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(Nairobi) – A deadly cycle of sectarian violence is escalating in eastern parts of the Central African Republic. Scores of civilians have been killed since early June 2014 and tens of thousands displaced from their homes, adding to the hundreds of thousands who have fled their homes since the violence began in March 2013.

A Human Rights Watch research mission in June found that at least 62 people were killed in and around Bambari, in the eastern province of Ouaka, between June 9 and 23, 2014, when fighting escalated between the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels and the Christian and animist anti-balaka militias. Witnesses on both sides frequently described the attacks as retaliatory in nature, indicating a growing cycle of tit-for-tat revenge killings between the communities. Most of the victims were men who were chopped to death by machetes.

“Sectarian violence is moving eastward, engulfing new communities,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director. “The limited numbers of French and African Union peacekeepers deployed in Bambari are unable to adequately protect civilians and end the killings – although without their presence, the bloodshed would likely have been worse.”

The attacks began on June 9 when Seleka rebels together with members of the Peuhl ethnic group attacked the largely Christian village of Liwa. In retaliation, on June 23, anti-balaka forces attacked the neighboring Peuhl community at Ardondjobdi. Later that day, Seleka rebels and members of the Muslim community attacked Christian neighborhoods in Bambari.

“When I saw the attack coming I gathered the children to get them out of the village,” said a man who survived the attack in Ardondjobdi. “At this moment I was shot in the face. I tried to keep helping the women and the children but I was shot again in the arm. When I was running my brother was hit in the side by a bullet. I could not save him and we had to leave him.”

According to the United Nations, the violence is continuing, most recently with a brutal attack on July 7 by suspected Seleka rebels on thousands of displaced people taking shelter at Bambari’s Saint Joseph’s Parish and the adjacent Bishop’s residence. The attack killed at least 27 people.

French forces said that they took up positions around the parish at about 4 p.m., an hour after the attack started. They said they fired at the attackers and deployed helicopters to try to end the violence.

The attacks, causing large-scale civilian casualties as well as widespread destruction and displacement, replicate the violence that has gripped western regions of the war-torn Central African Republic for several months, indicating that the sectarian conflict is steadily moving eastward and may further destabilize the country.

On May 30, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, recognizing that the country’s judicial system was unable to cope with the scale of the crimes being committed, formally asked the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open a new investigation into grave crimes committed in the Central African Republic.

“Seleka and anti-balaka leaders should immediately take steps to stop the horrific cycle of violence against civilians,” Bekele said. “The prosecutor of the ICC should open an investigation and the interim government should restart its justice system. That will send a strong signal to those responsible for these terrible atrocities that justice is coming.”

The UN mission in the Central African Republic, MINUSCA, should urgently investigate the grave human rights crimes committed in Bambari and issue a public report as early as possible.

As a result of the attacks, most of the residents of Bambari fled to safety at nearby churches and around the peacekeeping bases of the AU and French forces. By June 25, an estimated 21,000 residents were displaced in makeshift camps scattered around the city.

The French peacekeeping troops stationed in Bambari as part of Operation Sangaris provided support and transportation to some residents to places of refuge. The French peacekeepers also conducted patrols in Bambari and in the rural areas around Bambari, including sending troops to displacement camps to help provide protection. These actions are likely to have helped reduce the death toll. On June 26, French peacekeepers used force to stop an anti-balaka attack on Bambari, killing several combatants.

Gabonese forces as part of the AU peacekeeping mission known as MISCA also conducted sporadic patrols and helped to protect some 3,000 people who had fled for safety to the local gendarmerie headquarters.

On April 10, the UN Security Council approved the establishment of a nearly 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping operation to protect civilians and facilitate humanitarian access in the Central African Republic. It is due to take over from the AU MISCA peacekeeping force in September.

“People in Bambari cannot wait until September to be protected from this brutal violence,” Bekele said. “African Union and French peacekeepers urgently need to devise a better strategy to protect civilians and end the cycle of death and destruction in Bambari.”

Attacks in and Around Bambari
A Human Rights Watch researcher interviewed 35 witnesses and victims from communities affected by the violence in and around Bambari. The people interviewed said Bambari had been relatively calm until late May or early June, when local sources reported that several members of the ethnic Peuhl nomadic community had been killed by anti-balaka forces in rural areas south of Bambari. That set off the cycle of revenge killings.

On June 9, Seleka rebels together with ethnic Peuhl attacked Liwa, a predominantly Christian village 10 kilometers south of Bambari. At least 10 people were killed when attackers on motorcycles shot at the residents and burned down homes. The father of one victim described how he found his son’s body the following morning “shot and then chopped in the face with a machete.”

Those who survived sought refuge at a Catholic parish in Bambari. A Human Rights Watch researcher who visited Liwa two weeks later found the village completely destroyed, with all 169 homes burned to the ground.

One survivor described how she was spared when her two male cousins were killed:

We were coming in from the fields and we saw 6 Peuhl on the road. They lifted their rifles and told us to put our hands up. I had a baby in my arms. They shot [my two cousins]. Then one lifted a bow and arrow and pointed it at me, but another said to him, “No, she is our sister, we did not come here to kill women.” I ran to the bush and spent the night there until dawn.

Another survivor said:

When the shooting started we left our houses and ran to the bush. We spent the night there. The next morning…we buried the bodies.

Early in the morning of June 23, anti-balaka forces retaliated by attacking the neighboring Peuhl community at Ardondjobdi, a kilometer from Liwa, as the men were finishing their morning prayers. At least 20 people, including women and children, were killed, the majority from machete blows to the head and neck. Three victims’ throats were cut while they were still inside the local mosque.

One Peuhl survivor told Human Rights Watch that while he was fighting to defend himself with his bow and arrows, the anti-balaka forces pushed his wife and one-and-a-half-year-old son into a burning house. He later found his wife’s burned body still clutching their child. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the anti-balaka attackers included men they knew from Liwa.

One male witness to the attack said:

I had already prayed and I was at home and was preparing for my day. I heard a big noise and I went outside and saw people running and yelling, “The anti-balaka are here! The anti-balaka are here!” People were running and kicking up dust everywhere. I saw anti-balaka crouched and pointing their guns. They had encircled us…They were running around attacking us in little groups of 10. One had a Kalashnikov and the others had homemade shotguns and machetes. They would shoot someone down with the homemade gun and then attack the person with a machete. They attacked and burned the houses.

One survivor tearfully named his five family members killed on June 9:

My father Aladi Ali Garga was killed; he was 68. My little brother Mousa Garba was killed; he was around 29. He was killed with a machete on the neck. My other brother Adamou was also killed with a machete to his neck. My cousin Amindou, who was around 20 years old, was also killed. He was shot and then they used machetes on him. My son, Adimou Bozize, was killed as well. He was in the house when they burned it. I think he just stayed inside and died. He was 7.

Later on June 23, when the Muslim community and the Seleka rebels, whose military headquarters is based in Bambari, heard of the attack in Ardondjobdi, they attacked Christian neighborhoods in Bambari. They particularly targeted neighborhoods on the road to Liwa, including Mbrepou, Logodé, St.Joseph I and II. At least 32 people were killed in the retaliatory attacks in Bambari, though the number could be much higher since some families quickly buried their loved ones rather than risk taking them to the morgue.

The Seleka rebels were joined by Muslim residents from Bambari, some of whom the victims recognized. In one instance, a witness who hid in her house recognized the attackers who broke down her door as Muslim residents of Borno neighborhood, a predominantly Muslim area of Bambari. The attackers shot her 23-year-old neighbor, who had run into the house for safety, and her 25-year-old brother, who was hiding in another room. When her mother cried out in protest at the slaying of her son, the attackers turned on her and cut her throat with a machete, killing her.

The head of the Seleka military, Gen. Joseph Zoundeko, denied that Seleka rebels had participated in the attacks. “The attacks in Bambari were reprisal attacks committed by the parents of the Peuhl victims,” he told Human Rights Watch. Numerous witnesses said, though, that they clearly saw uniformed Seleka fighters among their attackers.

One survivor from the St. Joseph II neighborhood with deep wounds to his head and foot told Human Rights Watch:

The attackers came from a small river…I took my family into the house and the attackers started to break down the door. We were attacked by 10 people. My family was not injured in the attack, but I was taken outside and hit in the head and body with machetes. I lost consciousness and fell to the ground. With all the blood they all thought I was dead. I opened my eyes a little and was able to see that they were going away so I pulled myself into the shower and I passed out.

Another survivor, an elderly man from St. Joseph I neighborhood, was already suffering from an injury, but that did not prevent his attackers from trying to kill him:

[The attackers] said, “We will kill you today.” I said, “No, pardon. Look at me. Do you think that I can make war in this state?” But they then took a machete to my left arm, then they struck me in my right hand and my right foot. Then they shot me in the right thigh. I was already sitting down when they struck me and I fell down to the ground. I saw them walk away a little and they thought that I was dead. I started to crawl away…I was trying to cover my tracks as I moved. But I heard them come back. They said, “Hey, where is he?” They then saw me lying on the ground and they yelled, “Papa! Come back!” But I pretended that I was dead and they must have believed it because they went away.

A female survivor from the neighborhood Logodé I was shot because she had not given money to uniformed Seleka soldiers. She said that when the Seleka came to her door:

I put my kids under the bed to hide them. The Seleka broke the door down and told me to give them money. I said, “I have no money.” One soldier said, “You say you do not have money, but if I shoot you will you still have no money?” He then shot me in the right leg and I fell down. He then took the money I had hidden in my clothes. 

The widow of a man killed in Mbrepou neighborhood said: 

The Peuhl showed up at our house. I was already outside and they told [my husband] to go back into the house. Then I could hear them saying, “Get all of your bags out and give us your gun.” He did not have a gun. Then I heard [my husband] yell, “Oh my mother, I am dying!” I then heard shots. I stayed at a neighbor’s house but they then started to burn houses so I ran off…Later that day I went to the hospital and I found him alive. But his head had been opened up by a machete and he had been shot in the side. I was able to speak with him, but three hours later he died. I stayed with him until the end. We had been married only three months.

One man witnessed the killing on June 23 of Alexis Gomatchi, a middle-aged butcher, who had fled to St. Joseph’s Parish for safety. Gomatchi had set up his table approximately 80 meters from the parish to sell meat to people who had sought refuge there. The witness said:

He was still here at his table when the Muslims came. There were five of them, one of them in uniform and carrying a Kalashnikov. The rest had machetes. They walked up to Alexis, at this point I was running away up the hill to the church. Alexis put his hands up and they just shot him in the chest, he slumped down against the tree.

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