(Johannesburg) – Anti-balaka fighters killed at least 72 Muslim men and boys, some as young as 9, in two recent attacks in southwestern Central African Republic. The assaults, on February 1 and 5, 2014, were in the village of Guen, in a region where abuses have been rampant, but not widely reported. Human Rights Watch interviewed survivors who had fled to a nearby village.
In a separate attack in the southwest, armed Seleka fighters, supported by Peuhl cattle herders, killed 19 people on February 22 in the village of Yakongo, 30 kilometers from Guen. Both villages are near a main road between the larger towns of Boda and Carnot. Although French and African Union (AU) peacekeeping forces are deployed in those larger towns, they do not regularly patrol the road between them. Minimal help is being sent to villages in the region to prevent attacks on civilians.
“These horrendous killings show that the French and AU peacekeeping deployment is not protecting villages from these deadly attacks,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher. “The Security Council shouldn’t waste another minute in authorizing a United Nations peacekeeping mission with the troops and capacity to protect the country’s vulnerable people.”
A Human Rights Watch researcher spent several days in Djomo, east of Carnot, where he spoke at a Catholic mission with survivors of the Guen attacks. Lacking any humanitarian support, these victims – all Muslims, and mostly the elderly, women, and children – had sought refuge at the mission, where, even there, the anti-balaka continued to assault them.
The anti-balaka militias rose up across the country to fight the Seleka, a predominantly Muslim coalition that took control of the capital, Bangui, on March 24, 2013. The anti-balaka quickly began to target Muslim civilians, particularly in the west, equating them with Seleka or the coalition’s sympathizers. While some anti-balaka possess heavy arms, the majority of the fighters in the southwest are poorly armed with either homemade hunting shotguns or machetes. The anti-balaka often kill their victims with machetes.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that anti-balaka forces from the north entered Guen in the early morning of February 1. They set upon the Muslim neighborhood of the town and immediately started to shoot people as they fled.
A widow in Guen told Human Rights Watch: “My husband ran away with our four-and-a-half year old son … but he [the husband] was shot in the stomach. I ran and took our child, and the anti-balaka fell upon him [my husband] with their machetes. I wanted to stay with my husband, but my brother pulled me away into the bush.” The child survived.
The anti-balaka did not spare children in the February 1 attack. The father of 10-year-old Oumarou Bouba told Human Rights Watch:
“I took my son when the anti-balaka attacked. As we were running away, he was shot by the anti-balaka. He was shot in the right leg and he fell down, but they finished him off with a machete. I had no choice but to run on. I had been shot too. I later went to see his body and he had been struck in his head and in the neck.”
On February 5, after looting Guen’s Muslim neighborhoods, the anti-balaka attacked a property where hundreds of Muslims had sought refuge. In this attack, the anti-balaka divided approximately 45 men into two groups, led them out of the compound, forced them to lie on the ground, and executed them. The anti-balaka spared women, small children, and the wounded.
One man who had managed to hide among the wounded told Human Rights Watch: “They divided the men into two groups and shot them. Then they cut them with machetes. There was nothing the victims could do; they were killed like wild dogs. They lay there and they were shot.”
The attack on Guen occurred in a context of widespread insecurity in the southwest, particularly on the road between Boda and Carnot, where the Seleka and allied Peuhl fighters attacked the village of Yakongo on February 22.
The transitional government of President Catherine Samba-Panza should investigate these killings and hold to account the attackers and those orchestrating the violence. The international community should also improve the protection for civilians and fast-track the authorization and deployment of a UN peacekeeping force. On April 1, the European Union confirmed it would send 1,000 peacekeepers to the Central African Republic to provide support to the AU and an eventual UN mission. These peacekeepers should be deployed as soon as possible.
“The massacres in the southwest demonstrate the utter lawlessness of both the anti-balaka and the Seleka,” Mudge said. “Both the government and the peacekeepers need to act quickly and effectively to protect civilians, promote security, and enforce the rule of law.”