A young Peuhl woman, around 18 years of age, held for 14 months as a sex slave by anti-Balaka fighters in Pondo, Central African Republic.

(Nairobi) – At least 42 Muslim Peuhl herders, mostly women and girls, are being held captive by anti-balaka fighters in the Central African Republic and are at risk of sexual violence, Human Rights Watch said today. There are reports that many others may also be held. United Nations peacekeepers and the government should urgently act to free them.

Members of one family Human Rights Watch interviewed on April 13, 2015, described the horrors they endured during 14 months of captivity in Pondo, a village in the southwest. The anti-balaka killed two boys, ages about 6 and 7, and raped three young women and girls, one of whom became ill and died in captivity. Her year-old baby died of malnutrition. The surviving family members were rescued on April 4 and 5.

“Holding civilians captive, killing children, and sexually enslaving women and girls are shocking tactics by these anti-balaka and amount to war crimes,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “UN peacekeepers and government officials who have already taken bold steps to free one group of ethnic Peuhl should urgently intervene to free the others and arrest their captors.”

The anti-balaka are an armed group who have killed and targeted thousands of Muslims since 2013. Thirteen surviving members of the family were released on April 4 and 5 following the intervention of local authorities and the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, known as MINUSCA. Human Rights Watch first reported that a group of Peuhl was held captive in Pondo on December 22, 2014, and urged action to free them.

Members of the recently released family, witnesses, and other sources said that dozens of other Peuhl are being held in the southwest, including towns and villages near Pondo. They said about 30 are being held in Lambi, 11 in Ngbaina, and 1 in Betefio. Human Rights Watch has also received information that dozens of Peuhl were being held in Gadzi and others in Gaga, though their circumstances remain unclear. The vast majority are women and girls, some held for over a year. The reports raise a strong possibility that other groups of Peuhl are also being held.

One young woman, about 18 years old, said she had been raped by multiple anti-balaka fighters during her captivity. “I was taken as a wife by the anti-balaka,” she said. “It was against my will, I did not want to accept it. It was not just one man, it was with many different men. They would just take me. They brutalized me and I am now pregnant.”

The victim’s sister, who is about 20, was raped repeatedly during her captivity by one anti-balaka fighter who had claimed her as his “wife.”

The 20-member extended family was fleeing from anti-balaka attacks in late 2013 and early 2014, like many other Peuhl at the time. They became trapped in a forested area with their cattle, uncertain where to head for safety. In February 2014, as the family was camped with their cattle at Yassibele, near Pondo, the anti-balaka ambushed them. Family members ran in various directions, but most were captured. Three male members of the family have not been heard from since.

The anti-balaka fighters, commanded by François Wote, took the captured Peuhl to Pondo. Four family members told Human Rights Watch that the anti-balaka fighters said they would “protect” the family, but it quickly became clear they were captives. They were held in a house on the outskirts of Pondo surrounded by anti-balaka fighters.

Family members quoted Wote as saying: “We will keep you. The whites must come and pay for the protection that we are giving you. If people never come to pay, then you will never leave.” Family members said the anti-balaka would regularly threaten them saying, “We will kill you today,” or at other times, “You are Peuhl, why are we protecting you?” insinuating they should be killed.

A few weeks after the family was taken captive, anti-balaka fighters from a neighboring village took away two boys, Baboule and Issa Bouba, and killed them. The anti-balaka fighters told the family: “We don’t want to see men, we only want to see women.”

A female member of the family told Human Rights Watch how helpless she felt when the anti-balaka took Issa. “Issa did not want to go [with the anti-balaka],” she said. “He tried to grab onto us to save himself because he was so scared. But if we had tried to save Issa, the anti-balaka would have killed us too.”

A female baby named Biba died of malnutrition after several months of detention. Members of the group told Human Rights Watch that her mother, Aï, was raped and later died of an undiagnosed illness.

On April 4 and 5, local authorities from the area, hearing about a possible group of captive Peuhl, travelled to Pondo and freed the captives. UN peacekeepers facilitated the effort. The captives were taken to the Muslim enclave at Yaloké, where they have access to basic medical services. They said they want to leave there for Cameroon to join other Peuhl who have sought refuge.

Human Rights Watch has documented other cases in which anti-balaka fighters held civilians for ransom in 2014, in Ngbaina in the southwest and in Nana-Grebezi province in the central area. In one case, 34 women and children were released only after the anti-balaka received payment from their family.

Wote, the anti-balaka leader in Pondo, reports to Guy Wabilo, the anti-balaka zone commander of the Gadzi region. The former Pondo captives said that Wabilo regularly passed by the village, knew of their captivity and had registered their names. The family members said that the Pondo anti-balaka asked Wabilo for money to release the Peuhl, but he said he did not have it and that “they should just keep us.” Peuhl believed to be held captive in Ngbaina and Betefio are also in the zone Wabilo controls. In recent weeks Wabilo has told UN officials he is willing to cooperate in releasing other captives.

Human Rights Watch sought unsuccessfully to speak with Wabilo on several occasions, both in Yaloké and over the phone. In March 2014, Wabilo told Human Rights Watch that “Any anti-balaka who breaks the law must be arrested.” He said then that he reported to Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, who claims national leadership of the anti-balaka.

The national justice system in the Central African Republic has been ravaged by successive conflicts and lacks the resources and expertise to deal with grave international crimes. In September, acting on a referral from the transitional government, the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor opened a second investigation in the Central African Republic, concerning crimes committed since January 2012.

The National Transitional Council, the country’s interim parliament, is debating a draft law to create a Special Criminal Court within the national judicial system that would include national and international judges and staff. The special court would complement the work of the ICC and try those responsible for grave crimes. The draft law under consideration specifies that the special court should pay specific attention to sexual violence and crimes against children, such as those Human Rights Watch documented in Pondo.

The Central African Republic has been in 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 the Seleka and began large-scale reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians, including Peuhl herders. Thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced during the conflict. The conflict continues between Seleka, anti-balaka and international forces – MINUSCA and French troops – in the eastern part of the country.

The UN Security Council has mandated MINUSCA to address sexual violence, and to ensure that these efforts are mainstreamed within the work of the mission, including helping to hold those responsible to account. The MINUSCA mandate is to be renewed on April 28 and it is expected that the provisions for combatting sexual violence will remain strong.

“Those responsible for these brutal crimes need to be held to account as continued impunity is likely to only embolden the attackers,” Mudge said. “UN and government officials should also urgently assess where else Peuhl and other civilians might be held captive, work to release them, and help the victims get counselling and medical treatment.”