“They Said We Are Their Slaves”

October 5, 2017

Josephine, 28, said she fled her home in Bangui with her husband and five young children due to fighting in the city in October 2014. When she returned to her neighborhood to collect clothes and dishes for the family, three anti-balaka stopped her and took her to a compound, where they raped her with a broken beer bottle. “When they pushed it in, blood flowed out and I lost consciousness,” she said. “After, they went in the neighborhood and said, ‘We stopped a wife of Muslims.’” Following the rape, her husband called her “a wife of the anti-balaka” and eventually they separated. Josephine said she suffers constant headaches, and is haunted by memories of the violence. © 2017 Smita Sharma for Human Rights Wat

 

When we spent a week there. [The anti-balaka] raped us every day…. We had become their “wives.” It was us who prepared the food…. At any moment, they would want to sleep with you and, if you resisted, they threatened to kill you….

 

I said I am the daughter of a Christian. [Their leader] said, “No, you are the daughter of a Muslim.” I said no. He said, “Those are your brothers who have killed our brothers. It’s you who are going to pay.” … I was 12 years old at the time.

 

[After we escaped,] when I arrived [in Boda] there was no hospital, nothing. Later, when [an aid organization] got here they did a urine test, blood test. At the hospital, I didn’t explain what had happened. I couldn’t explain. I said I was taken by anti-balaka, but not that I was raped.

–Zeinaba, 15, Boda, April 2016

 

I was with my husband in the house. The Seleka came…. They pushed my husband to the ground and two pointed their guns at him. Then four of them rushed at me and pushed me to the ground. Each of the four then raped me. My husband was in the room, but they would not let him move.

I have thought about what these men did and justice for myself. I want these men brought to justice and put in prison.

 

–Marie, 30, Bambari, January 2016

 

Since late 2012, the Central African Republic has been wracked by bloody armed conflict in which civilians have paid the price. Armed groups have brazenly violated the laws of war with impunity, attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure, and leaving trails of death, displacement, and destitution in what was already one of the world’s poorest countries.

 

During nearly five years of conflict, armed groups have also brutalized women and girls. The predominantly Muslim Seleka and the largely Christian and animist militia known as “anti-balaka,” two main parties to the conflict, have both committed sexual slavery and rape across the country. Human Rights Watch documented fighters using sexual violence to punish women and girls, frequently along sectarian lines, as recently as May 2017.

 

Armed groups have not simply committed sexual violence as a byproduct of fighting, but, in many cases, used it as a tactic of war. Commanders have consistently tolerated sexual violence by their forces and, in some cases, they appear to have ordered it or to have committed it themselves.

 

Though it continues to haunt women and girls physically, emotionally, socially, and economically, sexual violence—like other conflict-related crimes—has thus far gone unpunished. To date, no member of an armed group has been arrested or tried for committing sexual slavery or rape.

Following years of disenfranchisement and neglect, rebel groups consisting primarily of Muslim fighters formed in the northeast under the banner of the Seleka in late 2012 and launched attacks that killed scores of civilians, burned and pillaged homes, and displaced thousands. In response, Christian and animist militia known as anti-balaka emerged in mid-2013 and began to organize counterattacks. Associating all Muslims with the Seleka, the anti-balaka carried out large-scale assaults on Muslim civilians in Bangui and western parts of the country. As the Seleka and the anti-balaka engaged in reprisal attacks, at times both sides targeted civilians along sectarian lines. By mid-2014, after having been ousted from Bangui by African Union and French forces, the Seleka split into several factions. These Seleka groups have at times allied and fought each other, sometimes making alliances with anti-balaka groups.

 

Based primarily on interviews with 296 survivors, this report documents pervasive sexual violence against women and girls perpetrated by Seleka and anti-balaka fighters from early 2013 to mid-2017. It presents detailed cases of rape, sexual slavery, physical assault, and kidnapping of women and girls between the ages of 10 and 75, primarily in the capital, Bangui, and in and around the towns of Alindao, Bambari, Boda, Kaga-Bandoro, and Mbrès. 

 

The report presents the most comprehensive documentation to date of widespread sexual violence against women and girls by fighters affiliated with the anti-balaka and the various Seleka factions. It details how these armed groups have subjected women and girls to violent and sometimes repeated rape resulting in long-term consequences, including illness and injury, unwanted pregnancy, stigma and abandonment, and loss of livelihoods or access to education. The report also exposes the immense barriers that impede survivors from accessing even basic medical and psychosocial care following rape.

 

The United Nations peacekeeping mission, authorized to have 12,870 armed forces in the country, has a mandate to protect civilians, including from sexual violence, but it has struggled to prevent armed groups from committing crimes against women and girls and to respond adequately in cases of sexual violence.

 

The government retains primary responsibility for protecting women and girls from sexual violence but, with fighting having decimated the country’s institutions, including courts and detention facilities, authorities lack capacity to prevent, investigate, and prosecute sexual violence or to ensure availability of critical services for survivors. Still, government and other service providers have not always taken all possible measures to provide necessary assistance to survivors who report the crime.

 

In a country where the justice system is largely dysfunctional—with only a handful of operational courts, few lawyers and judges, and minimal capacity to investigate sexual violence or detain perpetrators—survivors have little or no opportunity to seek redress. Though the Central African Penal Code punishes rape and sexual assault as criminal offenses, no member of an armed group has been tried for rape during the conflict. Only 11 of the 296 sexual violence survivors interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they attempted to file a criminal complaint. They reported powerful deterrents to seeking justice, including death threats and physical attacks for daring to come forward, and feeling intimidated and powerless when seeing their known attackers move freely around their villages and towns.

 

An ongoing International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into crimes committed in the country since August 2012 could bring a measure of justice for crimes in the conflict. But the ICC, which only investigates those responsible for the gravest international crimes, can prosecute only a small number of individuals at high levels of power.

 

The recently-established Special Criminal Court—a novel, hybrid domestic and international court embedded within the national justice system—offers hope for greater justice for the war crimes and possible crimes against humanity that have plagued the Central African Republic since 2003. Its success, however, depends on sustained political and financial backing from the government and the country’s international partners, as well as effective procedures to protect witnesses, victims, and court personnel.

 

This report offers recommendations to mitigate risks for women and girls, and to ensure that survivors of sexual violence access essential medical care, psychosocial support, and justice. Curbing Seleka and anti-balaka abuses and holding perpetrators to account requires a long-term, multi-pronged approach, but the government, the United Nations, and international donors can take immediate steps to strengthen protection for civilians at risk of sexual violence and to improve services for sexual violence survivors.

 

Rape as a Tactic of War

 

Commanders from the two main parties to the conflict have tolerated sexual violence by their forces; in some cases, they appear to have ordered and committed it. At times, rape formed an integral part of armed assaults and was used as a weapon of war.

 

Members of armed groups committed rape during attacks on towns and villages, sometimes during door-to-door searches for men and boys. Seleka and anti-balaka fighters also attacked women and girls as they carried out essential tasks such as going to markets, cultivating or harvesting crops, and going to and from school or work. Perpetrators often directed attacks at women and girls due to their presumed religious affiliation, with the predominantly Muslim Seleka fighters targeting women and girls from Christian communities, and the anti-balaka targeting Muslim women and girls.

 

In many cases, survivors said their attackers used sexual violence as a form of retribution for perceived support of those on the other side of the sectarian divide. Seleka fighters taunted women and girls by calling them “anti-balaka wives” and anti-balaka fighters accused their victims of supporting Muslims. In some instances, armed groups used sexual violence as punishment for the alleged alliances of survivors’ male relatives. In one instance, a survivor said fighters raped her husband, forcing her to watch, before killing him and raping her.

 

In most cases, survivors said that multiple perpetrators raped them—sometimes 10 men or more during a single incident. The rapes of these women and girls, which resulted in injuries ranging from broken bones and smashed teeth to internal injuries and head trauma, constitute torture. Torture was exacerbated in some cases by additional violence, including rape with a grenade and a broken bottle. Perpetrators also tortured women and girls by whipping them, tying them up for prolonged periods, burning them, and threatening them with death. Sexual slavery survivors were held captive for up to 18 months, repeatedly raped—some taken as fighters’ “wives”—and forced to cook, clean, and collect food or water.

 

Members of armed groups aggravated the humiliation by raping some women and girls in front of their husbands, children, and other family members. Survivors told Human Rights Watch they witnessed fighters rape their daughters, mothers, or other female family members or kill and mutilate their husbands and other relatives.

 

In interviews with 257 women and 39 girls (ages 17 and under) Human Rights Watch documented 305 cases of sexual violence by members of armed groups. At least 13 of the women survivors were girls at the time of the violence. Some survivors experienced sexual violence multiple times, on separate occasions. In some cases of sexual slavery—wherein fighters committed sexual violence and exerted ownership over victims—women or girls experienced multiple rapes over a period of days, weeks, or months. In 21 additional cases, 17 women and 4 girls said they experienced violence by armed groups—including abduction, beatings, and other physical abuse—but did not discuss sexual violence. Two of these women told Human Rights Watch about other incidents of sexual violence they experienced by members of armed groups. 

 

The number of incidents reflects those documented by Human Rights Watch during research for this report and does not indicate an attempt to provide a comprehensive record of incidents of sexual violence committed by armed groups in the Central African Republic at any period. As a result of stigma, under-reporting by survivors, and time constraints and security-related restrictions on research, the cases documented in this report likely represent a small proportion of all sexual violence incidents perpetrated by armed groups in the country during the period covered. The United Nations, for example, recorded over 2,500 cases of sexual violence in 2014 alone.

 

Some survivors said they could identify the men who abused them or commanded the fighters committing the abuse. This report names six individuals in leadership positions of armed groups whom three or more survivors identified as having committed sexual violence or having had fighters under their command and control who committed such crimes.

 

Human Rights Watch also heard credible reports of armed groups committing sexual violence against men and boys, but research conducted for this report focuses on violence against women and girls.

The report does not address sexual exploitation and abuse, including rape, committed by members of the United Nations peacekeeping force, some cases of which Human Rights Watch has previously documented, or by members of non-UN peacekeeping forces operating in the Central African Republic.

 

Care Denied

 

Sexual violence has been life-altering for most of the women and girls Human Rights Watch interviewed. Only 145 of the 296 sexual violence survivors had accessed any post-rape medical care due to a range of obstacles, such as a lack of medical facilities, cost of travel to such facilities, and fear of stigma and rejection. Of these, only 83 survivors confirmed that they had disclosed the sexual violence to health care providers, thus allowing for comprehensive post-rape health care. In only 66 cases had survivors received any psychosocial support. 

 

Human Rights Watch interviewed women and girls who face incapacitating physical injury and illness. Others became pregnant from rape, sometimes bearing children that present an emotional and financial burden. Mental health consequences are no less dire. Women and girls described symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress and depression, including suicidal thoughts, fear and anxiety, sleeplessness, and an inability to complete daily tasks. Unable to continue work or other activities for sustenance, many said they are struggling to resume their lives and support themselves and their families. Girls sometimes dropped out of school due to fear of repeated violence, risk of stigma, or continued insecurity or displacement.

 

Fear of stigma and rejection often keeps women and girls from disclosing rape, even to close friends and family members, and from seeking help. The risk is all too real: women and girls told Human Rights Watch about husbands or partners abandoning them, family members blaming them, and community members taunting them after rape.

 

Stigma is one of many barriers to accessing critical health and psychosocial services. With a substantial proportion of health facilities destroyed by conflict and insecurity restricting access to others, service availability remains limited, especially outside major towns. Where services are available, they often do not offer comprehensive, confidential post-rape care or appropriate referrals for medical treatment or psychosocial support.

 

The government has committed to providing free health services for sexual violence survivors, but some women and girls said that service providers required payment for tests or treatment. Others said they did not seek health care because they believed it would cost money they did not have, or because they could not pay for transport to services.

 

Crimes Unpunished

 

Most of the cases documented in this report are not only crimes under Central African law, but constitute war crimes. In some cases, the conduct of both the Seleka and anti-balaka may constitute crimes against humanity. Despite this, not a single member of either armed group is known to have been punished for committing sexual violence. Perpetrators continue to hold positions of power in armed groups and exercise control over civilian populations. Several survivors said they saw their tormenters walking free after having committed rape.

 

The Central African government, donor governments, and the United Nations have publicly committed to support the fight against impunity for war crimes, but accountability remains a fragile hope, especially for conflict-related sexual violence. Nearly five years of conflict have left an already-faltering national justice system with few functioning courts or jails and limited capacity among judges, attorneys, and the security sector. In many areas where armed groups maintain control, national police and gendarmes are entirely absent.

 

Survivors expressed little faith in the justice system and often believed that their attackers would never be investigated, arrested, or prosecuted, and historic impunity for sexual violence provides little evidence otherwise. Only 11 survivors interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had attempted to initiate a criminal investigation. Those who informed authorities faced mistreatment, including victim-blaming, failure to investigate, and even demands to present their own perpetrators for arrest. Family pressure, economic strain, and fear of reprisals further deter survivors from seeking justice. In at least three cases, survivors or their family members who directly confronted members of the armed group responsible for sexual violence were killed, beaten, or threatened with death. Witness and victim protection—currently non-existent in the national justice system—will be essential to facilitating accountability. Other obstacles to investigation and prosecution include difficulty identifying perpetrators and inconsistent provision of medical reports attesting to signs of rape.

 

The government has no national strategy to prevent or address sexual violence, though some consultations to develop one had taken place at time of writing. Under national, regional and international law, the Central African Republic has obligations to prevent and respond to sexual violence, and to hold perpetrators accountable. Even with its limited capacity, the government can and should take measures to strengthen protections for women and girls, and improve access to services and justice for sexual violence survivors. Donor governments and international agencies providing aid to the country also play an essential role in supporting efforts to enhance protection from and response to sexual violence.

 

Without significant action to prevent sexual violence by armed groups, assist survivors, and end impunity for perpetrators, women and girls in the Central African Republic will continue to suffer not only at the hands of their attackers, but also from systemic failures to provide protection, support, and justice.

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(c) 2017 human Rights Watch

 

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