Nairobi — Fighters from the armed group Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation, or 3R, killed at least 46 civilians on May 21, 2019, in three attacks in Ouham Pendé province in the Central African Republic. In February, 14 armed groups, including 3R, signed a peace accord with the Central African government and in March, the 3R commander, General Sidiki Abass (also known as Bi Sidi Souleymane) was appointed by presidential decree a military adviser to the prime minister.
"The killings of these civilians are war crimes that need to be effectively investigated and those responsible brought to justice," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "That the evidence implicates 3R and Abass, who have signed a peace accord designed to end such crimes, makes a prompt and independent investigation all the more urgent."
The May 21 attacks took place in the town of Bohong and the villages of Koundjili and Lemouna, in the northwestern part of the country, all at around the same time, which suggests they may have been coordinated. Several people who attended a meeting with Abass in Bohong the day before the attacks told Human Rights Watch that in the meeting, he threatened to carry out attacks on civilians.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 36 people in Ouham Pendé province, including in Bohong, Koundjili, and Lemouna, in June, including 12 witnesses to the 3R killings and 9 relatives of victims. These people said that 3R members had killed civilians in all three locations and pillaged in Bohong. Human Rights Watch also spoke with a representative of 3R on June 15 in Bangui, the capital.
The 3R group emerged in late 2015 asserting that they were needed to protect the minority Peuhl population in the region from attacks by anti-balaka militia who were targeting Muslims in the aftermath of violence that started in early 2013. In April and May 2016, 3R conducted attacks on villages in the Koui subprefecture, allegedly in retaliation for anti-balaka activity. 3R attacks on civilians in 2016 and 2017 led to the displacement of tens of thousands in the Ouham Pendé province.
The United Nations has 13,677 troops in its Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and has combat-ready soldiers in Bocaranga, the capital of the Ouham Pendé province, who routinely patrol the roads to Bohong, Koundjili, and Lemouna. MINUSCA's mandate to protect citizens includes authority to use force as necessary, and they should review their operational protocols to ensure they are maximizing protection of civilians, Human Rights Watch said.
During a May 20 meeting in Bohong between 3R and local authorities, participants heard shots fired at a distance. It is unclear who fired the shots or why, but people interviewed said that Abass appeared enraged when others at the meeting suggested that the shots were fired by 3R fighters. "He told us, 'I came here peacefully, but it is you, the people of Bohong, who have declared war. Now I will show you how to shoot,'" a local official who participated in the meeting said. Another official who participated in the meeting said it ended with Abass promising to return to Bohong to bring war and install a base in the town.
The next day, May 21, 3R fighters entered the town and immediately started firing on civilians. The town's people fled to the nearby woods. At least 10 people were killed as a result of the attack, including Monique Douma, a 40-year-old woman with a physical disability. A relative of Douma said: "When it was time to flee, I told Monique to come with me, but she said she couldn't. She said, 'I don't have the strength to run.'" Douma's home was burned while she hid inside. She died the morning after the attack.
Multiple witnesses and authorities described in detail how 3R fighters pillaged Bohong over the next day.
About three hours before the Bohong attack, a separate group of 3R fighters carried out extrajudicial killings of 32 men in neighboring Koundjili and Lemouna villages, northeast of Bohong.
In Lemouna, approximately 25 3R fighters gathered the village's male population for a meeting. "This is not unusual," a witness said. "The 3R would sometimes come to talk to us about things." However, on this day, after they forced the men to gather, they tied them up, held them in front of the village chief's home for about an hour and then executed them.
Witnesses from Koundjili said that a group of 3R fighters arrived on motorcycles and called the men from the village to come to them. This was also not uncommon as 3R controlled this road. However, once they had gathered 11 men, they made them lay down and executed them. "I was just behind my brothers who were walking over to the 3R," said one witness. "But when they [my brothers] got to the 3R, the fighters yelled, 'Now lay down!' When I heard that, I stayed back... . I ran into the bush and started to hear many shots." The fighters also killed two other male civilians before leaving.
On May 24, Abass handed three men who he claimed were responsible for the killings in Koundjili and Lemouna over to local authorities and MINUSCA. The men are detained in Bangui awaiting trial. The Central African government should not accept that handing over these men absolves Abass of responsibility for these killings, Human Rights Watch said.
The May 21 crimes fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose prosecutor opened an investigation into crimes committed in the country since 2012 in September 2014, as well as the Special Criminal Court (SCC), a 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.
The recent peace accord has vague provisions related to the role of post-conflict justice and does not mention specific judicial processes, or recent efforts to promote justice in the country, though it recognizes the role impunity has played in entrenching violence. The SCC represents a recent national effort to restore justice and offers a meaningful opportunity to hold accountable commanders from all parties to the conflict who are responsible for war crimes, such as those committed by the 3R, Human Rights Watch said.
A representative of 3R told Human Rights Watch that the fighters who carried out the killings in Lemouna and Koundjili were not acting on orders from 3R commanders or Abass. He denied that any civilians were killed on May 21, 2019, in Bohong, insisting that only one fighter from the anti-balaka militia was killed. He also denied that 3R fighters pillaged the town. He insisted that Abass "does his best to control his men" and that the timing of the violence in Bohong and the attacks on Koundjili and Lemouna were "a bad coincidence."
A condition of the peace accord that Abass, as the 3R commander, signed in Bangui is that those responsible for further violations of international humanitarian law, including crimes against civilians, would face international sanctions. Sanction procedures against 3R should begin immediately, Human Rights Watch said.
"In the face of multiple witnesses who will attest that Abass openly declared his intent to kill civilians and then followed through on it, Abass and his representatives in Bangui are trying to cover up a coordinated and planned day of killing," Mudge said. "If the guarantors of the peace deal intend for it to actually end war crimes, they have to show Abass, and all parties, that they will be held fully to account for their actions."
Central African Republic in Crisis
The Central African Republic has been in crisis since late 2012, when mostly Muslim Seleka rebels began a military campaign against the government of former President François Bozizé. The Seleka took control of Bangui in March 2013, and their rule was marked by widespread human rights abuses, including the wanton killing of civilians. In mid-2013, Christian and animist anti-balaka militias 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.
Since 2013, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which anti-balaka militias, civilians, and Seleka groups targeted the Muslim Peuhl. In 2014, Human Rights Watch documented that anti-balaka groups in the southwest held Peuhl women and girls hostage and repeatedly raped them. The 3R was established in 2015, purportedly to defend the Peuhl from attacks. But the 3R, in turn, attacked civilians. Human Rights Watch documented that 3R fighters killed at least 50 civilians in the Koui sous-prefecture in 2016. In one of the most brutal attacks, on the capital of Koui, De Gaulle, 3R fighters raped 23 women and girls.
The Peace Deal and the Bangui Forum
The African Union-mediated peace accord signed in February 2019 followed 18 months of talks with 14 armed groups and the central government, often while the groups continued their brutal attacks on civilians. The accord granted three armed-group leaders key government posts, including Abass's appointment as military adviser to the prime minister on special mixed units in the northwest zone.
In May 2015, the Bangui Forum, which marked the conclusion of national consultations, agreed that "no amnesty" would be tolerated for those responsible for and acting as accomplices in international crimes. The Bangui Forum recognized that the lack of justice in the Central African Republic since 2003 was one of the main causes of successive crises. Rewarding abusive commanders with government posts will only fuel further abuse, Human Rights Watch said. Militia leaders, including Abass, should be investigated with the intent to prosecute in an effort to hold key figures responsible for serious crimes to account and make justice a reality for victims.
3R Attacks in the Ouham Pendé Province
Human Rights Watch has reached no conclusion as to why 3R carried out coordinated attacks on civilians on May 21, 2019. However, some local officials suggested that the attacks may have been a show of force to expand 3R's area of control and further control regional cattle migration routes.
Bohong Meeting - May 20
On May 20, a meeting was held at the gendarmerie in Bohong to address violence between Peuhl herders and farmers and settle a dispute over cattle theft. The meeting was attended by local authorities from Bohong, Bocaranga, Koui (the sub-prefecture where Abass is based), a representative from MINUSCA, and the head of the local gendarmerie. Human Rights Watch spoke individually with five people who attended the meeting. All reported that it was tense and marked by repeated threats by Abass against the local population. After the meeting, four cows that had been stolen from Peuhl herders in a nearby village were handed over to Abass and his men in order to be returned.
In the meeting, Abass insisted to local authorities that something needed to be done /to stop attacks on Peuhl. Shots fired in the town during the meeting, under unclear circumstances, enraged Abass. One local authority said:
The shooting made things worse. We said it was the 3R who shot, but Sidiki [Abass] insisted it was the anti-balaka. This made him very angry, and he said he wanted to make a base in Bohong. He said, "You have shot at us! If you want a war, I will give you one and make my base here... . You will see." The sous-préfet [a local authority] of Koui asked me to help calm him down. But he left very upset. I was not sure about his intentions. He was clear that he wanted to establish a base in Bohong. When he gets mad, he does not listen to people. Other authorities tried to calm him down, but he did not come here to exchange ideas. He came to impose his rule and to threaten war.
Another participant at the meeting said that Abass also announced, "You people of Bohong are stubborn. I will make my base here.... You can't bring me war. I will bring it to you, and I will show you how to shoot. I will show you who I am."
A local authority said that he anticipated an attack in the area following the meeting. "After that meeting," he said, "we all doubted his intentions."
Attack on Bohong - May 21
The next day, on May 21, a group of 3R fighters were seen outside of Bohong. A local authority officer went to meet the fighters to discuss their presence:
At 8:00 a.m., I got word of 3R fighters on the outskirts of the town. I went on a motorbike with a gendarme to where they were, five kilometers from Bohong on the Bocaranga road. I saw the 3R fighters. The leader said he had more men in the bush. I asked him why they were there. He said they came for the question of the four cows. I said, "Sidiki took them yesterday." The 3R commander said, "I know, it is true. Sidiki told me that he took the cows to Koui. There is no problem. We will take some tea and food here and then we will go to Koui." The conversation lasted five minutes. We agreed all was fine and I left.
That morning, much of the town was busy with a food distribution organized by World Vision, an international nongovernmental organization.
Around 2 p.m., after World Vision staff left Bohong, 3R fighters began their attack on the town. Witnesses said that they fled immediately after the town was attacked. Human Rights Watch spoke with three civilians whose relatives had not managed to flee and whose bodies were found in wells and latrines when the civilians returned to the town. The 3R fighters killed at least 10 people in the town, including Evariste Ngororo, a 39-year-old man. A relative of Ngororo said that he found the body in a well when he came back to Bohong after fleeing into the surrounding woods:
[Ngororo's body] was found dumped in a well, just behind the Catholic Church. We had been looking for him. We did not know what had happened to him. My niece saw blood spots around the well. So, we went there and found the body. Someone went down to the well with a rope and a torch and extracted the body. When the body was pulled out, I recognized him. The body was already showing signs of decomposition, but I could see that there were two major gunshot injuries, one in the head and one in the stomach.
One child, a 10-year-old girl, Lesley Yanja, was killed during the attack. A relative of Yanja said: "When the gunfire started, we decided that it was not safe for us to stay, so I arranged for my five children to leave. I took them on motorbike, and I drove about two kilometers away. My plan was to go back home and take Lesley to safety. But it was too late. We found Lesley's body at about 3 p.m. on the ground in the neighborhood. She had been shot, one bullet in the head."
Four additional civilians died while fleeing the attack, including two babies. Both had been born in the days before the attack and the family members had to flee the local health center, whose staff had also fled. A relative of a 16-year-old girl who had given birth on May 19 took the baby with her when the attack started:
The shots were being fired near the health center, so we could not stay there; it was not safe. Patients and nurses were also worried, and at a certain point everyone was running away. I decided to take the newborn because my daughter-in-law was still too weak. We ran into the bush. While running, I fell; there was a hole on the ground which I did not see. I fell over the baby whom I was holding in my arms, the baby hit a rock in the head. I stood up and kept running, then after five minutes, I stopped to check on the baby and I realized that he was dead. We buried the baby in the bush.
A day-old baby also died as his parents fled the attack. The mother said:
The sound of gunfire was coming closer, so we could not stay at the health center. We had to leave; we had no choice. I took my little boy and ran away. He was very small. I could not take anything with me, no blanket, nothing. The newborn was exposed; he was not covered enough. We walked for about 20 kilometers and crossed the river Ouham. We thought it was safer on the other side. As soon as I crossed the bridge, I checked on my baby. I noticed that he was no longer breathing.... I think he died because he was too weak; he could not take it.
On May 22, Abass returned to Bohong to collect his men and coordinate how they would transport the looted goods from the town. A local authority who returned to the town on May 22 said: "I saw Sidiki. He was there. I know him. He was with his men, and he was arranging the stolen goods at the gendarmerie. He was calm; he was pointing at what goods go into which vehicle. He was not angry with his men."
Extrajudicial Killings in Koundjili and Lemouna - May 21
Between 12 to 14 motorcycles carrying 3R fighters arrived in Lemouna just after 11 a.m. on May 21. The fighters came from the direction of Bocaranga and residents said that they recognized the fighters as among those based in Lételé. Four motorcycles continued to Koundjili, while the fighters who remained in Lemouna called a meeting. A witness said: "This is not unusual. The 3R would sometimes come to talk to us about things because they controlled the zone." However, witnesses and survivors said the fighters quickly became aggressive and started beating the men near the village chief's compound.
When they had gathered 22 men, they tied them up and, after waiting for the fighters from Koundjili to return, they executed 19 of the men. Three men survived. A survivor said:
Some men, like me, were tied alone. Some were tied together. We could not ask what was happening. We knew this was very bad. We had many men tied up. They held us for some time. One of the 3R fighters said, "We will wait for our chief who is in Koundjili." It was maybe an hour. Then the chief arrived. He said, "God trapped you!" Then he himself took his gun and shot Bari Blizzard in the back. Then he shot the president of the village youth committee, Michel Kobikaya. Then he shot Raphael - he had been forced to lay down, he was shot in the head. Then he shot the director of the school, Hermain. Then the 3R leader sat on his motorbike and his fighters shot all of us. I was next to Bari when he was shot, and his blood went all over me. I was shot in the leg when the shooting started, so I fell down. I was covered in blood, so they thought I was dead.
Another survivor said:
We were tied up, two by two, from the back with a rope. I still have the marks from the rope on my arms. I was tied up alongside my younger brother, Christoph Seneimi. Some of us were lying with our faces to the ground; those who attempted to raise their heads were kicked in the head. When the motorbikes which went to Koundjili came back, the shooting started. My brother got several bullets and was killed on the spot. His body fell over me. One of the bullets which hit my brother, hit me too, on my right arm. I played dead; that's how I survived.
The fighters who went to Koundjili called people to come to them when they arrived in the village. They gathered 11 men, made them lay down under a tree along the road, and executed them. A witness to the killings said:
They stopped their motorcycles on the main road. Usually, when they stop on the main road, a chief will go and greet them. [But] they just started to collect people in the immediate area. They were saying, "You, young men, come here!" They were being aggressive, and we knew that something was not right. Then, suddenly, under the mango tree, they told the men to lie down. I watched from a distance. They made the men lie down, and they did not say anything to them. The men on the ground could not say anything. There was no time. Three of the fighters just shot them. Then the 3R fighters went up the hill [into the town] and shot two more people there. Then, as quickly as they came, they left for Lemouna.
One of those killed in town was Cesar Tussessekia, a 36-year-old father of five who was shot in the back. Tussessekia had an audible disability and would not have heard the earlier shooting.
Response of 3R
On May 24, 3R issued a news release, signed by Abass, apologizing to the people of Koundjili and Lemouna for the killings and reiterating the group's willingness to establish peace and reconciliation in the country.
On June 15, Human Rights Watch interviewed 3R's Bangui representative and a member of the executive committee that follows the implementation of the peace accords, who simply called himself General Siloo. He said that the attack on Bohong was in response to an anti-balaka attack. He said only one anti-balaka fighter was killed and that the town was not pillaged. He said that Human Rights Watch had been fooled by the local community who have "a strategy to burn their own homes and then ask the international community to come and take photos.... They also have a habit of stealing from each other."
Siloo said the killings in Koundjili and Lemouna were by fighters operating outside the orders and control of Abass and the 3R command:
We wonder if someone was behind these acts. We think there was some influence from outside, but we are yet to understand from where. [A 3R commander who participated in the attack] was in contact with Seleka groups... . Maybe the Seleka are jealous of 3R's good reputation and they wanted to tarnish our image.
Siloo said that the group would open its own investigation, "but many bad 3R have fled after the attacks because we handed the others to the authorities. We are searching for the other men. I don't know how many, but there are many."