In September 2013, the Central African Republic’s human rights and humanitarian situation took a sharp turn for the worse. After months of brutality by the predominantly Muslim Seleka (“alliance”) forces, which had overthrown the government of President François Bozizé in March, Christian militias known as the anti-balaka (“anti-machete”) began to organize counterattacks. The anti-balaka, which began as local self-defense groups under Bozizé, have targeted Muslim communities and committed numerous abuses. Michel Djotodia, the Seleka leader who in August was officially sworn in as interim president until the 2015 elections, announced in September that the Seleka were being dissolved. However, the now “ex-Seleka” fighters continue to operate across the country, continuing their string of abuse.
Anti-balaka atrocities have been particularly widespread in Ouham province, north of the national capital, Bangui. On September 6, anti-balaka fighters launched coordinated attacks on Muslim communities and isolated ex-Seleka outposts in market towns surrounding the provincial capital, Bossangoa. Anti-balaka forces killed several hundred Muslims residents, burned their homes, and stole or killed their cattle, a precious source of income and wealth.
Many of the attacks involved shocking brutality: one Muslim woman, a nomadic cattle herder, told Human Rights Watch that she was forced to watch as anti-balaka fighters cut the throats of her 3-year-old son, two other boys ages 10 and 14, and an adult relative—all the Muslim males in the cattle camp. A 55-year-old man tearfully described escaping from anti-balaka attackers, only to watch in horror from a hiding place as they proceeded to cut the throats of his two wives, his 10 children and a grandchild, as well as other Muslim civilians they had captured. Some of the survivors reported hearing anti-balaka fighters say they intended to kill “all the Muslims.”
The ex-Seleka forces in Ouham province, suffering significant losses from the anti-balaka attacks, retreated to Bossangoa. There, they wreaked revenge on Christian residents, killing many and setting fire to their homes. Michel Djotodia, the Seleka leader who in August was officially sworn in as interim president until the 2015 elections, announced in September that the Seleka were being dissolved. However, the now “ex-Seleka” fighters continue to operate across the country, continuing their string of abuse. Former Seleka fighters conducted frequent attacks against farmers working in their fields. Such killings appear to have had the backing of senior ex-Seleka commanders in Bossangoa. On November 18, the current ex-Seleka commander of Bossangoa, Colonel Saleh, in the presence of a dozen of his officers, including his then-superior, General Yaya (who has since died in the December 5 fighting in Bangui) ordered them to drown seven farmers who were wrongfully accused of being anti-balaka militia. The farmers were bound and thrown alive into the Ouham River; three survived.
Both sides have burned down dozens of villages in the province. Entire stretches of land have simply been abandoned because of fear of ex-Seleka attacks, and it is possible to drive for hours around Bossangoa without seeing a single resident in their home. Some 40,000 displaced Christians sought the safety of the Catholic church in Bossangoa, while 4,000 displaced Muslims were living in the opposite end of town, a bitter symbol of the ruptured communal ties in the country.
In early December, this fragmentation came to a head. Anti-balaka militias chased ex-Seleka forces from much of Bossangoa, and slaughtered at least 11 Muslim civilians in the Muslim Boro quarter of the city. The next morning, ex-Seleka commander Colonel Saleh took his regrouped fighters to the outskirts of the Catholic church, where his men then fired several rocket-propelled grenades into the crowded camp and repeatedly threatened to attack it unless the anti-balaka left Bossangoa. Hoping to avoid a massacre, African peacekeepers negotiated an end to the crisis, persuaded the anti-balaka to stand down, and possibly prevented a bloodbath.
The latest gruesome killings in Bossangoa’s Boro district present only one small segment of a much broader tragedy that has been unfolding in the Central African Republic. With between 400 to 500 dead in similarly brutal clashes and massacres in early December in Bangui, little doubt remains that the Central African Republic is engulfed in ever-widening sectarian bloodshed. France has taken note of how critical the situation has become and has sent hundreds of additional French troops to the country to assist the African peacekeeping force in providing protection to civilians, but it is still struggling to find support for a broader international stabilization force for the country under United Nations command.
Without some measure of security, it will be difficult to address the enormous humanitarian catastrophe in the Central African Republic. In a deeply impoverished country of fewer than five million people, some 450,000 have been forced to flee their homes, including 170,000 in Ouham province alone. At least 70,000 have become refugees in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, and other countries.
Humanitarian relief workers in northern Central African Republic have found it difficult to provide assistance, particularly emergency medical aid, as violence – some targeting the aid workers themselves – impedes an effective response to the crisis. In September, ex-Seleka fighters systematically looted health centers around Bossangoa, denying the population access to meaningful medical care. Deaths from malaria and other diseases compound the death toll. In northern Central African Republic, blackboards in abandoned schools often still display the date in March when children were last in class.
This report examines the events in Bossangoa town and Ouham province from September through early December 2013, leading up to the latest round of bloodshed. A Human Rights Watch research team spent two weeks in the Central African Republic in early November, and an additional two weeks in early December, investigating the deadly and brutal sectarian violence perpetrated by both ex-Seleka and anti-balaka forces. Human Rights Watch documented more than 120 killings by the anti-balaka and at least 37 killings by the ex-Seleka in and around Bossangoa. Atrocities by both sides continue to escalate, and are likely to spin further out of control without more robust international action.