Bangui, Central African Republic (HRW) – Five days of sectarian violence that gripped Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, between September 25 and October 1, 2015, led to at least 31 targeted killings of civilians.
“Civilians in Bangui urgently need protection from the brutal sectarian violence that once again has engulfed their city,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The interim government and international peacekeepers should be ready to react quickly to save lives when sectarian violence breaks out.”
In addition to the killings, armed men from both communities looted and destroyed property. Using satellite imagery analysis, Human Rights Watch identified at least 250 destroyed structures from the neighborhoods near Kilomètre 5, the city’s main Muslim enclave. Two churches and a mosque were also destroyed.
Protecting civilians from further violence of this nature will require rapid responses to requests for help on existing hotlines and more active patrolling by the United Nations peacekeeping mission in flashpoint areas, where communities of different sectarian backgrounds come into contact with one another, Human Rights Watch said. Since the violence ended on October 1, Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of continued isolated killings in the neighborhoods north of Kilomètre 5.
The UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSCA, had approximately 1,120 police and 1,100 soldiers stationed in Bangui at the time, supported by 900 French peacekeepers known as Sangaris. UN officials said the peacekeepers helped to bring 200 aid agency and UN staff to safety and to secure key installations in the city, including the airport and government buildings. The peacekeepers also prevented armed men from other parts of the country from entering the capital. UN officials told Human Rights Watch that their efforts to protect civilians were hampered by barricades set up by anti-balaka, civilians on the barricades, and the general confusion.
Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they saw no presence of the approximately 900 national gendarmes in Bangui during the violence.
On October 9, the National Transitional Government reported that at least 77 people had died, based on body counts at morgues. Officials could not distinguish who among the dead were armed attackers or civilians caught in the crossfire between the Muslim self-defense groups and the anti-balaka or whether any civilians were deliberately targeted. Another 414 people were injured, the government said.
This latest round of sectarian violence was set off by the death of a 17-year-old Muslim motorcycle taxi driver, Amin Mahamat, whose body was discovered along a main street early in the morning of September 26, with his throat slit. In revenge, Muslim self-defense groups from Kilomètre 5 began to attack Christian and other neighborhoods near the enclave. A UN police unit, part of MINUSCA, based on the outskirts of Kilomètre 5, was unable to stem the violence.
Ali Fadul, the president of the Muslim self-defense groups in Kilomètre 5, told Human Rights Watch, “After the people saw his [Mahamat’s] body they revolted.… There had been too many cases of Muslims being targeted.” Prior to the violence and chaos that have gripped the Central African Republic since March 2013, 122,000 Muslims lived in the capital. Only an estimated 15,000 remain.
Ancien Ngandra, a 66-year-old retired civil servant, was killed in the Sara neighborhood, just north of Kilomètre 5. A witness told Human Rights Watch, “Muslims came into the house and pulled Ancien outside. He tried to say something, but the attackers said, ‘Shut your mouth, don’t speak.’ When they were in front of his house they shot him in the stomach and in the head. He was not anti-balaka or Seleka. He was just an old man.”
In nearby Yakité neighborhood, a 45-year-old woman said she left her house to hide in a neighbor’s house when she heard nearby gunshots and grenade explosions. As she ran, she saw another neighbor, Abel Yakité, and his wife trying to flee. “As they were leaving the house, four young Muslim men with rifles approached them,” she said. “They shot dead both Yakité and his wife when they were on the veranda.”
As the information about the violence spread, armed men from the largely Christian and animist anti-balaka encouraged and committed violence against international peacekeepers. The anti-balaka and their supporters quickly set up barricades across the city, sometimes encouraging women and children to join them, possibly to deter peacekeepers from trying to take down the barricades. In some instances, the anti-balaka fought with the armed Muslims. Some soldiers from the national army, known as the FACA, helped and supported the anti-balaka fighters.
The anti-balaka also encouraged attacks on foreigners whom they blamed for doing nothing to stop the violence. Text messages circulated encouraging people to stone foreigners’ vehicles. Anti-balaka fighters and others seeking to take advantage of the chaos looted nine aid agencies, most of them a few kilometers from the neighborhoods where the violence occurred.
On September 28, approximately 600 prisoners escaped from the capital’s main Ngaragba prison, a severe setback to fighting impunity in the country. Some prison guards and soldiers from the national army facilitated the escape by opening the main gate, possibly because some of the inmates were soldiers. Rwandan UN peacekeepers stationed near the prison tried to deter the escape by firing into the air, and on at least one occasion at the prisoners, injuring one, but they were unsuccessful.
Re-establishing a functioning prison that meets basic prison conditions should be an urgent priority for the UN and interim government authorities, Human Rights Watch said.
The violence in Bangui came ahead of national elections, which were to start with a referendum on October 4, but have since been delayed.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a new investigation in the Central African Republic in September 2014 following a referral from the interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza. On September 30, the ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, warned that those who commit crimes within the court’s jurisdiction “can be held individually accountable.”
“The interim government should ensure that its gendarmes and soldiers help protect all civilians, Christian and Muslim, and don’t contribute to the violence,” Mudge said. “The dreadful cycle of tit-for-tat killings can only be stopped when those responsible are held to account, prison doors are kept closed, and combatants are disarmed.”
The Crisis in Central African Republic
The Central African Republic has been in crisis since late 2012, when the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels opened a campaign against the government of Francois Bozizé. The Seleka took control of Bangui in March 2013. Their rule was marked by widespread human rightsabuses, including the wanton killing of civilians. In mid-2013, anti-balaka militia organized to fight against 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.
The Kilomètre 5 Enclave
In December 2013 French forces pushed the Seleka out of Bangui, leaving the Muslim community unprotected and at the mercy of the anti-balaka. Muslims were forced into enclaves, one in Kilomètre 5 and another north of the city at PK 12. In April 2014, after continued attacks from anti-balaka, the Muslim residents of PK 12 were evacuated to northern parts of the country, with UN support and protection from African Union peacekeepers. That left Kilomètre 5 the last remaining Muslim enclave in the capital.
The New Violence in Bangui
On September 26 the body of Amin Mahamat was discovered early in the morning in the 8tharrondissement, near the headquarters of the Central African Herders Federation, and taken to the Ali Babalo Mosque in Kilomètre 5.
A relative of Mahamat told Human Rights Watch, “Amin left the house at around 8:30 p.m. on September 25. Everything was normal, and he left with his motorcycle. We got a call the next morning saying he had been killed. When I saw his body I could see that he had been tied up. His throat had been cut.”
Muslim men quickly organized to exact revenge. Fadul, the president of the Kilomètre 5 Muslim self-defense groups, told Human Rights Watch that, “Everyone in the neighborhood is a member [of a self-defense group]. We all have guns. We are attacked here and we have no support, so we have to defend ourselves.”
Since early 2014 Human Rights Watch has documented other isolated cases in which Muslim civilians who left the enclave were targeted, threatened or killed.
The Muslim groups attacked residents of neighborhoods near their enclave, in the 3rdand 5th arrondissements, including in Sara, Fondo, Sanga Bibale, Yakité, and Bazanga neighborhoods.
A cluster of neighborhoods referred to as the “Quartier Sara bloc,” on the border of the 3rdand 5th arrondissements, suffered some of the worst violence. One woman who lived there saw David Pabe killed on September 30:
We were staying at the displacement site at Sainte Trinité, but we left on Wednesday (September 30) to go back to Sara to look after our things. We were leaving the house when a band of about 10 men came. They were dressed in normal clothes and Muslim robes. I recognized some of them…. I hid under the bed. I heard a man say, “Is that David?” He answered yes. The man said, “Give us the rifle.” But David said he did not have a rifle. The men started to beat him and I heard a shot.
Another woman from the Sara neighborhood described how her mother was killed:
I was behind the house and I looked through the window and saw my mother talking to armed Muslim men. They asked if there were men in the house and my mother said no. Then they asked for money. My mother said, “We have no money.” They shot in the air with a rifle and my mother tried to run, but they shot her in the chest. I ran to hide and later came back with relatives. When we came back we saw that they had chopped her body with machetes.
A resident of Sanga Bibale quarter said she saw Aime Yangate, a 47-year-old man, killed at his home:
When the shots started we were too scared to leave. Two men came to the house and broke open the door. They had rifles. One of them said, “Everyone has left the neighborhood and you have not, that means you are anti-balaka.” Aime said, “I am not anti-balaka.” But before he could finish, they shot him in the head.
Martine Thailla, a 40-year-old woman from Fondo, was killed in her home. Her neighbors said they had seen armed men from Kilomètre 5 enter her house. A relative who later found her body at one of the morgues said her throat had been slit.
Some people were killed trying to protect their homes from looting either by armed Muslim self-defense groups, the anti-balaka or other criminals seeking to take advantage of the chaos.
Francois Juvenal Bangassou, a popular musician known as “Bibesco” and his friend Julia Edith Bobele, were killed trying to stop looting at Bangassou’s home in Sara. Family members said that Bangassou sought safety with friends and family in Benz-vi during the day, but would return home every evening to try to protect his property.
But he was killed there on September 29. Relatives who found the bodies said that Bangassou had been stabbed to death and his friend’s throat had been slit. “We don’t know who killed them,” a relative said. “The entire house was pillaged. They took his television, his radio, and his musical instruments…. They even took his clothes.”
Fadul told Human Rights Watch that his members had not targeted civilians or killed women. “These accounts are false,” he said. “The extremist anti-balaka do not want social reconciliation and they kill people and blame it on us.” But he later added that he might not know everything that happened and that some members of his group had “taken advantage of the situation to burn homes.”
Using satellite imagery recorded before and after the violence on September 22 and October 4 Human Rights Watch identified at least 250 destroyed residential and commercial buildings in neighborhoods near Kilomètre 5, including two churches and a mosque. The damage was consistent with fire and the looting of rooftop materials. Since fire-related damage can be limited to building interiors and hidden by overhanging trees, it is possible that many more buildings might have been damaged.
This latest round of violence in Bangui is not the first time Muslim self-defense groups based in Kilomètre 5 have killed civilians. On May 28, 2014, a group attacked a displacement camp at the Notre Dame Parish in the Fatima neighborhood, south of Kilomètre 5, killing at least 17 people, Human Rights Watch found. The attack occurred just after a heated street battle between the anti-balaka and Muslim self-defense groups. Isamel Lawan, the assistant to the mayor of Kilomètre 5 told Human Rights Watch at the time: “We can’t walk out of our neighborhood without being killed. We have been trapped here; we must defend ourselves.” The armed Muslims said they believed 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.
Escape from Ngaragba Prison
On September 28 between 500 and 700 prisoners escaped from the Ngaragba Prison, the country’s main prison. Authorities did not know the exact number of prisoners since lists had not been updated. The prison held both military and civilian prisoners, including anti-balaka and Seleka fighters.
According to UN officials and an escaped prisoner Human Rights Watch interviewed, the prisoners had begun to dig holes in the prison walls on September 27, emboldened by the sounds of violence coming from the city. On September 28 they managed to break the locks on two internal doors and faced UN Rwandan peacekeepers and national FACA soldiers. The Rwandan peacekeepers fired warning shots, and possibly fired at the prisoners, injuring one, to deter the escape. The FACA soldiers called for re-enforcements. UN officials said, though, that when additional FACA soldiers arrived, they facilitated the escape rather than helping to deter it.
An escaped prisoner, not associated with the anti-balaka or the Seleka and convicted of a crime, told Human Rights Watch:
We were so tired of the horrible conditions. We had no medicine, no food, no toilets. The prison officials eat or sell our food. So we decided to leave…. By 10 a.m. [on September 28] we had opened the second door and we were facing the MINUSCA and the FACA. They shot at us and were saying, “Go back to your cells!” The anti-balaka and the Seleka were not going to go back and the rest of us [criminals] knew that if we stayed we would be punished severely, so we decided to try to leave too. By 5 p.m. we decided that they were not going to shoot us and we just started to walk out of the main gate. There were more FACA there, some of them yelled at us, but they did not try to force us back in, so we left. The MINUSCA and the FACA just watched us go.
Interim government officials later conceded that soldiers and prison guards had helped to facilitate the escape.
After the escape at Ngaragba, approximately 50 prisoners escaped from the Boaur prison on September 29 and another 9 escaped from the Bria prison on October 8. The only functioning prison for men is currently at Camp de Roux, in Bangui, a military base that houses 12 anti-balaka leaders. The female prison in Bimbo, just outside of Bangui, is still functional.
International Response to Fighting
UN officials told Human Rights Watch they were surprised at how quickly the violence escalated. Although a UN police unit was based near Kilomètre 5, it was unable to stem the violence when it began. During the first four days of the violence, the MINUSCA response was led by its police force of nearly 1,120 officers. By September 30, four days into the violence, UN officials decided a more robust response was needed and established a joint task force with the police led by the military. Additional troops were called from other parts of the country to re-enforce the 1,100 peacekeepers already based in Bangui.
The UN Security Council has approved 10,750 peacekeepers and 2,120 police for the Central African Republic. As of July, 9,110 peacekeepers and 1,552 police had been deployed. Additional UN troops, including special forces, are expected in the capital in the coming months.
The French Sangaris provided support to MINUSCA, including using their helicopters to target armed men and deter the violence. Their task was complicated because the armed men gathered in densely populated areas, including the Combatants neighborhood near the international airport.
A hotline, known locally as the “green line,” established by aid agencies for protection, recorded over 700 calls during the violence. Some of these calls were to report cases of human rights abuses, others to ask for help. The ability of UN police to respond was limited due to the limited capacity of the call center, cell network overload, and competing priorities for the police, MINUSCA officials told Human Rights Watch. In a number of cases, MINUSCA did not respond when civilians called for help.
The UN disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program, a critical program to remove weapons from armed groups in Bangui and across the country, has made little progress and lacks funding. UN and government officials said that pre-DDR has started, but all concede that this has not been nearly enough or very effective. They said that 1,180 Seleka fighters are being held in three cantonment bases in Bangui, but there is no cantonment of anti-balaka or other militias in the city that have easy access to weapons. A community violence reduction (CVR) program, aimed at these militias and self-defense groups, has yet to start.
Impunity has fueled grave atrocities in the Central African Republic and past crimes have not been prosecuted. During the national reconciliation forum in Bangui in May, all participants underscored the importance of truth and justice for these crimes, both as a right of victims and as a precondition for lasting peace.
In 2004, the Central African Republic ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC. Since then, authorities have twice asked the ICC to investigate grave international crimes in the country. The first ICC investigation related to mass rapes and killings at the time of a 2002 coup and resulted in the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former Congolese rebel leader and later vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose troops were called in to help defend the then-elected president and were implicated in atrocities.
In September 2014 the ICC prosecutor opened a second investigation concerning crimes during the latest crisis, since August 2012. The investigations are ongoing.
In June 2015 Samba-Panza promulgated a law creating a Special Criminal Court within the national justice system, which will focus on grave international crimes and will include both national and international judges and prosecutors. The court is mandated to investigate crimes committed since 2003 and is intended to address the lack of capacity of the national justice system to investigate these complex crimes and to complement the work of the ICC, which will probably only handle a small number of cases. The Central African authorities and the United Nations have started preparations to establish the Special Criminal Court, which will require funding, technical support, and a contingent of international experts to function effectively.
While work on the court is under way, MINUSCA should provide technical support and security to national investigators and prosecutors so that they can begin to investigate serious crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
This report was prepared by Human Rights Watch.