Seleka rebels killed at least 37 civilians, wounded 57, and forced thousands to flee when they razed a camp for displaced people in the Central African Republic on October 12, 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. United Nations peacekeepers deployed outside the camp in the town of Kaga-Bandoro failed to halt the attack.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 victims and witnesses in Kaga-Bandoro and in the country’s capital, Bangui, between October 14 and 21. They said that the mostly Muslim Seleka forces, possibly with assistance from Muslim civilians, shot, stabbed, or burned to death the civilians, including at least four women, five children, three older people, and four people with disabilities. The casualty numbers are most likely higher because some victims were buried quickly. In addition to field research, Human Rights Watch, using satellite imagery analysis, identified at least 175 destroyed homes in the neighborhoods around the camp and 435 destroyed huts in the camp itself.
“This vicious attack targeted residents who were already forced from their homes by fighting and had already been through so much,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Deadly attacks like these show why UN peacekeepers were given a mandate to protect civilians with all necessary means – and why they need to enforce it.”
The UN has 12,870 forces in its Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), including 70 police officers and 200 soldiers who were in Kaga-Bandoro at the time of the attack. Witnesses said the peacekeepers failed to stop at least 60 armed Seleka forces from crossing a UN-guarded bridge and attacking the civilians, although some peacekeepers later opened fire and killed 12 Seleka on the outskirts of the camp. No national security forces, such as police or gendarmes, have been in the town since the Seleka took it over in December 2012.
On October 31, MINUSCA issued a report on Kaga-Bandoro that documented 37 civilian deaths and assigned primary responsibility for “grave human rights and humanitarian law violations” to Seleka forces, though it attributed two of the deaths to anti-balaka militia. The report praised MINUSCA forces for having taken “strong measures to protect civilians during the crisis.”
The UN should urgently deploy more of the mission’s forces to the volatile central region, expand their patrols and, consistent with the mission’s mandate, use appropriate force to protect civilians under imminent threat, Human Rights Watch said.
In addition, the national government, the UN, and donors to the Central African Republic should increase their support for 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 committed in the country since 2003. In August, justice minister Flavien Mbata announced that the international prosecutor for the SCC would be named before the end of 2016.
The new court offers a meaningful opportunity to hold accountable commanders on all sides of the conflict who are responsible for war crimes, such as those committed at Kaga-Bandoro, Human Rights Watch said.
Such attacks are also subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In September 2014, the ICC prosecutor announced the opening of an investigation in the Central African Republic into crimes dating from August 2012.
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 from the northeast, moved southwest into more populated non-Muslim areas, killing thousands of civilians. In mid-2013, Christian and animist militias, called the anti-balaka, formed to fight back, themselves committing serious human rights abuses.
In response to atrocities by both sides, the African Union (AU) increased the numbers of peacekeepers in the country in 2013. The AU was transferred to a UN mission in September 2014.
On October 12, the town of Kaga-Bandoro, capital of the Nana Grébizi province, had approximately 30,000 inhabitants, plus about 3,000 displaced people from other parts of the region who had sought shelter there. Another roughly 7,000 people were sheltering in a displacement camp in a town called l’Évêché, behind the town’s Catholic parish.
The Seleka attack began between 8 and 9 a.m., apparently as a reaction to the killing of a Seleka fighter the previous night. Armed fighters, some in civilian clothes, crossed the bridge, which separates the Muslim neighborhood from the rest of the town, and almost immediately started shooting at civilians and attacking them with machetes and knives.
“People were yelling and telling me to flee,” said a 70-year-old man from the Catholic Mission neighborhood. “As I ran I saw bodies on the ground. The Seleka were shooting at everybody. I ran to the church, but it was attacked, so I ran to the displacement camp. Just a few minutes later the camp was attacked too.”
Within minutes, Seleka fighters moved past UN peacekeepers who were protecting the l’Évêché camp. Some peacekeepers opened fire, killing 12 Seleka, but could not stop other Seleka from entering the camp, attacking its residents, and burning grass huts to the ground.
Immediately following the assault, Seleka forces also attacked at least three villages along the road between Kaga-Bandoro and Botto, killing at least four people and burning 75 homes.
The attacks displaced people from Kaga-Bandoro and the surrounding villages. At least 20,000 of them are now in a makeshift camp around a UN peacekeeping base near the Kaga-Bandoro airstrip. Between October 18 and 21, Human Rights Watch observed squalid conditions at the camp, including insufficient numbers of toilets and food shortages that require an urgent humanitarian response. The conditions place a particular burden on people with disabilities.
UN officials told Human Rights Watch on October 20 that they would deploy more police in Kaga-Bandoro in January 2017, doubling the number to 140. The increase will be helpful but should be expedited, Human Rights Watch said.
Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, MINUSCA is authorized to take all necessary means to “protect… the civilian population from threat of physical violence” and to “implement a mission-wide protection strategy.” The protection is also urgently needed to secure aid deliveries, Human Rights Watch said.
Seleka leaders in Kaga-Bandoro told Human Rights Watch that their fighters did not participate in the October 12 attack. However, several witnesses and victims identified Seleka fighters by name. Two residents, interviewed separately, for example, said they saw Seleka General Saleh Zabadi on a motorcycle near the provincial hospital, one of the sites where victims and witnesses said there had been attacks and killings. On October 20 and 21, Human Rights Watch saw Seleka fighters, many in civilian clothes but carrying arms, moving freely around the town’s Muslim neighborhood.
“Seleka are openly circulating around town with their arms, sending a message that they feel untouchable by the law, a message not lost on civilians,” Mudge said. “Arrests and prosecutions are urgently needed to break the country’s deadly cycle of violence.”