Displacement site at Yaloké, where 509 ethnic Peuhl Muslims are housed in government buildings in the town center in deplorable conditions.

(Nairobi) – Hundreds of Muslim residents in western parts of the Central African Republic are trapped in enclaves in deplorable conditions, Human Rights Watch said today. They fear attacks if they leave, but interim government authorities and United Nations peacekeepers block them from fleeing abroad or provide no security assistance when they try to leave.

“Those trapped in some of the enclaves face a grim choice: leave and face possible attack from anti-balaka fighters, or stay and die from hunger and disease,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “While there are good reasons to ensure that the country’s Muslim population does not diminish further, under the current circumstances, the government’s policy of no evacuations is absolutely indefensible.”

UN peacekeepers should not be complicit in preventing Muslims from leaving to seek safety, Human Rights Watch said.

Camp leaders in the western Muslim enclaves of Yaloké, Carnot, and Boda told Human Rights Watch during a research mission from December 7 to 14, 2014, that an estimated 1,750 Muslims, many of them ethnic Peuhl herders, are desperate to leave.

They say that many are trapped in places where they never lived, that they are unable to leave for fear of the anti-balaka fighters, who have been attacking the country’s Muslims, and that the UN peacekeeping force, MINUSCA, is not authorized to help them seek safety. In the Yaloké enclave, UN peacekeepers have repeatedly used force to stop Muslims from leaving.

The vast majority of Muslims in western parts of the country fled brutal attacks by Christian and animist anti-balaka militia in late 2013 and early 2014. Those who were not able to reach Cameroon or Chad became trapped in the enclaves, where they have spent months living in difficult conditions. UN officials, as well as African Union (AU) MISCA and French Sangaris peacekeepers supported evacuations in late 2013 and early 2014, helping thousands of Muslims to seek safety, including in Cameroon. The Chadian army also evacuated thousands of Muslims.

But in April when UN humanitarian agencies, together with French and AU peacekeepers, finally agreed, after considerable international pressure, to evacuate besieged Muslims from PK12, a district in Bangui, transitional authorities were outraged. They said they had not given approval and opposed any further evacuations without their consent.  

Human Rights Watch met with government authorities, diplomats, and humanitarian agency representatives who said the interim government did not wish more Muslim residents to flee the country for fear of being seen as assisting ethnic cleansing. Pirette Benguele, the sub-prefect, the top administrative official of Yaloké, told Human Rights Watch in December: “We cannot accept that the Peuhl are evacuated. This is a political crisis and we need them to stay … so we can begin reconciliation with them.”

Officials at the UN’s Department of Peace Keeping Operations told Human Rights Watch on December 20 that the UN is strongly urging transitional authorities to support further transfers of those who wish to leave.

Since the April decision, international peacekeepers from both the AU forces and replacement UN forces deployed in September have prevented Muslims from leaving the Yaloké enclave, where 509 ethnic Peuhl are housed in dilapidated government buildings in the town center. The peacekeepers have used physical force and intimidation to stop Muslims from getting on the commercial convoys – usually dozens of trucks heading to Cameroon – that stop 100 feet from the enclave twice a week. UN peacekeepers provide military escorts to the convoys to deter attacks from the anti-balaka and other bandits.

Camp officials told Human Rights Watch they saw the convoys as their best, and only safe, way to reach Cameroon as they do not have other access to vehicles and the truck drivers do not object. In June Human Rights Watch reported that AU peacekeepers had threatened to shoot Peuhl trying to board a commercial convoy for Cameroon.

In December, a 55-year-old woman from Mbaïki told Human Rights Watch: “We want only to go to Cameroon. I have a son there.… We have tried to leave with our things many times, but the answer from MINUSCA is always no. We have tried at least 12 times to leave, but each time they pulled me off the trucks.”

The UN commanding officer in Yaloké confirmed that his forces removed Muslims from the trucks, saying that when they are told about Peuhl who “try to sneak into the convoy, we take them out and put them back into the site.”

UN peacekeeping officials in Bangui, the capital, and representatives of the UN special representative of the secretary general for MINUSCA, visited the site in Yaloké in December. Peuhl living there informed the delegations that they wanted to leave but were being blocked by the peacekeepers. International law grants everyone the right “to leave any country, including his own” and to seek asylum abroad. Muslims in the enclaves also have the right to freedom of movement in their own country.

“Using force to keep threatened Muslims in the Yaloké enclave from fleeing to safety is contrary to everything the UN stands for,” Mudge said. “UN peacekeepers shouldn’t play any part in a government policy that violates the rights of Muslims to seek safety and condemns them to deadly conditions in the enclaves.”

Those trapped in Yaloké face abysmal conditions with unacceptable and growing numbers of avoidable deaths. Since February, camp representatives have recorded the deaths of 42 Peuhl, many of them children, from malnutrition and respiratory and other diseases. Health professionals at the local hospital said the death rate amongst the Peuhl is significantly higher than Yaloké’s other residents. In the same six-month period that hospital staff recorded the deaths of 13 children from the enclave, only one local child died. The Peuhl have received some humanitarian assistance, but it is neither appropriate nor regular enough to stop growing levels of malnutrition.

On December 9, after visiting the Yaloké site, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF issued a report describing the deplorable conditions and called for an “evacuation of all [displaced] Peuhls from Yaloké.”

In the enclaves of Carnot, Berbérati, and the Muslim neighborhood in Boda, living conditions are less life-threatening, but hundreds of Muslims still express a desire to leave. UN peacekeepers at these sites do not block the Muslims from leaving on foot, but Muslims say they fear anti-balaka attacks and need the peacekeepers’ help to reach safety. Often out of desperation, many Muslims have left Carnot and Berbérati by organizing their own transport. The two enclaves are off the main road to Cameroon, and no regular convoys pass. Some have made it to Cameroon or other places of safety; others have not.   

In late November a Peuhl man was viciously attacked by the anti-balaka when he tried to leave Carnot at night with his wife to find their children, whom they believed were in Cameroon. The attackers tried to cut off his hand, broke the bones of his feet with machetes, and the next morning slit his throat, killing him.

In Berbérati, on September 19, a group of men attacked Harouna Rachid Mamouda, an Imam, when he left the Catholic parish to drop off a letter. His attackers were discussing lynching him when local gendarme and UN peacekeepers rescued him.

“Muslim residents are left with the awful choice of living in desperate conditions in the enclaves or running the gauntlet of trying to reach Cameroon on their own,” Mudge said. “The transitional government should work with UN officials to help Muslims who want to leave and to substantially improve conditions for those who decide to remain.”

The Crisis in Central African Republic
The Central African Republic has been in acute crisis since early 2013, when the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in a campaign characterized by widespread killing of civilians, burning and looting of homes, and other serious crimes. In mid-2013, groups calling themselves the anti-balaka organized to fight against the Seleka. The anti-balaka began committing large-scale reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians in Bangui and western parts of the country.

Establishment of the Enclaves
In the face of the attacks and military pressure from French peacekeeping forces, the Seleka withdrew from western areas, leaving Muslims at the mercy of the anti-balaka. Tens of thousands of Muslims fled for their lives, to Cameroon or other areas of the country. Thousands found safety at Catholic parishes, military bases of AU and French peacekeepers, and in Muslim neighborhoods. By December 2014, an estimated 415,000 people, most of them Muslim, had fled the country and another 10,500 were protected by peacekeepers in a handful of western enclaves – Carnot, Yaloké, Boda, and Berbérati, among others. In Bangui, Muslims also gathered together against attack.

Many Muslims civilians faced extreme violence before arriving to the enclaves, and thousands died. In Carnot, in February, the anti-balaka killed at least 110 Muslim civilians in the days following the Seleka’s departure, according to Human Rights Watch research and information from local Muslim leaders.

Many tried to run to the Catholic parish, where AU peacekeepers had a base, but some could not and hid in their homes or homes of friends. In a prominent diamond merchant’s home, 13 men hid from the anti-balaka for nine days, with little or no food. On the tenth day, about 20 anti-balaka attacked, a witness said. Some of the men scrambled into the ceiling to hide, but the anti-balaka found them and tied them together. The attackers tried to ransom six of the victims and executed the other seven.

Anti-balaka fighters also killed at least 72 Muslim men and boys, some as young as 9, in two attacks in Guen, in the southwest, on February 1 and 5. During the second attack, the anti-balaka attacked a property where hundreds of Muslims had sought refuge. They divided approximately 45 men into two groups, led them out of the compound, forced them to lie on the ground, and executed them.

Anti-balaka also attacked ethnic Peuhl relentlessly as they fled western towns. The Peuhl are a Muslim ethnic minority who traditionally live as nomads with large cattle herds. Before the conflict they were estimated to number at about 300,000 – less than 10 percent of Central African Republic’s 4.5 million citizens. Scattered across the western region, groups of Peuhl tried to escape to Cameroon or make their way to the enclaves, desperately trying to keep their cattle – their livelihoods – with them. Their journeys were dangerous and difficult.

Maimouna Aldou, a Peuhl who fled the town of Zawa, 20 kilometers from Yaloké, described to Human Rights Watch in March how anti-balaka killed her husband and two sons the day after they left:  

My husband Mumarou Dougo and son Aliou were killed on the way. I also lost my 4-year-old son, Mamadou. He was on my back and he was breathing badly and I put him down to search for water. But the anti-balaka surprised us and I covered him with a cloth. I was captured and the anti-balaka said to me, ‘If it’s a girl you can keep her, but if it is a boy, leave him and we will kill him.’ I don’t know if they buried my son.

Together with four Peuhl men, she was taken to the village of Dingiri. After a week, “The anti-balaka leader came back and said, ‘Why are you keeping these Peuhl here?’ The men were taken away and killed,” she said. According to the witnesses, the men were “Oumarou Arto, Abdoulai Maloume, Saidou, and Aladji Toguel.”

Many Peuhl mothers described how their children died after weeks or months of desperate walking to seek safety. Astah Adamou, 15, from Zawa, said that anti-balaka killed her brother, Aliou Gibril, outside Dingiri. She escaped and after months of walking, finally arrived at the Carnot enclave with her 8-month-old daughter, Fadimatou. Her daughter died the next day. “Before we left she was a strong baby,” Adamou said. “But she got weaker and weaker on the way.”

Seleka also killed civilians as they fled, including around Carnot. Sometimes the Seleka joined armed Peuhl herders attempting to move their cattle through the region. Together these groups attacked civilians suspected of sheltering anti-balaka fighters.

Evacuations of Muslims
The brutal violence and threats that Muslims faced led AU and French peacekeepers, as well as Chadian authorities, to organize evacuations of Muslims to Cameroon and other places of safety in early 2014. A local leader from Carnot said:

In the beginning of the violence, the Cameroonian soldiers said they would evacuate anyone from Cameroon who had valid identification. They asked me to make a list. But when they brought the truck to take people it was chaos and everyone jumped on board. The AU captain finally just said, ‘Ok, everyone get on!’ That is how the evacuations were managed.

Chadian authorities also evacuated thousands of Muslims trapped in Muslim neighborhoods in Bangui, amongst other locations. By March, the population of Bangui’s Muslim PK12 neighborhood decreased from 10,000 to 2,400.

Government Decision to Halt Evacuations
On April 27, after considerable international pressure, UN officials helped organize the evacuation of 1,300 Muslims from the PK12 neighborhood under the protection of AU peacekeepers. Interim authorities were outraged and said they had not approved the evacuation and insisted there be no further evacuations without government consent. Halfway through the three day journey to northern parts of the country, anti-balaka attacked the convoy, killing two Muslims and wounding several others.

One senior UN official told Human Rights Watch in December, “The interim government is still upset about [the] PK12 [evacuation] and does not want to be blamed if something else goes wrong.”

Since April, there have been no organized evacuations of Muslims from the enclaves. Human Rights Watch met with local authorities from the transitional government, diplomats, and humanitarian agency representatives who said that the government’s refusal to allow Muslims to leave was based on the political calculation of not being seen abetting ethnic cleansing.

UN Peacekeepers Stop Muslims From Leaving
Since the transitional government’s decision to halt evacuations of Muslims, AU, and since September UN, peacekeepers have prevented Muslims from leaving the Yaloké enclave on commercial convoys.

Twice a week, dozens of commercial trucks pass through Yaloké heading for Cameroon, passing less than 100 feet from the enclave. The convoys provide essential supplies to Bangui and are critical to economic stability in the capital. Heavily armed UN peacekeepers escort the convoys to deter anti-balaka attacks. These convoys are the only way for the Muslims to leave Yaloké, apart from on foot, as they have no other access to vehicles.

Muslims trapped in Yaloké said they see the convoys as their best, and safest, route to Cameroon, where many have family members in the refugee camps. But UN peacekeepers stop the Peuhl from boarding the trucks, often using force and intimidation, or remove Peuhl from trucks they boarded.

During a visit to the Yaloké enclave in May, Human Rights Watch researchers witnessed an AU (MISCA) captain openly threatening Peuhl civilians, vowing to shoot anyone who tried to board a convoy. After Human Rights Watch protested, the captain said he was “only trying to scare [the Peuhl].” But he insisted he would not allow them to board the trucks, saying the country’s transitional authorities firmly opposed any further departure of Muslims from the country. 

In October, during a visit to the refugee camps in Cameroon, Human Rights Watch met some Peuhl who said they had boarded a commercial convoy after paying AU peacekeepers to look the other way.

UN peacekeepers in Yaloké maintain that they are refusing to allow Peuhl to leave at the behest of transitional authorities. The commanding officer in Yaloké told Human Rights Watch in December:

The government has decided not to free the Peuhl so they can go to the border. They feel that those at the site must stay there and nongovernmental organizations will come to help them.… We do stop them when they try to join a convoy [to leave]. If they leave without permission from the sub-prefecture, it means that we are an accomplice if they are attacked by the anti-balaka.

This reflects what appears to be a general policy maintained and enforced by the UN peacekeepers, notwithstanding that when officials from MINUSCA and representatives of the UN special representative of the secretary general visited the site in Yaloké, they heard from Peuhl there that they wanted to leave but were being blocked by the peacekeepers. 

Peacekeepers do not prevent the Peuhl in Yaloké from leaving on foot, but the Peuhl have a limited range of movement as they are frequently insulted, threatened, or attacked. Peuhl are able to move freely in about a 400-meter radius around the enclave, such as to go to the health clinic or the water source, but any longer journeys can be perilous.

International law grants everyone the right “to leave any country, including his own” and to seek asylum abroad. Muslims in the enclaves also have the right to freedom of movement in their own country. The restrictions the transitional authorities placed on the voluntary movement of threatened Muslim communities are inconsistent with these international legal obligations, and point to the need for a more durable approach to ensuring the security of Muslim residents.

In Carnot, Berbérati, and Boda, where no regular convoys pass by, UN peacekeepers do not block the Muslims from leaving on foot. A number of Muslims say they wish to stay in these enclaves, especially in Boda, where local reconciliation efforts appear to have reduced tensions between Muslims and Christians. But others still wish to leave.

Those who want to leave can only do so by organizing their own transport or a days-long arduous walk to the border. The key deterrent is the persistent threat of anti-balaka attack. Muslims who wish to leave these enclaves say they desperately need peacekeepers’ help to reach safety.

Despite the risks, many Muslims have left Carnot, Boda, and Berbérati. Some have made it to Cameroon or other places of safety; others have not.

Dire Conditions in the Yaloké Enclave
The situation in the Yaloké enclave is particularly alarming. Not only are Puehl stopped from leaving on commercial convoys, but they also face desperate and life-threatening conditions if they stay. Since February, camp representatives have recorded the deaths of 42 Peuhl, the majority children, from malnutrition and respiratory and other diseases. Health professionals in Yaloké said the death rate among the Peuhl was significantly higher than Yaloké’s other residents. In the same six-month period that hospital staff recorded the deaths of 13 children from the enclave, only one local child died amongst a much larger population.

In December, when Human Rights watch visited Yaloké, camp leaders described a high rate of tuberculosis, lack of medication, unreliable food assistance, and cramped living conditions, with people forced to sleep outside. Their problems are compounded by a lack of firewood and potable water since women who often gather such essential supplies are routinely threatened and insulted by local people when they leave the enclave.

The Peuhl are housed in five dilapidated government buildings on a hillside near the center of town. One building, with four small rooms, houses 45 people. Many are forced to sleep on the ground and in the open. Salamtu, 25, said in December: “Look how we live here. We sleep on the ground and we all get sick.”

Food support at Yaloké is coordinated via the World Food Program. Muslims say food distributions come every four to six weeks, but in sporadic quantities. A greater problem, they say, is that the food does not meet their cultural and nutritional requirements. The Peuhl live largely on a diet of meat and milk and are not used to the rice and beans humanitarian agencies distribute.

One 45-year-old woman said: “We are sick because of a lack of milk. It is a nutritional problem. We cannot lie and say that we are not given food here, but we are not used to this food.”

From December 2 to 4, a joint team of experts from UNICEF and the WHO visited Yaloké to assess the health and nutritional situation. They reported that the Peuhl at the site “have not benefited from an appropriate humanitarian assistance since … May 2014.” They noted that the “alarming deterioration of their health had been the subject of previous missions.”

The team’s principal recommendation was for the “evacuation of all [displaced] Peuls from Yaloké to a secure place where they can move freely and where each one will find human dignity.”

The team also called for immediate assistance to the Peuhls in Yaloké with: “food support, regular in quantity and quality, taking into account eating habits of Peuhls; shelter for each family; medical-nutritional care for the malnourished; permanent effective and free health care; and assistance with non-food items such as water storage, hygiene items, protection against the cold, etc.”

Despite Yaloké’s proximity to the capital – 180 kilometres on a paved road – and UN officials’ recognition of the dire situation in the enclave, the UN’s humanitarian response has been minimal. Humanitarian workers told Human Rights Watch that “Yaloké seems to have been forgotten.”

Attacks on Muslims
Muslims face persistent threats when they leave the enclaves, even for short periods. The difficult security situation and the limited capacity of international and local security forces make it difficult to offer effective protection in remote areas.

During the December visit to Yaloké, Carnot, Berberati, and Boda, victims and witnesses reported numerous recent killings and attacks.

In late November, a Peuhl man and his wife tried to leave Carnot. The wife later said:

My husband and I were here at the site, we had been here for 4 months. We were separated from our kids and we did not know where they were, so we left for Cameroon to try to find them…. We left the site here in Carnot on foot at night. We left at night because we did not want the anti-balaka to find us.… But the next night they did. They attacked my husband and cut his arms and feet with machetes. When they cut his arm they were trying to cut his hand off … they broke the bones of his feet. My husband stayed alive until the next morning when they found him alive and slit his throat. When they killed him, we fled into the bush.

On November 25 a man suspected by the anti-balaka of being a Seleka fighter left the Carnot enclave for a brief visit to the town center. Anti-balaka captured and lynched him near the market, beating him to death with clubs and knives before UN peacekeepers arrived.

Anti-balaka attack Muslims who have not yet made it to Cameroon, Chad, or the relative safety of an enclave. In July, anti-balaka captured 34 Peuhl herders near Ngbaina as they tried to reach Cameroon with their cattle. The anti-balaka beat them, stole their cattle, and threatened to kill them if they did not pay US$3,750 ransom. The group was told that if they paid, the anti-balaka would help them reach Cameroon. Three months later, they were released when relatives in Cameroon organized to pay a reduced ransom. Instead of taking them to Cameroon, the anti-balaka took them to the nearby Carnot enclave.

The anti-balaka kept one member of the group, Yao, who is about 25, to watch over the stolen cows. A witness told Human Rights Watch: “Yao was taken by force, he wanted to remain with his family, but the anti-balaka refused to let him. The anti-balaka told him, ‘If you try to flee, then we will kill you.’” Yao has not been released.

The same fighters in Ngbaina are holding another 14 Peuhl, mostly women and children. Witnesses who spoke to the women said the anti-balaka had killed their husbands and were demanding a ransom for their release. The witnesses said the captors regularly beat and slapped the women and girls. Unable to pay, the women and children were still in captivity when Human Rights Watch visited the area on December 11.

Other witnesses interviewed in December indicated that anti-balaka were holding another group of about10 Peuhl civilians in Pondo, a village on the same road as Ngbaina.

Neither international nor national security forces had intervened to rescue those kidnapped or held hostage.