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As CAR Spirals into Chaos, Tales of Terror Multiply

  • Hannah McNeish

In October, Dofio Rodriguez fled the town of Bossangoa, roughly 300 kilometers northwest of the capital, Bangui, after seeing his country's new security forces — a loose band of ex-rebels who go by the name "Seleka”, or alliance — slit his brother's throat at the local police station, then throw his body into a river.

He says they shot dead another three family members on the road south near Benzambe, prompting him to seek safety in the village of Bopilette, some 25 kilometers outside of town.

Then in early November, Rodriguez says a group of armed men arrived late one night, crept into the bushes and re-emerged the following morning to fire indiscriminately at villagers. He says he tried to stay behind to bury what he claims were 30 dead — including five children under the age of five — but instead fled to a Catholic Mission in Bossangoa where more 36,000 people squat in cramped, unsanitary conditions, too afraid to move on for fear of death.

Although Central African Republic is no stranger to violent power grabs, the March 2013 coup led by an alliance of rebels, foreign mercenaries and criminals has led to widespread human rights abuses that have in turn rekindled the efforts of local self-defense groups.

With a total absence of state institutions beyond the so-called security forces that enjoy utter impunity, hundreds of thousands have fled their homes, and the local defense groups that used to patrol highways are also out for blood.

“Since they took the town of Bossangoa, the Seleka have terrorized us,” says Rodriguez, explaining that they have not only killed many people, pursue, intimidate and rob those who attempt to flee.

Around Bossangoa, people say the police station has been transformed into a dark detention center, where people are tortured for ransom or dragged off and never seen again.

Teacher Laurent Namneonde says the police station is where his two sons were tortured after being accused at a Muslim market of being anti-balaka or “anti-machete,” a term for vigilantes which have risen to fight Seleka.

When he tried to intervene, he says, he was locked in a cell and forced to listen to their screams. Namneonde had to be taken to a hospital for distress, and one son bled so profusely from his nose and ears that he was taken to the capital for treatment where he is still recovering.

"Their police were dispersed when the Seleka came to replace them, and now they make their own laws and use any torture tactic they want and there is no one to stop them and protect the people."

Bossangoa Colonel Abdullai Mahamet flatly denies these stories of horror taking place, insisting that he is in control of his men and that no one is being detained at the police station.

Anyone who is claiming Seleka abused them, he says, is anti-balaka.

Outsiders

Bossangoa locals say the majority of men committing the abuses aren't from CAR, as they speak only Arabic. Nearly all are Muslim, they say, and were recruited to help the country's first Muslim president Michel Djotodia seize power.

But President Djotodia himself has admitted that he does not have control over much of the country, and recently sent envoys to neighboring countries in search of international assistance.

In the meantime, David Brown, U.S. representatives to the CAR, told VOA that more than 1,000 women have been raped and countless others killed.

Aid agencies estimate more than 400,000 people have been displaced by violence perpetrated either by Seleka or the equally vicious attacks by self-defense groups — some of whom are armed with poisoned arrows, daggers or machetes but blended among those in military uniform with guns to target the wider Muslim population.

Khadija Umani described one such attack she witnessed on a bus heading south to the capital.

"Muslim men were taken off the bus and had their throats cut," she says via translator, adding that she saw a total of seven people killed by vigilantes.

The killers threw her into the bush where she stayed for four days, until the Seleka came and took her back to Bossangoa.

General Babucar Gaye, head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission BINUCA in Bangui, says the political crisis sparked by Seleka's power grab has transformed into a deeper, more troubling humanitarian and human rights catastrophe.

“It's translated into mass human rights violations," he says. "The first human rights violation is the fact that this party [whose] forces are named Seleka — although they have been formally disbanded so we have to call them "ex-Seleka" — are living off the population because they are not properly sustained by the ruling government.”

In a climate of what he calls “total lawlessness,” he doesn't see an end to abuses.

The African Union will lead a 3,500-strong peacekeeping force in December to try to restore order.

The United Nations is currently mulling activation of an international force to replace regional peacekeepers outmanned and outgunned by heavily armed ex-rebels.
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