(Johannesburg) – African Union peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) have been implicated in the enforced disappearance on March 24, 2014, of at least 11 people in the Central African Republic.
Approximately 20 soldiers from the African Union peacekeeping force known as MISCA took the group of 11, including four women, from the home of a local militia leader in Boali, a town 80 kilometers north of the capital, Bangui, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
The peacekeepers detained the men and women after the militia group known as the anti-balaka, who are predominantly Christian and animist rebel fighters, on March 24 killed one Congolese peacekeeper and wounded four others. Those detained have not been heard from since, although their families have inquired about their whereabouts at the MISCA base and local police stations.
“The African Union needs to say what happened to the group that was detained and taken by the Congolese peacekeepers,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “The peacekeepers are there to protect the civilian population, not to abuse them.”
Human Rights Watch called for an independent and impartial international investigation into the incident and the immediate suspension from peacekeeping duties of the implicated troops.
Human Rights Watch conducted a detailed investigation into the incident and spoke with five witnesses. Many other local residents, including officials and activists, told Human Rights Watch that they were too afraid to investigate or even discuss the incident because the Congolese MISCA troops have been known for intimidation and violence. Confirming this hostile atmosphere, while Human Rights Watch was investigating the March incident on May 25, Congolese MISCA soldiers severely beat a local police officer at a checkpoint following a dispute, and broke a beer bottle over his head, injuring him.
Contacted by Human Rights Watch, MISCA’s leadership announced that an investigation into the incident had been ordered and would be conducted by the human rights section of MISCA. Human Rights Watch is cooperating fully with the investigators.
The anti-balaka are largely Christian and animist fighters engaged in a battle against predominantly Muslim Seleka forces, which overthrew the previous government in a March 2013 military campaign. Both groups have committed massive human rights violations against the local population over the past year. African Union and French peacekeepers were deployed to help stabilize the volatile situation and protect civilians.
This is not the first incident of abuse by Congolese forces Human Rights Watch has investigated. Human Rights Watch has gathered evidence that, in December 2013, Congolese troops in the town of Bossangoa tortured to death two anti-balaka leaders following the brutal lynching of a Congolese MISCA soldier the same day.
An enforced disappearance occurs when someone is deprived of their liberty by state agents, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person. Under customary international law, there is an absolute prohibition on enforced disappearances, and they may be prosecuted as a crime by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although a discrete crime in and of itself, the act of enforced disappearance also simultaneously violates multiple human rights protections, including the prohibition of torture and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention.
“Enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings of civilians are serious human rights crimes and make a mockery of MISCA’s mandate,” Bouckaert said. “The African Union needs to investigate and address these crimes immediately. At stake is nothing less than the reputation and legitimacy of the peacekeeping force in a country that desperately needs protection.”
Enforced Disappearances in Boali
The five witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed said that tensions flared in Boali on March 24, 2014. A local anti-balaka leader, the self-declared “General” Maurice Mokono, who had been drinking heavily, fired two rounds into the air from a rusted AK-47 automatic rifle he had recently repaired.
MISCA soldiers quickly responded to investigate the shots. When it became apparent that the gunfire had come from the anti-balaka leader’s house, the soldiers tried to confiscate the automatic weapon. General Mokono refused to hand it over, and a violent argument broke out, partly fueled by the general’s drunken state and his limited ability to communicate in French, witnesses said.
As the argument became more heated, the anti-balaka leader followed the MISCA troops to their base, where he continued to argue with the Congolese MISCA commander, whom they identified only as Captain Abena. General Mokono then ordered anti-balaka fighters to collect their weapons, erect barricades, and “go to war” against the MISCA soldiers.
A respected local Catholic priest, Father Xavier-Arnaud Fagba, who sheltered 700 Muslims in his church from January to March to protect them from anti-balaka attacks, said that Captain Abena and General Mokono then asked him to mediate. The Catholic priest immediately noticed that General Mokono was very drunk, and told him that he should calm down. The general appeared to understand, and returned home at about 5 p.m., witnesses said.
“We met with the priest and the captain and worked things out and reconciled,” a close relative of the anti-balaka general said. “The general then went home and went to bed – he had drunk a lot that day. He went to bed, and that is when I left his house.”
Shortly after the general returned home, a group of anti-balaka fighters threw a grenade at the Congolese MISCA troops’ vehicle in the central market area of Boali and opened fire on them with automatic weapons. The attack killed one MISCA soldier and wounded at least four others. A witness said the anti-balaka fighters also stole two automatic rifles from MISCA troops.
One of the wounded soldiers showed Human Rights Watch the gunshot wound in his upper thigh and said he had spent weeks in the hospital. Following the lethal ambush, a group of about 20 Congolese MISCA soldiers surrounded the house of the anti-balaka general. A witness told Human Rights Watch:
They came to the general’s house and took away all the people inside. One boy had seen them coming and tried to go warn the general, and the MISCA soldiers ordered him to stop and sit down, and when he refused their order, they shot him dead. He wasn’t from Boali; he came from [a nearby village].
I was close by. I saw them take 11 or 12 people out of the house, but I learned later they also captured more people on the main road.
They found Téké, the general’s aide de camp, outside the house and started beating him. So then the general came out and they took him, and then they went inside the house and came out with the women, the older brother of the general, and some others who were staying at the house.
This witness, a friend of the general, said she recognized 10 of the people taken from his house: Gen. Maurice Mokono; his brother Zaboro, age 60; Mokono’s aide de camp, Téké, 29; Mokono’s younger brother, Gbagéné, 32; an anti-balaka fighter named Grace a Dieu, 19; the general’s bodyguard, called Risquer, in his 30s; Laurie, 22, the general’s pregnant wife; Ingrid, an 18-year-old Muslim survivor of an anti-balaka massacre whom the general had forced to marry his son; Jalina, 24, the wife of an anti-balaka commander who had been killed in fighting in Bangui; and Téké’s 25-year-old wife, whose name the witness did not know. Other witnesses said that an anti-balaka fighter named Bruno was also taken from the general’s house.
Three separate witnesses said that MISCA soldiers detained at least seven more people along the main road, probably because they were wearing traditional gris-gris amulets associated with the anti-balaka militia. Their names are not known, as they were not from Boali.
Since March 24, there has been no news about the people who were detained. Their relatives have gone to the main MISCA base in Bangui, Camp M’poko, and to all police stations in Bangui, but have not found their loved ones, whom they fear the MISCA soldiers have executed, unless the soldiers are holding them in an undisclosed location.
In a May 26 meeting with Human Rights Watch, Captain Abena, the commanding officer of the Congolese troops in Boali, and his commander, whom the witnesses said was named Colonel Leo, refused to answer any questions about the whereabouts or fate of the detained men and women. They acknowledged that the incident was under investigation before abruptly ending the meeting.
December 22, 2013 Killings in Bossangoa
The March 24, 2014 incident is the second that Human Rights Watch has investigated involving grave allegations against peacekeeping troops from the Republic of Congo. In an earlier incident in the northern town of Bossangoa, on December 22, 2013, Congolese troops are believed to have tortured to death two anti-balaka leaders following the brutal lynching of a Congolese MISCA soldier the same day.
Four witnesses said that the then-commander of the MISCA troops in Bossangoa, Captain Mokongo, ordered a raid on December 22 on a known anti-balaka base in the town. Three anti-balaka leaders were captured, and their weapons were confiscated. Following the raid, residents in Bossangoa protested, calling for the release of the anti-balaka leaders.
As a precautionary measure, Captain Mokongo and his fellow commander, Capt. Wilson Aboni, ordered MISCA troops to return to their base. The troops had been posted at the Catholic Church, where some 40,000 people, mostly Christians, had settled in an improvised camp for displaced people. One MISCA officer, Sgt. Juif Ngali, was drinking at a makeshift bar in the camp and found himself cut off from his retreating colleagues. The officer tried to rejoin them, but was soon surrounded by a hostile crowd. Ngali fired his rifle in the air and then at a youth, killing him. The crowd wrested his gun from him, shot him dead, and then mutilated his body with machete blows.
When the mutilated body arrived at the base, soldiers sought revenge on the three captured anti-balaka leaders already in the camp. At the time, many local UN staff members were staying at the MISCA base for their safety, following fierce clashes between Seleka and anti-balaka fighters in the town. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the MISCA soldiers ordered all of the humanitarian workers to hand over their cellphones and locked the staff in a room. The MISCA soldiers then ordered the local police officers to also hand over their weapons, take off their uniforms, and hand over their cellphones, and ordered them to stay in a separate room.
During the evening, a group of French peacekeepers from the Sangaris mission arrived and secured the release of one anti-balaka leader whom they knew the MISCA troops were holding. They then left, unaware that two other anti-balaka leaders remained at the MISCA camp. These anti-balaka leaders, the witnesses said, were tied up in the painful arbatasher style, with their arms and legs bound tightly behind their backs.
The humanitarian workers and gendarmes overheard the MISCA soldiers torturing the two anti-balaka leaders throughout the night. The soldiers dripped melting, burning plastic on the bodies of the detained men, who screamed out in pain and begged them to stop, witnesses said. Following hours of torture, the men died from the wounds. Their burned, mutilated bodies were found the next day and viewed by many witnesses, including Catholic Church officials and humanitarians, who confirmed the two men suffered extensive burns.
Human Rights Watch met with Captain Mokongo on March 14, 2014. He said the two anti-balaka fighters were injured when they tried to attack the local hospital. He added that MISCA troops rebuffed the anti-balaka and took them to the hospital, where they later died of their wounds. “MISCA cannot hold prisoners, and they were injured,” he said. “We saw the state they were in, so our doctor took him to the hospital himself. It was there that they died.”
Captain Mokongo denied allegations that his men had tortured the two anti-balaka fighters to death. Many anti-balaka and their supporters have lost faith in MISCA forces, who they believe to be supported by local Muslims, he said, contending that was the reason for the rumors of torture.