(Nairobi) – A recently formed armed group called “Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation,” or 3R, has killed civilians, raped, and caused largescale displacement over the past year in northwest Central African Republic. United Nations peacekeepers in the area have been unable to fully protect civilians.
“The Central African Republic is on the international agenda, but its neglected northwest territory now presents an emerging crisis,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The 3R armed group, which originally portrayed itself as a protector of the Peuhl, has used it increased strength to expand abusive attacks.”
Between November 21 and 27, 2016, Human Rights Watch documented the killing of at least 50 civilians in the Bocaranga and Koui sub-prefectures in Ouham Pendé province. Human Rights Watch interviewed 42 people, including 8 victims of 3R abuse, 9 relatives of victims, and 16 witnesses. They described how 3R members shot and killed civilians, raped women and girls, and pillaged and burned villages. The force’s actions have displaced at least 17,000 people: 14,000 around the town of Bocaranga and 3,000 on the border with Cameroon.
The number of 3R’s victims is probably higher but Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm all reported killings and rapes due to limited access and security concerns. Human Rights Watch saw one village, Bogon III, that 3R had destroyed, and heard credible accounts of others, including seeing photographs of the destruction.
Under the command of self-proclaimed General Sidiki Abass, 3R emerged in late 2015 to protect the minority Peuhl population in the region from attacks by anti-balaka militia, one of the two major combatant groups in the country in recent years. In April and May 2016, 3R increased its attacks on villages in the Koui sub-prefecture, allegedly in retaliation for anti-balaka activity. On September 27, 3R attacked the town of De Gaulle, the sub-prefecture capital, with about 20,000 people, and other villages in the area. 3R deny they have committed any abuses.
Anti-balaka, under the command of a self-proclaimed general, Abbas Rafal, have also killed Peuhl civilians and fighters in and around Bocaranga, where Human Rights Watch saw dozens of armed anti-balaka fighters moving freely in late November. Human Rights Watch also saw at least 100 armed 3R fighters in De Gaulle.
On November 22, Sidiki told Human Rights Watch by telephone that all his men respect human rights and denied allegations of abuse. On November 25, Human Rights Watch met with a spokesman for 3R, who goes only by the name Bashir and refused to give his family name, and the group’s general secretary, Patrick Gombado. Both men admitted that 3R had attacked De Gaulle – because of the anti-balaka presence in the town, they said. Bashir told Human Rights Watch that some 3R fighters had stolen private property for personal use during the attack because: “It is combat,” he said. “But we do not pillage as a group.” Bashir claimed the group does “try to address this type of indiscipline” but did not specify how. Both men denied that 3R fighters had committed any unlawful killings or rapes.
On November 26, Rafal told Human Rights Watch that his group executed Peuhl suspected of being spies “even if they are unarmed.” Human Rights Watch confirmed two such killings in November. Anti-balaka fighters also raped at least six women and girls in 2016, according to people providing services to survivors and monitoring sexual violence in the area.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Sidiki arrived in the area in 2015 and held meetings in several villages around Koui, saying 3R’s goal was to ensure that Peuhl could live in peace with other inhabitants of the area. But fighters associated with 3R soon began attacking these villages, they said, ostensibly provoked by anti-balaka attacks on Peuhl and cattle theft by both anti-balaka and local residents.
The attacks increased in 2016. On September 27, 3R carried out its largest attack, on De Gaulle. Human Rights Watch documented 17 civilians who were killed during or just after the attack, and the total number is probably higher as many people remain missing.
People monitoring sexual violence in the area, who did not want to be identified due to security concerns, said they received reports of rapes of 23 women and girls by 3R fighters during and after the De Gaulle attack. Human Rights Watch interviewed two women and one girl who gave accounts of Sidiki’s men raping them. Two of the survivors said that their children witnessed the rapes. “Blandine,” a 30-year-old woman from De Gaulle, told Human Rights Watch that 3R fighters broke into her home:
One said, “Where is your husband?” I said that he was not there…One of them cocked his gun and pointed it at me and said, “We are going to have sex with you.” He threw me on the ground and [one of them] raped me. Another was waiting for his turn, but there was shooting outside while the first one was finishing, so when he was done they both left…. [M]y two younger children were right beside me, crying.
As of December 13, groups that provide services to rape victims had limited access to the area because of security concerns.
The UN peacekeeping force in the country, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), has 12,870 forces in the country, including about 100 combat ready soldiers in Bocaranga and 100 in De Gaulle.
UN officers in Bocaranga told Human Rights Watch on November 26 that they are trying to conduct as many patrols as possible with the combat-ready men they have, but admit that both the 3R and anti-balaka are emboldened to circulate freely with their guns. They said that all information is sent to Bangui, the capital, but no troop increase to the region was expected.
Consistent with the mission’s mandate, MINUSCA should take steps to protect civilians, including older people, women, and girls, and including by use of force. MINUSCA should also take steps to ensure access to life-saving services, including comprehensive post-rape medical and mental health care.
The crimes committed in the area fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose prosecutor opened investigations into crimes in the country in September 2014, as well as the Special Criminal Court (SCC), a new judicial body with national and international judges and prosecutors that has a mandate to investigate and prosecute grave human rights violations in the country since 2003. The SCC offers a meaningful opportunity to hold accountable commanders from all parties to the conflict responsible for war crimes, and needs sustained international support, Human Rights Watch said.
Extrajudicial killings, targeted killings of civilians, rape, and other forms of sexual violence all violate international humanitarian law and may be prosecuted as war crimes. International humanitarian law also strictly prohibits parties to non-international armed conflicts from resorting to acts of revenge or any countermeasures against civilians or fighters who have ceased to take a direct part in hostilities.
The 3R attacks come at a time of increasing unrest and violence in the center of the country, particularly in Kaga-Bandoro, Bria, and Bambari.
“The national government and MINUSCA face immense problems, but they need to help stop the violence in the northwest and reassert some degree of the rule of law,” Mudge said. “Sidiki and Rafal should be warned that they are being watched and will be judged for their actions.”
Central African Republic in Crisis
The Central African Republic has been in crisis since late 2012, when mostly Muslim Seleka rebels began a military campaign against the government of Francois Bozizé. The Seleka took control of Bangui in March 2013. Their rule was marked by widespread human rights abuses, including the wanton killing of civilians. In mid-2013, Christian and animist anti-balaka militia organized to fight the Seleka. Associating all Muslims with the Seleka, the anti-balaka carried out large scale reprisal attacks against Muslim civilians in Bangui and western parts of the country.
Since 2013, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which anti-balaka militias, civilians and Seleka groups have targeted the Peuhl.
3R (Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation)
The 3R spokesman, Bashir, and its general secretary, Gombado, assert that 3R is not a rebel group but a resistance movement to defend Peuhl from violence that is expanding into the Nana-Mambéré, Ouham Pendé, and Mambéré-Kadéï provinces. They said 3R wants national authorities to return to De Gaulle, which they left after the September 27 attack, but that 3R will keep its guns until anti-balaka are disarmed and Peuhl are protected.
Local leaders said that relations with Sidiki and 3R were amicable at first but then anti-balaka increased their activity in the area and 3R started attacking villages. One local official who did not wish to be named explained:
Sidiki said he was there to protect herders who had been attacked and, in order to do so, he had to form a group. He said he was not a rebel but was there to protect Peuhl and he wanted the authorities to be aware of his presence. He also said he was ready to go into DDR [Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration, a joint disarmament program of the national government and MINUSCA] if the anti-balaka were not a threat. But then he changed his position and started to attack villages. He attacked Boumari in 2015 and then the attacks just increased. Now he has destroyed the sub-prefecture.
Another local official said that the violence worsened in April, when the anti-balaka started to attack Sidiki’s men. “Sidiki sent his men to burn villages and to kill under the pretext that the people were hiding anti-balaka and stealing cows,” he said.
Bashir and Gombado said they sell cattle to procure weapons from the black market but they denied allegations of murder and rape. “Not one civilian has been killed by our men,” Bashir told Human Rights Watch. “Not one woman has been raped. There has been no violence committed by our men in De Gaulle or in Koui.”
Attacks on Koui Villages
According to local authorities, residents, and others monitoring conditions in the area, 3R has attacked at least 13 villages in Koui sub-prefecture since November 2015. Anti-balaka were present in some of these villages but, local residents said, they quickly fled, leaving civilians to bear the brunt of the attacks. Human Rights Watch spoke with residents of nine villages who described these attacks.
In November 2015, days after Sidiki had assured the villagers that his men would not target civilians, 3R fighters attacked Boumari, about 40 kilometers from De Gaulle, and killed the village chief, 75-year-old Abel Ndombe. “The chief did not run when he saw the fighters because he thought it was safe to talk to them,” a witness said. “He approached them and they shot him in the throat.”
On January 23, 3R fighters attacked Sangodoro, a village 22 kilometers south of De Gaulle. A witness said:
It was around 5:30 a.m. and I heard shooting in the village. I ran like everyone else into the woods. From the woods we watched the attackers burn the village. It was Sidiki’s men; we could tell by their uniforms. I saw the bodies of two people [both civilians] from the village, Desa Amado and Anicet.
Another resident said:
I ran outside and found my neighbor, Anicet, and we ran for the woods. He was shot in the head as we ran – he fell right away. I ran and hid where I found others from the village. After a few hours, a man named Mado decided he was going to go back to the village to look for some money that he had buried in the ground near his house. We soon heard a shot. A little while later we heard his daughter screaming. He had been shot by the 3R but was still alive and we found him in the woods. But it was not good. He was shot in the chest and he knew he was going to die. He was saying, “I am going to die, who is going to care of my kids?” He died a short while later.
In mid-September, 3R fighters attacked the village of Bouzou, 50 kilometers from De Gaulle, killing two people. The attack forced residents to flee to De Gaulle, which was attacked a few days later.
A 40-year-old woman from Bouzou said: “When the attack started I ran into the bush. By the afternoon I returned to the village and saw that everything had been burned, even the church. I then decided to walk to De Gaulle. I had to manage the journey with six children so it took two days.”
Ousmanou Alain Doui, 63, died after his family fled to De Gaulle. His son said: “The voyage was just too much for him.”
Attack on De Gaulle
Residents of De Gaulle told Human Rights Watch that they noticed an increase in attacks by 3R on the outskirts of the town in the days leading up to the main attack on September 27. “Emmanuel,” 56, who like others asked not to be identified by name for fear of reprisal, said:
On September 26 I was at the place outside of town where I keep my cows and sheep. A group of Sidiki’s men arrived – I recognized two of them. They surrounded me and saw a bow and some arrows that I use to protect the animals. One of the fighters said that proved I was an anti-balaka. He said, “We are going to kill you and take your animals.” I said, “Take the animals but let me live.” But he said, “No, we are going to kill you anyway.” I said, “Do what you want, God will decide my fate.” They tied me up with my feet tied to my hands behind my back and started to kick me in the sides. One took at a knife and started to cut my throat. When I started to bleed I thought that I was dead. But when they left I was still alive. My son soon arrived and found me. It hurt to speak and I had to turn my head and put a hand over my throat to keep the blood from spilling out, but I was alive.
“Emmanuel” said he hid for four days with his son before being transported to Bocaranga, where he received medical treatment. Human Rights Watch saw what appeared to be knife scars on his neck.
As 3R took the town, its fighters began targeting civilians. “When I heard the shooting I went outside and started to run,” a 50-year-old man said. “I saw one of Sidiki’s fighters and he shot me in the knee. He kept shooting at me, but I ran to the bush where I hid for four days. I was unarmed – he just shot at me like I was an animal.” Human Rights Watch saw what looked like a bullet wound scar on the man’s knee.
One resident described the killing of his father, Alain-Josue Yapele, who was between 65 and 75 years old:
He said to leave him in the house as they wouldn’t kill an old man. We hid behind the house and from there we saw Sidiki’s men enter. We heard shots. The attackers left the house shortly after and we ran to see my father. He told us, “They broke down the door and just started to kick me and beat me with their guns before they shot me.” He said he knew one of the attackers, a Mbororo (Peuhl) from De Gaulle. [He] was one of Sidiki’s men. My father was shot in the arm and in the face.
The son said that they were unable to get him help because of the dangerous conditions, and that his father lost blood and died. They buried him and fled and have not returned to De Gaulle.
After the attack, 3R fighters chased residents into the surrounding woods, targeting civilians. A 35-year-old woman, “Isabelle,” who was eight months pregnant at the time, said:
When De Gaulle was attacked I ran with my husband and nine kids into the bush. We hid there with about 30 other people from the town. The next morning, we were having breakfast but Sidiki’s men found our hiding place. They came quietly and surprised us. There were at least 10 of them and they started to shoot at us straight away. I saw four people killed: Noui Njacko, Andre, Elizar, and Korin Nzako. Korin was pregnant. She was shot in the stomach while trying to run away.
Korin Nzako, a 16-year-old mother of one, was four months pregnant at the time of her death.
Rape by 3R
People monitoring sexual violence in the area, who did not want to be identified due to security concerns, told Human Rights Watch they had recorded 43 cases in which women and girls said they had been raped by 3R fighters, 23 of them during or just after the attack on De Gaulle. While some of these cases may be recorded by more than one person or agency, the total number of cases is likely to be much higher due to underreporting of sexual violence. Human Rights Watch interviewed three survivors.
A 33-year-old woman, “Agnes,” said she ran with her husband and their 7-year-old son into the woods when the 3R attacked. As they fled, her husband was shot in the leg and she and her son became separated from him:
[My son and I were] walking when we came upon a group of 10 fighters from Sidiki’s group. Two of them raped me… One of them pointed his gun and said, “If you don’t have sex with me, I’ll kill you.”…They raped me one by one. My son was right there throughout it all. They forced me to just put him to the side. He was crying.
A 14-year-old girl, “Delphine” said that she and her father fled their village after a 3R attack. They were approaching De Gaulle at dawn when a 3R fighter armed with a rifle came up behind them:
He grabbed me and when my father attempted to react [he] grabbed my father’s throat. I screamed because I thought he was going to kill my father. He let my father go and instead grabbed me by the throat. He threw me on the ground and hit me on the side with his rifle. He pointed his gun at me and said, “If you don’t sleep with me I’ll kill you.” He then pointed the gun at my father and said, “If I don’t sleep with your daughter I will kill you.” My father had to stay under a tree some distance away. Then he forced himself on me… When he finished the act he left without saying a word… Sometimes I dream that I am being raped by this man and that he is going to kill me after he is done.
While some survivors of sexual violence have been able to access psychological and medical care, service providers told Human Rights Watch that only a small number of woman and girls were able to access services due to lack of security. A service provider told Human Rights Watch that most survivors of sexual violence have not received essential post-rape care, including post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to prevent HIV transmission. Organizations that provide assistance to rape survivors were forced to evacuate Bocaranga on September 27 due to lack of security and did not restart services until October 11. Anti-balaka forces have not allowed these organizations to access the Koui sub-prefecture since September 27, 2016.
Torture by 3R
Human Rights Watch confirmed three cases, and heard reliable testimony of several others, in which 3R fighters tortured men in the Koui sub-prefecture.
After 3R attacked De Gaulle, they took “Claude,” 21, to Sidiki’s base:
They kept asking for the gun and I said I did not have one. One man said, “Okay, because you will not show us the gun, we will torture you until you give it to us.” They tied me up with my feet tied to my hands behind my back for two days. During those two days they beat me severely with a metal cord. At one point they tied me up by my neck, again, with my feet tied to my hands behind my back, and then suspended me in the air for a few hours. After two days the MINUSCA soldiers came and saved me. The 3R fighters said I could leave with MINUSCA because they had done their own investigation and they found no gun… The pain I felt is difficult to describe. Even now, almost two months later, I vomit and it still hurts to eat.
Human Rights Watch saw the man’s scars, which showed clear traces of beating.
“Jean” said he arrived in the village of Ngaokala after fleeing the De Gaulle attack and saw a boy of 14 or 15 years with his feet bound to his hands behind his back. He had been accused of stealing cattle and beaten by 3R fighters for hours while in that position. The local community raised 170,000 francs (approximately US $275) to free him, “Jean” said.
A resident of De Gaulle, “Pascal,” said he witnessed 3R fighters and Sidiki himself torture and kill a man from the town, 34-year-old Nambona Dounia, whom they found near Makonzi Wali, a crossroads 20 kilometers from De Gaulle. “He was taken in front of the sub-prefecture administrative building and beaten by about 20 men,” he said. “After a while they slit his throat. I saw Sidiki there, he participated.”
Killings by Anti-Balaka in Bocaranga
Anti-balaka fighters under the command of self-proclaimed General Rafal murdered at least two unarmed Peuhl in November. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm the identity of one of the victims, but Rafal himself said that he had killed the unarmed Peuhl man he suspected was a spy on the outskirts of town on November 24.
In early November, Rafal and his men killed Amadou Tourra, a 27-year-old Peuhl, witnesses said. Tourra had fled areas under Sidiki’s control in March because, people who spoke with him said, 3R was trying to forcibly recruit him. Acquaintances of Tourra said that 3R fighters had injured Tourra in the arm with a knife after he refused to join.
The witnesses said that at about 4 a.m. on November 11, Rafal and approximately six anti-balaka fighters broke into the compound were Tourra was hiding. They forced him to his knees and, despite his pleas for mercy, shot him in the head and the arms. Human Rights Watch saw photos of Tourra’s body taken in the hours after his death, showing what appeared to be bullet wounds in his arms and head.
Displacement and Humanitarian Needs
Fighting in the Ouham Pendé province has displaced at least 17,000 people during 2016. The majority are living in makeshift grass huts next to villages along principal roads. Some are staying in the homes of friends or family. Due to ongoing security concerns, aid groups have not been able to deliver all the needed assistance.
A 40-year-old man from Boumari, who now lives with his family of six on the outskirts of Bodé, 20 kilometers north of Bohong, said:
Many of us can’t access our fields and those who dare to go back have to walk all day, work in the fields and then return the following day. We have lost all of our belongings in the attack. The NGOs that provide support do not come often because the roads are dangerous. Our village is now scattered throughout the bush. How long can we live like this?
A 41-year-old mother of four from De Gaulle staying with relatives in Douya, south of Bocaranga, said, “The kids are now out of school and just here, doing nothing. We can’t go back to De Gaulle and restart our lives because Sidiki’s men are still there. Until it is safe, we will just stay here and depend on the charity of our family. Life has been suspended.”