Central African Republic: Muslims Forced to Flee

The minority Muslim population in the Central African Republic is being targeted in a relentless wave of coordinated violence that is forcing entire communities to leave the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The Central African Republic government as well as French and African peacekeepers should take urgent steps to protect the remaining Muslim population from revenge attacks by predominantly Christian militias and allied residents.

The anti-balaka (“anti-machete”) militias are increasingly organized and using language that suggests their intent is to eliminate Muslim residents from the Central African Republic. The anti-balaka blame the Muslim population for the rise of the predominantly Muslim Seleka rebel group, which took power in March 2013 and committed horrific abuses against the country’s majority Christian population over the last 11 months. The Seleka, which have not publicly used religious language in justifying their actions, continue to engage in atrocities.

“At this rate, if the targeted violence continues, there will be no Muslims left in much of the Central African Republic,” said Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “People whose families have peacefully lived in the country for centuries are being forced to leave, or are fleeing the very real threat of violence against them.”

Throughout January 2014 and the first week of February, thousands of Muslim families from towns with sizable Muslim populations – Bossangoa, Bozoum, Bouca, Yaloké, Mbaiki, Bossembélé, and others in the northwest and southwest – fled horrific anti-balaka attacks. Yaloké, a major gold trading center, had an estimated Muslim population of 30,000 and eight mosques prior to the conflict. When Human Rights Watch visited on February 6, fewer than 500 Muslims and one mosque remained. Muslim residents gathered at the mosque, protected by French peacekeepers, while Christian militias and residents looted and destroyed their homes and mosques.

In Bangui, anti-balaka fighters, armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and grenades attacked numerous Muslim areas, forcing the population to flee. PK 12, PK13, Miskine, and Kilo 5 – all former Muslim strongholds in Bangui – are now ghost towns, devoid of Muslim residents. Some anti-balaka militants have told Human Rights Watch that they would kill any Muslims remaining in these neighborhoods.

At the abandoned Muslim neighborhood of PK13, Human Rights Watch researchers observed Christians claiming the looted and abandoned homes and marking them as the property of anti-balaka leaders. At the entrance to the neighborhood, a sign read “Attention: Antibalaka zone.”

Much of the Muslim population has fled to Chad, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. An estimated 50,000 Muslims—many of them Central African Republic nationals—have been flown out of Bangui’s military airport on evacuation flights organized by Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Senegal. Tens of thousands more have fled on road convoys, frequently attacked by anti-balaka forces on the way.

Elite Chadian military forces, sometimes assisted by the Chadian component of the African Union peacekeeping mission (MISCA), have also evacuated many thousands of Muslims from towns that have fallen under the control of the anti-balaka. The anti-balaka militias have not yet targeted Muslim populations in the northeastern part of the country, where Muslims are a majority.

The anti-balaka have conducted coordinated attacks on Muslim neighborhoods since September 2013. The attacks include horrific and brutal assaults, including on women and children, against Muslims trapped by fighting or trying to flee. Anti-balaka forces have cut the throats of Muslim civilians, publicly lynching, mutilating, and setting their bodies on fire. Human Rights Watch researchers have witnessed some of these atrocities.

Armed men within Muslim neighborhoods, including some remaining Seleka fighters, have attempted to fight back, but have been unsuccessful in warding off the assaults, which have also overwhelmed French and African peacekeepers.

“Whether the anti-balaka leaders are pursuing a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing or exacting abusive collective punishment against the Muslim population, the end result is clear: the disappearance of longstanding Muslim communities,” Bouckaert said.

“Ethnic cleansing,” although not a formal legal term, is defined as a purposeful policy by an ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.

The anti-balaka militias arose from village self-defense groups organized to fight banditry, but reemerged to fight against Seleka abuses. Anti-balaka members are drawn almost exclusively from the Christian and animist population. They swear an oath of secrecy and carry “gris-gris” amulets they believe make them immune from bullets and protect them from harm.

After the Seleka ousted President François Bozizé, members of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) and the elite Presidential Guard who remained loyal to Bozizé joined the anti-balaka militias in their fight against the Seleka, providing the militias with military expertise and weapons. While most anti-balaka fighters carry homemade shotguns, machetes, and knives, some appear in military uniform with AK-47 assault rifles and other automatic weapons. Human Rights Watch has observed the increasing presence in Muslim neighborhoods of anti-balaka forces attacking with automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and grenades.

On February 7, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that her office had received sufficiently serious allegations of crimes within the ICC’s jurisdiction to trigger the opening of a preliminary examination. Her office will conduct a fuller inquiry to determine whether to initiate a formal investigation, the next step toward bringing a new case.  Her office already has one case pending in connection with crimes committed in 2002-03 in the country by Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, a Congolese national and former vice-president of the DRC who was invited to CAR in 2002 to help resist a coup attempt by Bozizé.

To provide effective civilian protection, particularly for the vulnerable Muslim population and its property, the African Union, European Union, and United Nations should immediately deploy additional peacekeeping troops throughout the country. Whenever possible, they should bolster their presence to protect at-risk Muslim communities from anti-balaka terror. Their troops should actively confront anti-balaka forces and leaders responsible for attacks against Muslim civilians, and make clear that abuses against civilians will not be tolerated.

The new president of the Central African Republic, Catherine Samba-Panza should publicly and forcefully remind her constituents that the Muslim minority is part of the fabric of the country and that anyone exacting revenge on Muslim civilians for Seleka crimes will be held accountable. Public lynchings such as the one following the reinstatement of the national army should be promptly and visibly investigated.

“The international community should respond promptly and robustly to stop these coordinated and targeted atrocities,” Bouckaert said. “There is an urgent need for the provision of humanitarian aid and for helping the government to set up programs for reconciliation, tolerance, and justice so that Central Africans can rebuild their tattered lives.”


Revenge of Seleka Abuses by the Anti-balaka

The widespread atrocities committed over the past 10 months by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebel group are at the root of the current violence in the Central African Republic, the group seized power in March 2013, and carried out a campaign of executions, indiscriminate killings, village burnings, and rape that plunged the country into chaos and displaced nearly a quarter of the country’s majority Christian population.

Beginning in September, the anti-balaka began to retaliate and caused much of the rural Muslim population of northwestern and southwestern Central African Republic to flock to the perceived safety of larger population centers. With the arrival of French and African forces in December and the forced resignation of Interim President Michel Djotodia in January, Seleka forces were ordered to remain in their bases, and then began retreating from Bangui and many areas of the northwest. With some assistance from Chadian peacekeepers, they began to leave those centers in January for northeastern Central African Republic. Without the Seleka in their midst, the remaining vulnerable Muslim communities faced the wrath of anti-balaka fighters, as well as of members of the broader Christian population who had suffered greatly under Seleka rule.

The Seleka continue to commit abuses in the Central African Republic. On January 8 in Boyali, following an anti-balaka attack, Seleka fighters returned to retaliate and wreak havoc on the Christian population. The anti-balaka executed some victims on the spot and shot others while fleeing. The Seleka captured the Protestant pastor of the village, Pasteur Gabriel Yambassa, and cut his throat. They burned 961 homes in Boyali that day.

At one burned house, surviving residents said that Seleka fighters had found Claudine Serefei, 28, a pregnant, physically disabled woman unable to flee. Her relatives said that the Seleka tied her hands and feet and threw her into a fire. She was found with severe burn wounds and carried out to the bush, where the villagers had stayed to escape the Seleka killings. Human Rights Watch found her nine days later, her hands burned to stumps, shivering from pain. She was evacuated to a hospital, but died from her wounds.

Anti-balaka Structure

Human Rights Watch has documented a clear structure within the anti-balaka militias. In every region visited by Human Rights Watch during four research missions since November,  local anti-balaka fighters immediately took Human Rights Watch to their leaders when asked to do so, and each anti-balaka group had its own base, military leader, secretary-general, and spokesperson. The anti-balaka movement also has a national spokesperson and military coordinator in Bangui, who have been in discussions with the interim government of President Catherine Samba-Panza about their potential role in government and integration into the army.

Anti-balaka leaders are able to coordinate the movement of their forces from one region to another, and have moved significant numbers of anti-balaka fighters to Bangui to participate in attacks against Muslim communities. Colonel Dieudonné Oranti, a founder of the anti-balaka movement, confirmed to Human Rights Watch in a January meeting that he and another anti-balaka leader had brought two groups of 300 anti-balaka fighters each to Bangui from their bases near the northern capital of Bossangoa in December to fight against the Seleka.

During the meeting with Colonel Dieudonné in the Boeing neighborhood adjacent to the capital’s airport, Human Rights Watch observed large groups of anti-balaka fighters, some armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47s, heading toward Muslim neighborhoods to carry out attacks. A few days later, Colonel Dieudonné called Human Rights Watch from the area of the Muslim PK12 neighborhood that had been under attack, confirming his participation in the attacks and complaining that French Sangaris forces had disarmed some of his members that morning.

Anti-balaka Statements on Removal of Muslims from the Country

In many meetings with Human Rights Watch, anti-balaka leaders have used hateful and belittling rhetoric about Muslim residents of the country, saying that all Muslims must leave the Central African Republic, and that the Central African Republic “belongs to Central Africans,” whom they define as Christians and traditionalists. Muslims are often described as “Chadians” rather than citizens by anti-balaka leaders, even though the vast majority of Muslims have citizenship.

Colonel Dieudonné denied targeting Muslim civilians directly, but admitted that his fighters had participated in the attacks on the PK 12 and PK13 Muslim community in Bangui. He told Human Rights Watch that Muslims had forfeited their right to remain in the Central African Republic by supporting the Seleka rebel movement “and selling our country to terrorists.”

He added: “I know they were born here, but they are not Central Africans because they tried to kill the Central African Republic. Would someone who loves their country try and kill their country? We the nationalists have fought for our country, we deserve to stay here.”

An anti-balaka leader in Bossembélé told Human Rights Watch that he had ordered his men to stop killing Muslims, but insisted that all Muslims must leave the country, saying, “We don’t want any more Muslims in our country.” His deputies were visibly unhappy with even that message, and two insisted that they would continue to kill Muslims. One of the deputies told Human Rights Watch: “Our hunt is not yet finished, we are not finished. We will not stop until every Muslim leaves this country. I don’t care about the consequences, and to show you I will cut the throat of a Muslim in front of you.” He then took out a big knife and told a child soldier to go kill an ethnic Peuhl man [a Muslim] whom they had found hiding in the bush and brought to the camp. A police officer who had accompanied the Human Rights Watch team stopped the boy.

Anti-balaka leaders have also directly ordered Muslim communities to leave. On February 2, during a meeting between local civilian officials, anti-balaka leaders, and Muslim leaders in the town of Yaloké, the anti-balaka leader told the Muslim leaders that he was giving the Peuhl and any Muslim of Chadian descent 24 hours to leave the city or face attack. On February 4, Chadian Special Forces evacuated more than 2,000 remaining Muslim citizens from Yaloké for Bangui’s military airport, where they were to be flown to safety in Chad.

Tactics of Intimidation and Terror

The attacks on Muslim communities have often involved shocking violence. Since late January, Human Rights Watch researchers have witnessed four public lynchings by the anti-balaka. In each case, the victim’s hands were cut off, and in some cases, mutilation also included cutting off the penis and legs. When anti-balaka fighters were asked about the mutilations, they told Human Rights Watch, “We cut off the hand that killed our parents.” Human Rights Watch witnessed an additional three attempted lynchings; the brutality appears in part motivated to inspire terror in the remaining Muslim population.

The anti-balaka control some roads and maintain checkpoints where they inflict abuses. On January 14, at least eight Muslims – three women and five children, including one seven-month-old, fled in a truck from Boyali, a town 120 kilometers north of Bangui, and were stopped by Christian militia members stopped at a checkpoint. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the militia members hacked to death three Muslim women and three of the children with machetes on the steps of a mosque. Human Rights Watch researchers saw dried pools of blood marking where they had died. One young boy escaped and the baby survived because her mother, Fatimatu Yamsa, knowing she was about to die, handed the baby to a Christian woman for safety.

Widespread Nature of the Attacks

Bossangoa, September-December 2013

On September 5, anti-balaka fighters began a carefully coordinated offensive against five secondary trading centers around Bossangoa, attacking small Seleka bases and the Muslim communities in Zéré, Ben Zambé, Ouham-Bac, Korom Mpoko, and Bowaye. The anti-balaka killed hundreds of Muslims and carried out deadly attacks on cattle camps run by a largely nomadic and Muslim population known as the Peuhl. The assaults led to massive displacement of Muslim residents from this regional capital. The anti-balaka attacked Bossangoa itself on December 5, leading to the further displacement of the estimated 10,000 Muslims gathered in the Boro Muslim district of Bossangoa.

During the December 5 attack, anti-balaka fighters killed at least 11 unarmed Muslim residents of the Boro district. Among the dead was a young Peuhl man, Oumar Abacar, whom Human Rights Watch had just that morning taken to the hospital to treat a gunshot wound he had received when anti-balaka fighters attacked his cattle camp three weeks earlier. He was hacked to death together with his mother, who had stayed with him to look after him while he recovered from the wound.

Muslim residents of the Boro neighborhood in Bossangoa fled to a displacement camp at the nearby École Liberté [liberty school], which was heavily guarded by African Union forces. On January 30, the majority of Bossangoa’s Muslims were evacuated to Chad by Chadian troops in the African Union peacekeeping mission. The remaining Muslims are awaiting evacuation to Chad.

This pattern of attacks recurred in many other areas in the country’s northwest and southwest.  Muslims fleeing the attacks would gather in major population centers, but then would be attacked in the larger population centers.

Bangui, January-February 2104

On January 22, following the departure of armed Seleka fighters, all the Muslim residents of the PK13 neighborhood on the outskirts of Bangui fled when the anti-balaka fighters arrived. On that day, Human Rights Watch found the remaining 36 Muslim residents of PK13, including women and children, huddled in a single compound at the entrance to the neighborhood, protected by Rwandan peacekeepers from the African Union force, known as MISCA.

A group of anti-balaka fighters in PK 13, while burning the neighborhood’s main mosque, told Human Rights Watch that they would continue attacking the Muslim neighborhoods of Bangui, and that they would kill any Muslim they could. One said:

We don’t have a need for Arabs in this country – they have to leave and go back to their countries because they killed so many from our families. They are foreigners anyway. They have to leave. They continue to kill in the provinces. They have to go. There are still nine Muslims here [under the protection of MISCA]. We will capture them. We will finish them off today. We will kill them. When we finish here, we will go to [the next Muslim neighborhood, PK12]. We don’t want Muslims in the Central African Republic - not Chadians, and not Muslims. We will massacre them, we will kill them.

Following the flight of the Muslim population, thousands of looters, some associated with the anti-balaka but also civilians, descended on the neighborhood and began stealing from homes and stripping them of their roofs, windows, and door frames. French and African Union peacekeepers on the ground were unable to thwart the violence. As evening fell, anti-balaka fighters warned Human Rights Watch that if the 36 Muslims were not evacuated, they would be killed: “You better get them out of here, because if they remain here we will kill them in the night,” an anti-balaka fighter told Human Rights Watch. Members of the French forces ultimately transferred the remaining Muslims one kilometer down the road, to the PK12 Muslim neighborhood, where thousands of other Muslim residents were waiting to be evacuated to Chad.

The same phenomenon is occurring in the remaining two Muslim neighborhoods of Bangui, Miskine, and Kilo 5, the major trading center of the capital. Day after day, heavily armed anti-balaka gunmen with AK-47s, grenades, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers arrive from their strongholds in the Boeing and Boy-Rabe neighborhoods to attack the remaining Muslim neighborhoods from their outskirts, forcing Muslim families to flee their homes and seek safety deeper into the remaining Muslim areas. As soon as families flee, looters arrive to pillage their homes and take away the doors, windows, and roofs, leaving the areas uninhabitable.

In many of the cases Human Rights Watch observed, the looters are not from the neighborhood, and in mixed Muslim-Christian areas, local Christian residents have tried in vain to protect their Muslim neighbors from the anti-balaka attacks and the looting. “We don’t loot our neighbors, we want them to stay and be safe,” said a Christian resident, who was helping a Muslim neighbor evacuate his home following the lynching of two Muslims in the mixed Gbenguewe neighborhood. “The looters are not from this area, they came with the anti-balaka to attack our Muslim neighbors and loot and destroy. We hate them for what they are doing.”

After weeks of attacks by heavily armed anti-balaka, the Muslim population has virtually abandoned Miskine, and crowds are looting and stripping down the empty homes. Much of the Muslim population of Kilo 5 is also now fleeing Bangui.  On February 7, hundreds of vehicles carrying Muslim residents left in the morning, in a convoy protected by Chadian Special Forces. On February 8, thousands of Muslim residents fled Bangui in a truck convoy for Cameroon.

On a visit to Kilo 5 neighborhood on February 9, Human Rights Watch found virtually every family packing up their belongings and preparing to flee in the next convoys heading to Cameroon and Chad. The remaining residents were clearly terrorized by the violence. One resident, Ali Ousman, a 39-year-old diamond dealer, told Human Rights Watch that the attackers had lynched his mentally disabled brother, Senussi Djalé, and burned his body that morning: “My family has lived here for generations, and I have never even been to Chad, but now we have to flee for our lives,” Ousman said.

Boyali, January

On January 8, hundreds of anti-balaka captured Boyali from the Seleka and began to slaughter its Muslim residents. When Human Rights Watch visited the town not long after, Red Cross volunteers were burying bodies and filling wells where corpses had been dumped during the slaughter.

One man, 25, a survivor of the Boyali massacre, told Human Rights Watch that at least 200 anti-balaka fighters had attacked Boyali on the morning of January 8, and had shot him. His older brother saved him by dragging him into a house. As the wounded man watched, the older brother, along with the survivor’s father and uncle, were hacked to death outside. Thirty-four Muslims were killed that day, including the Muslim village chief.

Boda, January-February

In the diamond trading town of Boda, 160 kilometers southwest of Bangui, on February 4, Human Rights Watch found the graves of at least 30 Muslims killed in communal violence that might have claimed as many as 75 lives. Muslim residents of the town said that the anti-balaka attack on the Muslim areas of Boda began almost immediately after Seleka forces left Boda on January 28.

The same day, local officials attempted to broker a deal between the anti-balaka fighters and the wealthy diamond-dealing Muslim traders, offering to pay the anti-balaka if they did not attack the Muslim community. The local Catholic priest also attempted to prevent an attack on the Muslim community, but at 7 a.m. on January 30, anti-balaka forces attacked the Muslim quarter, killing eight Muslims and burning down the town’s main Muslim market.

The anti-balaka attack intensified on January 31, said a Muslim resident who kept a log: “The attacks from the anti-balaka intensified that day, we had 9 dead and at least 40 people went missing, their fate is unknown.” The attacks continued on February 1 and 2, with dozens more dead. Two more Muslims died on February 3, and many more were wounded.

Human Rights Watch researchers arrived in Boda on February 4, and found thousands of nomadic Peuhl and Muslim traders huddled in fear in the remaining compounds. The town’s market had been burned, and Human Rights Watch found people who had suffered horrific machete and burn wounds during the anti-balaka attack. Anti-balaka fighters who carried out the attacks told Human Rights Watch that in their view all Muslims had to leave Boda.  French peacekeepers intervened the next morning to stop the violence.

Mbaiki, February

Even in areas where French and African peacekeepers have deployed, they appear unable to quell anti-balaka attacks. In Mbaiki on February 4, despite the deployment of French forces, Human Rights Watch found anti-balaka fighters threatening elderly Muslim men in the main market, running their fingers across their throats in front of the old men. On February 6, Chadian forces transferred to Bangui the entire Muslim community of Mbaiki in 20 large military trucks, carrying at least 4,000 Muslim residents of the town.

Upon arrival in Bangui, one of the main imams of Mbaiki told Human Rights Watch: “We have all left Mbaiki now. Only three or four old men stayed behind because they preferred to die in the place they have lived all their lives. We don’t know what will happen now. We are going to a country [where] we have never lived.”

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