The civilian deaths, which occurred during the most serious violence between Seleka groups since the Seleka fractured in 2014, highlight the need for United Nations peacekeepers deployed in the Central African Republic to exercise their mandate and use force to protect civilians.
“The rising violence in the central regions between Seleka factions is having a predictably grave impact on civilians,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “UN peacekeepers should anticipate these incidents and use force to protect these vulnerable people, as their mandate allows.”
About 485 Peuhl civilians taking shelter in three residential compounds in Bria, many of them women and children, are terrified of revenge attacks because Peuhl comprise the majority of one of the fighting factions. These civilians need the immediate protection of the nearly 250 peacekeepers already in town, Human Rights Watch said.
Between November 28 and 30, Human Rights Watch interviewed 10 civilian victims of the violence, 5 witnesses, 10 local authorities and leaders of the Seleka factions that fought – the Popular Front for the Renassaince in the Central African Republic (Front Populaire pour la Renassaince de la Centrafrique, FPRC), and the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (l'Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC). The fighting left at least 115 combatants on both sides dead.
Tension between the two factions around Bria had been high before the latest violence. In early November, skirmishes erupted between the two groups over control of roads leading to diamond mines around Kalaga, a town 45 kilometers from Bria. Both factions collect “road taxes,” especially in mining areas and on migration routes for Peuhl herders. The FPRC attacked the UPC in Gobolo on November 21, sparking major hostilities.
The UN has 12,870 peacekeepers deployed across the country, including 246 armed forces who were in Bria at the time of the fighting, but they were unable to protect civilians in the heavy fighting. The UN sent additional peacekeepers to the town after the clashes. National security forces, such as police and gendarmes, were not capable of stopping the fighting and sought protection from the UN.
The UPC largely consists of ethnic Peuhl, and the fighting led to violence against Peuhl civilians by both FPRC fighters and men in civilian clothes. On November 21, two FPRC fighters killed a local businessman, Nouhou Badem, at his home in Mandé II neighborhood, where hundreds of Peuhl were seeking refuge.
Fighting flared around the town’s hospital. By 8 a.m. on November 21, FPRC fighters who had brought injured fighters to the hospital had based themselves within the compound, firing on UPC fighters who had assumed positions outside the hospital. Around this time, FPRC fighters and men in civilian clothes pulled two injured Peuhl out of the hospital, one of them perhaps a fighter, and killed them outside the main entrance.
The fighting displaced up to 10,000 people from Bria, a town of approximately 43,000. At least 7,000 are in a makeshift camp around the UN peacekeeping base in town, with 2,000 to 3,000 others in homes and schools near the airstrip. At the makeshift camp, Human Rights Watch observed squalid conditions that require an urgent humanitarian response. The camp started to receive limited assistance on December 1.
The violence also spread to Bria’s periphery. Peuhl fighters aligned with the UPC have targeted non-Peuhl civilians and, in revenge, armed non-Peuhl have attacked Peuhl civilians. On November 26, men with guns, machetes and knives attacked nine Peuhl, including three women and four children, outside of Golaga, 10 kilometers outside of Bria, killing five of them. Three of the others are missing and presumed dead.
The faction leaders told Human Rights Watch that their fighters do not target civilians. However, both sides have used inflammatory language that could be perceived as support for violence against civilians.
The head of the FPRC military wing in Bria, General Azor Khalid, said he wanted the Peuhl out of Bria and his fighters planned to push the UPC out of its base in Bambari, 170 kilometers west, with help from the local population, including anti-balaka militia. The head of political affairs for the UPC in Bria, Moussa Ahmat Alou, said his men would do whatever they could to “prevent a genocide.” Between November 28 and 30, Human Rights Watch saw hundreds of heavily armed fighters from both factions, many in civilian clothes, moving freely around areas of the town under their respective control.
“Tension is high and civilians are paying the price,” Mudge said. “The deliberate targeting of civilians is a war crime. FPRC and UPC commanders should know they could be held responsible for the action of their men.”
Central African Republic in Crisis
Fighting has raged in the Central African Republic since December 2012, when the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels, claiming to represent the country’s aggrieved Muslim minority in the northeast, moved southwest into more populous non-Muslim areas, killing thousands of civilians. In 2014, international forces pushed the Seleka out of the capital, Bangui. Ethnic divisions, rivalries, disagreements over resource control, and disputes over strategy quickly tore the Seleka apart. By late 2014, the Seleka split into several factions, each controlling its own area.
Violence in Bria
On November 21, hundreds of Peuhl civilians sought shelter at the compound of Nouhou Badem, a local businessman. Two FPRC fighters arrived at Badem’s house that morning and shot into the compound, killing Badem and wounding four others, three witnesses said. One of those who saw the shooting said:
The fighters came from the direction of the airport. They arrived outside the compound and greeted Nouhou in Arabic. They said, ‘Don’t worry, we will not hurt you.’ But then they backed up and just started to shoot at all of us. Five people were hit by bullets, including Nouhou, who died on the spot. He was shot in the chest.
Peuhl residents of Gobolo were also targeted during the fighting, including a 66-year-old woman who said she was shot through the back and injured after her son, 40-year-old Hamadou Abash, was shot and killed. “We were outside the house, the fighters were just coming toward the town. I heard a shot and Hamadou fell,” she said. “I fell on top of him to protect him and then I was shot through the back.” Human Rights Watch saw what looked like an entrance and exit wound from a bullet in the woman’s back and chest for which she is receiving medical treatment.
As the fighting increased around the hospital, FPRC fighters and men in civilian clothes forcibly removed two injured Peuhl who were getting treatment at the hospital, one of whom may have been a combatant, and killed them outside the main entrance. An injured Peuhl who was seeking treatment at the hospital at the time and witnessed the killing said:
We were on the hospital grounds, but not yet in the buildings. Men came to take us. They were already in the hospital and they were dressed in military fatigues and civilian clothes. They took two men, Amadou and Halidou, outside and killed them with guns and machetes. In the chaos I was pulled into a separate room by hospital staff and hidden.
Violence outside Bria
On November 26, nine Peuhl civilians attempted to flee the violence in Bria by walking to a cattle encampment called Dimakou, off the road to Balenguere. At the village of Golaga, 10 kilometers outside of town, the group was attacked by men with artisanal guns, knives, and machetes, said “Saidatou,” a 40-year-old woman who survived the attack:
Along the road we had been warned not to approach Golaga, but one of the men in our group, Paté, said we should just continue. When we entered Golaga a group of men attacked us. There were at least 12 men. I was shot straight away in my left arm and I fell to the ground. Paté tried to help me, but I told him to run. A man ran by and shot me again in the right arm as I lay there. He chased Paté. I heard Paté yell, “Please, please! Do not kill me!” and then I heard him killed by machete blows.
I heard my daughter-in-law, Habiba, crying out for pity. She had her 1-year-old son, Hamidou with her. I heard him crying. Then I heard a shot and the crying stopped. I heard my daughter Salamatou crying too. She was with her 2-year-old daughter Adama, who was also crying. Then I heard them killed by machetes. I got up and ran into the bush, but I could not find my two grandsons who were with me, Saladin (age 3) and Abou Aziz (age 7). I think they are also dead. I spent the day in the bush and then came back to Gobolo.
On November 26, a 20-year-old man was fishing with two friends in a stream outside of Bria near the village Kpakaba. He said he was resting in an area away from the stream when three uniformed Peuhl fighters approached him, “One of them said, ‘If you cry out we will kill you.’ They made me sit down and one of them took out a knife and cut my right Achilles tendon. I don’t know why they did it. I think they wanted to ensure I could not walk. They just told me again that if I cried out I would be shot. When they were done cutting the tendon, they left. Now I can barely move.” Human Rights Watch saw a deep wound above the man’s right heel.
On November 27, UPC fighters shot a 17-year-old boy, Jean Richard Walakouzou, three kilometers outside of Bria as he rode his bicycle to see his family, who were hiding in the fields outside of town. A person who was with him and survived the attack told authorities and relatives of the victim that the fighters shot Walakouzou in the chest and shoulder without warning.
A 35-year-old man said that a Peuhl fighter shot at him on November 28, but missed. “It was between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and I was finishing work in the fields,” he told Human Rights Watch on the day of the attack. “As I was cutting manioc I saw a Peuhl in uniform in front of me. He said nothing, he just shot at me. I fell to the ground and ran.”
On November 29, uniformed Peuhl fighters apparently shot and killed 50-year-old Saleh Yousef, a non-Peuhl Muslim from Bria, one kilometer from town on the Gobolo road near the Pimba stream. Bria residents said they saw the fighters leaving the area where the unarmed Yousef, a diamond miner, was killed moments after hearing shots.