmed civilians working in fields around Tamangola, a village 15 kilometers north of Bria, killing at least four more people.
The total number of civilian victims is most likely higher than the 24 the FPRC and the 8 the anti-balaka killed since late June. Families say several of their relatives are still missing. Residents of surrounding villages continued to report killings of unarmed civilians in fields outside of Bria. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm all reported killings due to limited access and security concerns.
On September 7, the UN peacekeeping force, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic, (MINUSCA), announced an investigation into the group execution. MINUSCA should carry out the investigation with the purpose of facilitating possible future national, regional or international prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said.
MINSUCA peacekeepers are based in front of the displacement camp, at the airport, and by the hospital. Human Rights Watch researchers saw some UN patrols in the camp, but armed FPRC fighters move about freely in the town.
The FPRC have denied responsibility for the crimes and blamed anti-balaka forces. General Hussain Damboucha, the regional commander of the Haute-Kotto province, told Human Rights Watch that his men did not kill any civilians in Bria or the surrounding villages. "The anti-balaka kidnapped those nine people [... ]and tortured and killed them to say that we did it," he said. Human Rights Watch found no evidence to support this claim.
On September 22, Tijani told Human Rights Watch that his men did not capture or target civilians: "The anti-balaka want me to leave this area because I fight them hard, so they are killing civilians and blaming it on me."
Anti-balaka militia around Bria have targeted both Muslims and non-Muslims accused of collaborating with the local Muslim population.
In late June, anti-balaka fighters in a group managed by Thierry Francois Pelenga, alias "Bokassa," killed four non-Muslim women in the village of Gbre, five kilometers from Bria. "We killed them because they continued to sell food in town," a former anti-balaka fighter said. "We made them dig their own graves, then we hit them in the head and buried them alive." The next day the same fighters captured three men, accused them of the same offense, and killed them. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm all the details.
The war crimes in Bria occurred as the Special Criminal Court - staffed with national and international judges and prosecutors to try grave human rights violations since 2003 - has begun operations. The court - which is based in Bangui - offers a crucial chance for accountability for the crimes, and to stop cycles of killings, Human Rights Watch said.
The attacks and counter-attacks in Bria appear to be ongoing. Damboucha expressed frustration that the "PK3" camp has become a haven for the anti-balaka and hinted that the FPRC may forcibly disarm the camp. Seleka rebels have attacked and burned displacement camps in the past, killing scores of civilians.
Given clear warning signs that violence will continue, peacekeepers should be on high alert. They should urgently take steps to protect civilians in the camp and surrounding areas from attack, Human Rights Watch said.
"FPRC fighters apparently don't fear the peacekeepers, and there are anti-balaka in the camp," Mudge said. "MINUSCA should be ready for an attack on the camp, and arrests and prosecutions of those responsible for the recent killings are urgently needed."
Central African Republic in Crisis
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 in the northeast, moved southwest into more populous non-Muslim areas, killing thousands of civilians.
In 2014, international forces pushed the Seleka out of the capital, Bangui. 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. In July 2018 the Seleka factions met and formed a political alliance under the banner of the National Council for Defense and Security (Conseil National pour le Défense et la Sécurité, CNDS).
A political dialogue between the African Union and armed groups, including the FPRC, restarted in late August. The dialogue aims to reach a political agreement to end ongoing violence. The FPRC has made past proposals for a dialogue that might lead to a general amnesty. But no agreement signed since 2012 has taken hold.
Recent Violence in Bria
In the past the FPRC had allied itself with the anti-balaka to fight the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (l'Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC), a group with close links to the minority ethnic Peuhl and also drawn from the Seleka, when the two groups split over access to local resources. Fighting between them in Bria in late November 2016 left at least 14 civilians dead and 76 wounded. The FPRC and the UPC have since re-established alliances to fight the anti-balaka.
Residents of the Borno neighborhood reported that the fighting on August 25, between the FPRC and anti-balaka, lasted only a half hour. The FPRC pushed the anti-balaka forces in the neighborhood across the Kotto river with little resistance. However, following the fighting, FPRC fighters chased civilians who had fled the fighting, killing at least 11. Some of the victims were captured and quickly executed.
A 64-year-old man said he hid as the Seleka chased him and his brother, 56-year-old George Rediebone. "After the shooting stopped, I went to look for my [relative]," he said. "After a while I found the bodies of four men, three of them had their arms tied to one another. My brother was one of the men. Each of them had been shot in the head."
The victims included at least one child, Bellivia Gadda, 14. "I was hiding in the bush and I saw Bellivia run by," a witness said. "She had a child on her back. She saw the Seleka and threw the child into the tall grass and she was captured with another woman," Bénédicte Renede-Chatou, 25. "They were both shot in the head." The child, Gadda's 3-year-old brother, survived.
A relative of Sem Koumounda, an 18-year-old man with physical and intellectual disabilities, said that he used to wait by the river for his relatives to return from the fields. When the fighting started, the river trapped Koumounda as the fighters chased the civilians. "When we finally made it back to Bria [after the fighting] we found him dead in his usual place by the river, shot twice in the side," the relative said. "A member of the Seleka later told us that another fighter had shot Sem for no reason."
Human Rights Watch confirmed that FPRC fighters raped a 22-year-old pregnant woman on September 9, near the area where the September 6 executions occurred. A relative of the woman said the family wished to start a legal process against the attacker when the judicial system functioned again in Bria. Human Rights Watch corroborated this case with health care providers in Bria. Other rapes by FPRC fighters were reported, but details were not corroborated.
September 6 Executions
Human Rights Watch spoke with two people who saw Tijani and his men on September 6, one who saw Tijani in the area where the people were execution in the early morning, and another whom Tijani sent back to the displacement camp before the killing.
The first witness said that Tijani's men opened fire on her and her family in the same area. "We were walking to the fields and we crossed the road and saw Jaboud with some men, they were wearing camouflage uniforms," she said. "When we saw them, we ran into the tall grass and they shot at us."
At approximately 11 a.m. Tijani and his men had collected at least 10 civilians in a group about five kilometers from the MINUSCA base. They took some hostages who were going to the fields, and others who were already working in the fields.
A survivor who had been captured with other victims but was released said:
I had spent Wednesday in the fields with some family members. On Thursday the Seleka came to our house [a temporary field house used during the planting season]. It was Jaboud [Tijani] and his men. Jaboud is well known in Bria, he used to run a business in the Pia neighborhood. He had about 20 fighters with him and they immediately asked if we were hiding guns for the anti-balaka. We explained that we were just farmers. They checked the house and found nothing. They tied us up and burned our small hut down. They then took us with them to a spot in the bush near PK5 [approximately 5 kilometers from Bria].
There were other people there who had been taken hostage by the Seleka, they were being guarded by other fighters... They made some of the women prepare some corn that they had collected. As they were preparing the food, Jaboud came and told me, "You go back to the camp and you tell the anti-balaka that they must come out here to fight us or we will kill more hostages." As I left, the Seleka were beating the men they had captured [Benoit Wambala, 67, and Philman Wambala, 24]... I ran down the road and I heard the shooting shortly after. I knew that they were killing all the hostages. Now, I can't even think about going into the fields to work. It is too dangerous for anyone to go out there.
Human Rights Watch spoke with the family members of three victims who said that when they found their loved ones' bodies, they could see their hands had been tied, indicating an execution. A relative of Francoise Renemati, 66, said, "When we went to collect her body, we saw that they used her headscarf to tie her hands behind her back."
Anti-Balaka Abuse in Bria Since June
Anti-Balaka fighters under the "Bokassa's" command have targeted civilians since at least late June. Bokassa controls area around the road leading from Bria to Irabanda. Residents said they target civilians for suspected witchcraft and for "treason" - conducting any type of business with Muslims in Bria.
One man said Bokassa held him for three days in June. "They beat me and called me a traitor because I still go into town," he said. "They took all the goods from my farm and I had to give them all my money just to be freed... If you come to town, the anti-balaka will want to kill you, but we have to go to town to sell our crops and try to survive."
A former anti-balaka fighter, who left the group in July, said:
We captured four women that we had warned in the past. Bokassa said to them, "You women are selling goods to the Chadians [Muslims from Chad] to help them live. You are giving them information about our positions. We have warned you many times, and you refuse to follow our orders, so now we are going to kill you." We gave them shovels to dig their own graves. When they finished we hit each of them in the head with a shovel, one by one, and they fell into the holes. We then buried them alive.
The next day we caught three men returning from Bria after they had sold manioc. Bokassa decided to make an example out of them too, so we took all the things they had bought in town, soap and sugar, and we also made them dig their own graves. This is how we dealt with people we accused of sorcery and treason... After we killed those people, some of us questioned why we had joined the anti-balaka and we decided to run away... If Bokassa's men ever caught me they would kill me straight away.