After the killing of more than a dozen people in February at a mosque in Bambari in the Central African Republic (CAR), government forces came back to root out suspected Séléka rebels.
When a 15-year-old stepped outside his house to see what had happened, a sharpshooter in a helicopter hovering over the community shot him dead. The boy’s father also was killed when he rushed outside to try to help his son.
The mother who lost her son and husband said there was no question about who is to blame.
“It was the Russians who killed my husband,” she told CNN, “leaving me with children and pain.”
Russians and other, possibly Syrian, mercenaries working for the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group have become key players in the fight between CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and rebels affiliated with his political opponent François Bozizé.
Wagner Group fighters, brought to the CAR officially as advisors and military trainers, serve on the president’s security detail. Valery Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence officer, acts as Touadéra’s national security advisor. Soldiers with the Forces armées centrafricaines (FACA) have said Wagner forces forgo training them in favor of sending them to join the fighting directly. Wagner forces have been accused of planting land mines along roads and around schools.
MINUSCA, the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in the CAR, reported on November 2 via Twitter that nearly a dozen unarmed Egyptian peacekeepers were shot by members of Touadéra’s presidential guard as they traveled from M’Poko International Airport to their base. Two were seriously injured. It’s unclear whether Wagner forces were directly involved.
Wagner’s presence in the CAR, rather than helping to relieve tensions, is making things worse, observers say. Heavy-handed tactics, indiscriminate violence, and a lack of linguistic and cultural sensitivities have combined to increase opposition to the government and the mercenaries instead of reducing it.
“We thought they came here to restore peace to our country. Now I wish they’d never come,” a woman named Fatima told the Financial Times. Fatima said her village celebrated when Russian forces drove rebels away. But then they took her brother and raped her repeatedly at a military base.
“What we’re seeing is a pattern of behavior,” Sorcha MacLeod with the United Nations Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries told Vice News. “As soon as you bring private contractors in, it raises all sorts of concerns about accountability.”
Civilians caught up in the fighting can’t identify who is responsible for deaths. The groups often have no apparent chain of command, MacLeod said.
Earlier this year, MacLeod’s group released a catalog of offenses committed by the Wagner Group in the CAR, a list that included disappearances, rape and summary executions. It followed up on October 27 with a demand that Touadéra cut his country’s ties to the Wagner Group.
“We urge the authorities to comply with their obligations under international law to hold accountable all perpetrators of grave violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law committed on their territory,” the group said.
Touadéra shows no signs of complying, however. In recent years, his government has taken ownership of Russian military hardware, including armored vehicles that have been paraded through the streets of the capital, Bangui.
The Wagner Group’s footprint in the CAR has grown from fewer than 200 in 2017 to possibly as many as 3,000 today, spread across 30 bases. Wagner affiliates are involved in mining the CAR’s mineral resources.
Russia has confirmed sending only 1,100 troops to the CAR as part of a 2018 agreement with the government.
In September, Touadéra’s government issued its first report accusing Russian advisors of human rights abuses.
Defense Minister Marie-Noëlle Koyara, who recruited the Wagner Group, said human rights groups should come directly to the government to report violations.
“They make reports without our knowledge,” Koyara told Vice News. “They send them to partners. But if you don’t turn to a government that cares, how can we find solutions? How can we investigate?”
In an interview with Vice News, Bashir, whose identity was protected, explained why victims might not report violations. Bashir’s brother was captured by mercenaries who suspected him of being with Séléka.
“They cut off his middle finger during the torture,” Bashir said. After three days as a prisoner and three weeks recovering at a military hospital, Bashir’s brother was cleared of suspicion and freed. He reported what had happened to the government and human rights investigators.
Days later, he was shot to death on the street. Bashir believes Russians paid others to kill his brother because he had information about their involvement in the Bambari killings.
“So, he had to die,” Bashir said. “And since they (the Russians) couldn’t do it, they paid rebels to do it.”