(Nairobi) – A rebel group in the Central African Republic executed at least 32 civilians and captured fighters after clashes in December 2016 with another rebel group in the Ouaka province.
In the town of Bakala, rebels from the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (l'Union pour la Paix en Centrafrique, UPC), on December 12, executed 25 people after calling them to a school for an alleged meeting. Earlier that day, UPC fighters executed seven men who were returning from a nearby gold mine. Accounts of the incidents were provided by a survivor and eight witnesses, including five men who were forced to help dispose of the bodies. At least 29 other civilians have been killed in fighting around Bakala since late November.
“These executions are brazen war crimes by UPC fighters who feel free to kill at will,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The group is carrying out its killing sprees with no fear of punishment, despite the presence of United Nations peacekeepers.”
The appointment on February 15, 2017 of a chief prosecutor for the Special Criminal Court – a court to be staffed with national and international judges and prosecutors in the capital, Bangui, to prosecute grave human rights violations since 2003 – marks an important step towards accountability, Human Rights Watch said. The court should now be further staffed without delay, so it can begin investigations and prosecutions.
Local residents and officials told Human Rights Watch that tensions between the UPC and the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique, FPRC), another rebel group drawn from the predominantly Muslim Seleka fighters, began escalating late last year. Fighting started around Mourouba, 18 kilometers west of Bakala, on November 27, 2016, and the UPC then attacked civilians they suspected of belonging to anti-balaka militia allied with the FPRC.
The FPRC has allied itself with anti-balaka militias, its former enemy, to fight the UPC. The anti-balaka emerged in 2013, largely from existing self-defense groups to resist Seleka abuses, and themselves went on to commit serious abuses against civilians.
In late January 2017, Human Rights Watch interviewed 28 people in and around Bakala, including victims of other UPC crimes, relatives of victims, and UPC commanders. The total number of victims is most likely higher than the 32 people executed and the 29 civilians killed during clashes because dozens of other people are unaccounted for, family members of the missing people say. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm all reported killings due to limited access and security concerns.
“A UN helicopter circled the town for some time so we knew things were not normal,” said a 41-year-old man, when describing how UPC fighters gunned down civilians on December 11. “When the helicopter left, the Peuhl [UPC fighters] attacked. The town was encircled. I took my children and ran, but they were shooting at anything that moved.”
Around 5 a.m. on December 12, a group of UPC fighters detained and killed seven men in Bakala as they returned from a nearby gold mine.
“I was hiding in a house and I saw the Peuhl [UPC fighters] gather the men in front of a neighbor’s house and take them inside,” said “Joseph,” a 55-year-old resident of Bakala. “A short time later I heard screams from the men. They were yelling, ‘Why are you killing us?’ and ‘I’m dying!’ I also heard shots. This was all at 5 a.m. A short while later the Peuhl found me and made me help throw the bodies in a well.”
A Human Rights Watch researcher inspected the well and noted a putrid smell that might have come from decaying bodies. Another local resident, interviewed separately, said UPC fighters also forced him to help throw bodies in the water source.
Later that morning, UPC fighters in Bakala executed another 24 men and at least one boy, whom they accused of supporting the anti-balaka. Bakala residents said that UPC fighters sent a message around town that they would hold a meeting at a local school. Some men were already held at the school from the previous night and when others arrived, the fighters seized the men and gunned them down.
“I jumped up and managed to escape, but everyone else was killed,” said 24-year-old “Laurent,” whose 17-year-old brother was killed. “I ran into the bush and just heard shooting as I ran.”
A local official said he heard the shooting and then UPC fighters forced him to help them throw the bodies into a nearby well, located on the other side of town from the well into which the seven other victims had been thrown. “[The victims were] young anti-balaka and civilians,” he said. “Their bodies were scattered outside the school and the gendarmerie. I counted 25 bodies.”
Under the command of General Ali Darassa Mahamant, the UPC has controlled much of Ouaka province since 2013. The UPC has close links to the minority ethnic Peuhl, and armed Peuhl often fight with the group.
On January 23, 2017, Darassa told Human Rights Watch that his men did not kill any civilians in Bakala or the surrounding villages. “Soldiers in the UPC cannot execute civilians or prisoners,” he said. “What you have heard about the UPC are lies.” Darassa said that he exerts full control over his men.
The fighting in Bakala and the surrounding area displaced between 9,000 and 10,000 people, a town official said. Some of them are staying in other towns, and thousands are living in the forest savannah in Ouaka province.
The UN peacekeeping force in the country, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), has 12,870 armed members and a temporary base in Mourouba. Consistent with its mandate, MINUSCA should take active steps to protect civilians, including when necessary by using force, Human Rights Watch said.
On February 11, MINUSCA helicopters opened fire on FPRC forces that were moving from Ippy to Bambari, destroying at least four vehicles and killing Seleka General Joseph Zoundeko. The FPRC forces had crossed MINUSCA’s declared “red line,” established to separate the FPRC and UPC and to protect civilians.
“MINUSCA is facing significant fighting in the center of the country, and it’s encouraging to see it enforce its mandate to protect civilians,” Mudge said. “Abusive commanders like the UPC’s Darassa need to understand that peacekeepers will not tolerate their attacks and they can be held accountable for war crimes committed by their forces.”
Conflict in the Central African Republic
The Central African Republic has been in crisis since late 2012, when mostly Muslim Seleka rebels opened a military campaign against the government of Francois Bozizé. The Seleka seized the capital, Bangui, in March 2013. Their rule was marked by widespread human rights abuse, 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.
In 2014, African Union and French international forces pushed the Seleka out of Bangui. Ethnic divisions, rivalries, disagreements over resource control, and disputes over strategy quickly tore the Seleka apart. By late 2014, the Seleka had split into several factions, each controlling its own area.
In November 2016, skirmishes erupted between two of the factions, the UPC and FPRC, over control of roads leading to diamond mines around Kalaga, a town 45 kilometers from Bria. Both groups collect “road taxes,” especially in mining areas and on migration routes for Peuhl herders. The skirmishes escalated into more serious fighting.
The Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC)
The UPC is a splinter group of the Popular Front for Redress (Front populaire pour le redressement, FPR), a Chadian rebel group mainly consisting of Chadian and Central African Peuhl and commanded by Chadian Babba Laddé. The group’s second in command, Ali Darassa Mahamant, joined the Seleka and officially created the UPC in September 2014. He continues to serve as its president and commander. To keep control of Bambari and the strategic roads that connect it to other parts of the country, including lucrative trade routes toward Sudan, UPC fighters target those they believe are members of or support the anti-balaka.
Fighting between the UPC and other splinter groups began in November 2016, in the central town of Bria, in the Hautte-Kotto province. Those clashes over 11 days left at least 14 civilians dead and 76 wounded.
Fighting continued during the following days on the road to Ippy, a town north of Bambari, and near Ndassima, a gold mine, and then spread south and west to Ouaka province.
FPRC fighters and allies from another Seleka group, the Central African Patriotic Movement (Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique, MPC), joined their former enemy, anti-balaka fighters, against the UPC. FPRC and MPC fighters have killed civilians in past attacks, such as when they razed a camp for displaced people in Kaga-Bandoro in October, killing at least 37 civilians and wounding 57. In the latest Bakala fighting, however, Human Rights Watch did not document any civilian deaths by the FPRC or MPC, although some might have taken place.
Attack on Bakala and Summary Executions
Bakala has numerous gold mines around the town, making it a strategic post for any group. Since fighting between the two Seleka forces began, control for the town has gone back and forth between the FPRC and the UPC.
On December 11, the UPC temporarily took the town after a major attack. They quickly started to kill civilians, associating them with either FPRC sympathizers or anti-balaka. A 55-year-old resident said:
The attack by the UPC lasted about three hours. I waited in the bush near the town until it was calm. When all was quiet, I went back in. It was the end of the day. I saw bodies of fighters all over, but I also saw the Peuhl kill two civilians. They had set up a base near the market and they would stop men coming from the mines. They took their things and then hung them from a tree until they died. Then they threw the bodies in the [Ouaka] river.
Other residents said that UPC fighters tied up at least two other men, slit their throats, and threw their bodies into the Ouaka River. A Human Rights Watch researcher saw one decayed body of an unidentified person in the river on January 22, 2017.
A day later, UPC fighters killed at least seven men who were returning to the town from the nearby mine. Human Rights Watch spoke with one witness and another man, who along with the witness was forced to help throw seven bodies into a well.
Later that morning, UPC fighters sent a message that they would hold a meeting at the École Sous-préfectorale, where it was already holding some men who had been captured the day before. When people gathered there, UPC fighters seized at least 24 men and one boy, gunning them down. Some were walked across the street and killed in front of the gendarmerie station.
A 40-year-old woman, “Claudette,” from Bakala, said she hid with her husband and six children in the Mangoléma neighborhood during the fighting. On December 12, they heard a message that the Seleka were holding a meeting for town residents at the school. She explained:
We did not know if it was the Ghoula [FPRC] or the Peuhl [UPC] who had won the day before. My husband said, “Well, if there is a meeting I will go and see what they have to say.” He went with two neighbors, Edgar and Romain, and my stepson Arnaud [approximately 20-years-old]. A short time later I heard many shots coming from the school. People who had been to the meeting then came running and told me that my husband and Arnaud had been killed.
A 35-year-old woman from Bakala, “Odette,” said she saw UPC forces take men to the school and then heard shooting:
On December 12, some of us women decided that we would try to cross the river and go to Bambari. As we walked we saw some Peuhl who told us not to leave. One said, “Return home, you are all wives of anti-balaka.” But we were scared so we went to the Catholic Church, where many people were hiding. A short time later some Peuhl arrived. They said they were looking for men to take to the school for a meeting. They said they were looking for anti-balaka but I know that some of the men they took were civilians. They took some men and a short time later I heard many shots. Then the Peuhl came back and told a man at the church that he needed to arrange to have the bodies buried.
A local official explained how he heard shooting and then saw many bodies at the school:
It was the morning of the 12th, around 9 a.m. I was down near the river when I started to hear many shots coming from the school. I asked a UPC fighter nearby if he was going to kill me too, but he said, “No, we are only killing the anti-balaka.” They took me to the school and I saw bodies all over the ground. The Peuhl told me that they knew these men and they justified the killing by saying they were all anti-balaka. But I knew some of them were not. They ordered me to help bury them.
A 24-year-old survivor of the attack, “Laurent,” described how the UPC forces opened fire on their detained men:
After the attack on the 11th we were all hiding in the bush. We were called to a meeting at the school by youth from the town. They were saying, “Come to a meeting to see how the people can work with the Seleka.” I decided to go to the meeting. When I arrived there I saw my uncle and my little brother there as well. All the people at the meeting were men. I knew that something was not right.
Personally, I had thought it was a meeting for the FPRC because I still did not know which side had won the fight the day before. I was scared when I saw the Peuhl. Once I arrived they put me in a small group of nine people and told us to go sit down near the gendarmerie, across the road. My brother and my uncle were with me. Once we sat down I heard someone at the school yell, “You are all anti-balaka!” Then they started to shoot at us. I jumped up and managed to escape, but everyone else was killed. My brother was 17-years-old. I ran into the bush and just heard shooting as I ran. I think everyone at the school was killed, but I did not see it.
After the killing, local men were forced to help throw the bodies into a nearby well. One of these men, 46-year-old “Daniel,” said a UPC fighter told him, “We had no choice; we had to kill all the anti-balaka.”
When Human Rights Watch visited Bakala on January 22, the UPC had again lost control. Discarded clothing lay in front of the school where the men were shot and one classroom had what looked like blood stains.
Human Rights Watch has documented previous UPC attacks around Bakala, in 2014. Between April and June of that year, UPC soldiers killed at least 20 people, including children, in Bakala and Mourouba.
Attacks Around Bakala
In January 2017, UPC fighters killed a man and two of his children in Mourouba, 18 kilometers from Bakala. Two other children survived. One, a 15-year-old boy, said they were attacked as they tried to go home:
When Mourouba was attacked, we ran a few kilometers into the woods to hide. But after a few days my dad took me and my three brothers back to the village to look for manioc. In the village, the UPC saw us. One asked, “Were you sent here by our enemies to know our position?” My dad said, “No, we are just looking for food.”
But the Peuhl took us and tied all our hands behind our backs. They took us into the bush and then tied a rope around our necks and attached it to our hands. Then they started to kick us and stab us with bayonets. My father and my brother Viviane [approximately 10 years old] died because they could not breathe. They stabbed my older brother, Charlie [approximately 16 years old] to death.
After they stabbed us all they assumed we were all dead and they took our shoes and left us. I saw that my dad was dead and that one of my little brothers was not moving. Charlie was still breathing, but he died shortly after. My youngest brother was alive so I took him and we ran away before the Peuhl came back.
Human Rights Watch saw scars on the boy that appeared to be from stab wounds.
Four residents of Yambélé, a small mining center 110 kilometers southeast of Bambari, said that UPC fighters attacked the town in late December, killing at least 10 civilians. One survivor, a 39-year-old woman, said:
It was in the evening. The Peuhl [UPC] came from the direction of Alindao. When we heard the attack, we tried to run into the bush, but some fighters saw us women and told us to go home, they said they would not hurt us. I watched them gather some men at a house and I then heard shots. Then I ran into the bush. As I was running I saw Peuhl burning houses. I also saw the bodies of people I knew. I stopped by the body of Felix Gandaya, my neighbor [25 years old], but he was already dead. He had been shot and stabbed in the neck.
On December 8, UPC fighters attacked the village Piangou, 40 kilometers east of Bakala, on the road to Ippy. A resident said that FPRC fighters had been based in Piangou for several days before the attack and from there opened attacks on Ndassima, 45 kilometers away. On December 8, the FPRC fighters retreated to Bakala, and UPC fighters entered the village a short time later. “The UPC arrived at around 10 a.m.,” explained one resident, a 45-year-old man. “They did a patrol in the village and killed four people. When I heard the shots, I ran.”
Displacement and Humanitarian Needs
Fighting in the Ouaka province has forced about 10,000 residents of Bakala and Mourouba to flee. Some are living in homes in Mbrés, while others have sought shelter in displacement camps in Bambari. Approximately 2,500 people found shelter in a new displacement camp in Grimali. At least several thousand others are camping out in the savannah woods around Bakala. Due to ongoing security concerns, nongovernmental groups have not been able to deliver adequate levels of aid.
The displacement has divided families. On January 24, Human Rights Watch met a man in Grimali who was searching for his six children. They had lost each other in the December 11 Bakala attack. Human Rights Watch also found four children, ages 5 to 11, who were separated from their parents after the attack on Piangou on December 8.
Accountability and International Law
The crimes in Ouaka province 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, when operational, will have a mandate to investigate and prosecute grave human rights violations in the country since 2003.
The government’s cooperation with the ICC is critical, but the ICC’s investigation, which is ongoing, will most likely only target only a handful of suspects. The SCC offers a meaningful opportunity to hold accountable commanders from all parties to the conflict who are responsible for war crimes, such as those committed by the UPC, and needs sustained international support, Human Rights Watch said. On February 15, 2017, president Faustin-Archange Touadéra signed a decree naming Col. Toussaint Muntazini Mukimapa, attorney general of the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as the prosecutor for the SCC.
Extrajudicial killings and targeted killings of civilians violate international humanitarian law and may be prosecuted as war crimes. International humanitarian law also strictly prohibits parties to non-international armed conflicts from any countermeasures against civilians or fighters who have ceased to take a direct part in hostilities.