“They Said
We Are
Their Slaves”

Sexual Violence by Armed Groups in the Central African Republic

Photographs by Smita Sharma for Human Rights Watch

During nearly five years of conflict, armed groups in the Central African Republic have committed widespread sexual violence and used rape and sexual slavery as a tactic of war. Two main parties to the conflict, the Seleka and anti-balaka, have used sexual violence to punish women and girls, particularly along sectarian lines. In many cases, the sexual violence Human Rights Watch documented amounts to torture.

Historic impunity for sexual violence in the country, as well as a largely dysfunctional justice system, give survivors little hope for justice. Most cases Human Rights Watch documented are not only crimes under Central African law but constitute war crimes and may constitute crimes against humanity. Despite this, to date not a single member of an armed group is known to have been punished for rape.

Women and girls often said they suffered incapacitating physical and mental health problems as a result of rape, but most had not received medical or mental health care. Lack of services, cost of services, and fear of stigma are significant barriers to women and girls disclosing rape or seeking help.

Human Rights Watch interviewed nearly 300 survivors of sexual slavery and rape by members of armed groups. These are some of their stories.


Nalia (all survivors’ names have been changed), 38, said that more than 20 anti-balaka came to her house in Bangui in February 2014 while she was having breakfast with her husband and five children. Nalia said she heard the fighters say, “We came because of the Muslims.”


The anti-balaka took her and her 14-year-old son, saying, “Since you are a little Muslim, we are going to bring you with your mother.” When her son resisted, she recalled, the anti-balaka shot him in the back. The fighters took Nalia to a nearby base, where four of them raped her. “They took everything from me. My 14-year-old boy, they killed,” she said. “Everything was pillaged from my home. I didn’t have anything left.”


After the rape, she began falling sick regularly. When she eventually sought medical care in May 2015, she tested positive for HIV. She has since started a community association to bring together women survivors of sexual violence in an effort to ensure they have support, access to medical care, and opportunities to rebuild their lives socially and economically.


38-year-old Valérie was at her house near Yaloke with her husband and four children in February 2015 when six Seleka fighters entered her house and demanded money or weapons. When her husband said they had neither, the fighters threatened to kill him or rape Valérie. “One hit me with his gun,” she said. “Another said, ‘We are speaking to you!’ I told them to rape me and leave my husband.” A Seleka fighter raped her in front of her husband and children. The Seleka tied up the couple’s two teenage sons to take them away. When her husband tried to intervene, the fighters shot and killed him.


Valérie said she wept and fell on her husband’s body as the fighters took her sons. She heard rumors about her sons’ whereabouts and tried in vain to find them. Valérie said she suffers from physical pain, as well as emotional and economic repercussions of the attack. “I am not like before,” she said. “Before, I didn’t have problems. I was a seller. But when the crisis started I lost everything.”


Angèle, 27, holds her child in Bangui. Seleka fighters killed her husband and parents, and later captured her near Bambari in June 2014. They held her as a sexual slave for nine months with five other women and girls. Multiple fighters raped her repeatedly. “During the day they did it [rape] one time. At night it was another [fighter] who would call us. We would think it was to prepare the tea, but it was to rape us,” she recalled. “They said we are their slaves.” She said the women were also forced to cook. “We prepared the food. If we didn’t prepare it very well, they hit us with the butts of their guns [and with] whips they used for horses,” she said. The fighters continued to rape Angèle after she became pregnant in captivity. She eventually escaped just before giving birth, but did not seek medical treatment. Angèle said she has come to love and accept her child, but she struggled at first; her family rejected her, blaming her for having a child “without a father.” Initially, she said, “I thought that the baby should die, or I should die with the baby.”


Arlette, around 60 years old, said she was returning from her fields with two of her sons when fighting erupted near Mbres in early 2014. As they reached their house, two Seleka fighters shot and killed her sons, then ages 23 and 26, before one raped her. “He punched me in the jaw. I had a broken tooth. He threw me on the ground by force. He tore off my clothes and started to rape me,” Arlette said. The fighters set fire to her house, killing her ill husband who was trapped inside. “I saw the house burn with my own eyes,” she remembered. After the fighters left, she fled with her two younger sons. She said she sought medical care at a local clinic, but felt too ashamed to tell them about the rape. “You see my age? I shouldn’t be having sex with men. How am I going to explain my situation?” she said.


“Josephine”, 28, fled her home along with her husband and five young children due to fighting in Bangui in October 2014. When she returned to her neighborhood to collect clothing and dishes for the family, three anti-balaka stopped her and took her to a compound.


She said they raped her with a broken beer bottle. “When they pushed it in, blood flowed out and I lost consciousness,” she said. “After, they went in the neighborhood and said, ‘We stopped a wife of Muslims.’” Her husband called her “a wife of the anti-balaka” after the rape, and eventually they separated. Josephine said that she suffers constant headaches since the attack, and that when she’s alone, she is haunted by memories of what happened to her.


Alice, 21, was traveling in a shared taxi in April 2016 when four anti-balaka fighters armed with rifles, machetes, and knives stopped the car near Mbaiki. The fighters slashed the taxi’s tires, shot the driver in the leg, and took Alice and five other women and girls to a nearby base, where they were held as sexual slaves for three days. Two of the fighters raped Alice repeatedly. “They said if I try to flee they are going to kill me,” she said. “The two raped me one by one in the morning, and one by one in the evening.” Alice said the fighters also beat her with a with a belt, and forced her to wash their clothes and cook for them. She managed to escape, but despite ongoing abdominal pain, she did not access medical care because she said no one told her where to go to get help. “When I urinate, it comes out with pain,” she said. “Because of that, I cry a lot.”


32-year-old Martine was at her family’s home in Bambari when Seleka forces attacked the town in December 2013. She watched as Seleka fighters forced her husband and older brother to dig two graves and then shot them. The Seleka took Martine captive along with more than 20 other women and girls, some as young as 12. During their first week as sexual slaves, Martine said the women were bound at the wrists and ankles. “They untied us to have sex. Then after they finished, they tied us up again,” she said. “At all hours they did that, several times during the day. It wasn’t just one person; it was differently people [raping us]. There were four or five different people [raping us] each day. It was never the same person.” The Seleka also forced the women and girls to collect water, cook, and wash dishes. Martine’s mother and three daughters, who fled during the attack on Bambari, were killed when the armed groups shelled a church sheltering civilians.


During an April 2013 attack on Bangui’s Boy-Rabe neighborhood, six Seleka fighters armed with rifles and machetes came to the house of Marie, 30. Marie said that two of the fighters held her husband down at gunpoint while the others pushed her to the ground. “Each of the four then raped me,” she said. “My husband was in the room, but they would not let him move.” She did not get medical care or an HIV test after the rape due to a lack of money. But she contemplates what should be done to the men who raped her. “I have thought about what these men did and justice for myself,” she said. “I want these men brought to justice and put in prison.”


Nicole, 26 was working as a street seller in Bangui in December 2013 when seven heavily armed Seleka fighters fleeing an anti-balaka attack captured her at gunpoint and tied her up. They took her money and, when anti-balaka gunfire erupted, forced her into a house where they kept her hostage for one day. She said three of the fighters took turns raping her and then debated about whether to keep her so that she could cook for them. They eventually let her go, tying her pagne (sarong) around her hands and over her mouth. After the rape, she said, “I was already dead.” When she told her husband about the rape, their relationship changed. “He didn’t treat me well,” she said. “He didn’t want to give me money for food.” Eventually they divorced.


Early one morning in February 2014, anti-balaka encircled the home of “Natifa,” 35. She fled to hide at a neighbor’s house, and heard the anti-balaka yelling, “Where is she? The Muslim woman, we came because of her.” Her neighbor gave her up when the anti-balaka threatened to kill him, and the fighters took Natifa by force to their base.” [Their commander] ordered his men to bring me into the house. They started to torture me. One had a grenade in his hand. He told me to undress. He put the grenade in my genitals. One said, ‘No, why are you doing that? If that explodes, we will all die.’”


Two of the anti-balaka raped her one after the other, and the men beat her with batons and belts and shut her inside a house. She escaped when the fighter standing guard told her to run away because the fighters were planning to kill her that night. Three months pregnant at the time, Natifa suffered a miscarriage a week after the rapes. After she told her husband about the attack, his family pressured him to take their children and leave her.

 Monique Nali

Monique Nali stands inside her home in the Boy-Rabe neighborhood of Bangui, which Seleka targeted for attacks in 2013 because they perceived it to be allied with the anti-balaka. As violence continued in Bangui into 2014, Madame Nali realized that fighters had committed widespread rape as well as killing and looting in the community. Most of the women had not received any medical care or other support. “The biggest obstacle is shame,” she said. “They are stigmatized. They were raped in public. The whole neighborhood knows which women were raped.” Seeing that survivors not only suffered physical and emotional trauma, but were also left isolated and destitute, she began to bring women together to share their experiences and participate in social and income-generating activities. Her work has become the basis of a small non-governmental organization, through which she continues to work with local women.

 Paul Amédée Moyenzo

Captain Paul Amédée Moyenzo stands in front of the building housing the Mixed Unit for Rapid Intervention and Suppression of Sexual Violence against Women and Children, known by its French acronym, UMIRR. The specialized unit of police and gendarmes trained to register, investigate, and respond to cases of sexual and gender-based violence and child abuse became operational in mid-2017 with Captain Moyenzo as its commander. UMIRR will refer cases to the new Special Criminal Court, a novel hybrid court embedded in the national justice system to address human rights violations. Captain Moyenzo emphasized the need for accountability for those who commit rape and other conflict-related crimes. “Those that committee abuses, they have to be arrested,” Captain Moyenzo said. “Because if they are not arrested and held right now, no victims will be able to go before the courts, and it will make justice inaccessible. We have to fight impunity.” At time of writing, UMIRR had received only around 10 cases of sexual violence perpetrated by members of armed groups.


Women walk through a village on the outskirts of Bangui.

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