Rape, torture, pillage, murder and forced displacement by the Union for Peace in Central Africa (UPC) rebel forces are the new horrifying realities faced by communities in Basse-Kotto, Central African Republic, according to the prominent London-based human rights group Amnesty International.
The UN peacekeeping force in the region, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), tasked with civilian protection, has been unable to curb these systematic abuses, Amnesty says.
“Civilians are not accidental victims in this conflict, they are direct targets…if the UN’s mandate in the Central African Republic is to mean anything, civilians must be better protected,” said Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Adviser, Joanne Mariner.
Many Central Africans are increasingly cynical about MINUSCA’s capacity to conform to even a limited civilian protection mandate, according to Mariner.
Referring to MINUSCA’s mandate, Mariner told IPS that the UN should review troop capacity, training, resource allocation and use of rapid reaction forces in hot-spots all over the country.
Notably, MINUSCA has saved the lives of many Central Africans, according to Amnesty International. However, with troops stretched thin and public confidence in the mission thinning, “MINUSCA’s failures are putting thousands of people in danger,” said Mariner.
The Basse-Kotto prefecture, one of the 14 prefectures in the landlocked African nation, has witnessed a surge in atrocities since early May 2017, when the UPC brutally attacked civilians in Alindao town resulting in at least 130 suspected dead.
In the four months since, the death toll is estimated to have climbed to several hundred, according to credible sources, says Amnesty International.
With tens of thousands having fled the violence and more than 100,000 displaced since the conflict exploded in April 2017, Basse-Kotto is reportedly characterized by ghost towns and nearly empty villages.
Significantly, the Basse-Kotto region had remained largely unaffected by the country’s fragile security situation up until the string of attacks in May in the towns of Alindao, Nzangba and Mobaye.
Asked about the spread of major fighting into this region of the country, Mariner told IPS, “The government maintains little to no control in most areas outside Bangui, the country’s capital, giving rival de facto armed groups leeway to expand their power and territory.”
Skirmishes between the predominantly Muslim Séléka rebel alliance and predominantly Christian anti-balaka militias plunged the nation into a civil war when Séléka forces overthrew former President François Bozizé in March 2013. His successor, Michel Djotodia, the country’s first ever Muslim president, assumed power for a year before stepping down in January 2014.
As a result, the Séléka rebel alliance split into various factions, such as the UPC, and each faction began a de facto terror campaign in different regions of the country- targeting civilians.
Successive ceasefire agreements since 2014 have failed to stabilize the country, which has a population of about 4.5 million people.
Muslim UPC forces target Christian civilians perceived of supporting opposing armed groups, while Christian anti-balaka militias target Muslim civilians under the guise of ‘self-defense’, according to Amnesty.
Mariner told IPS that both Muslim and Christian communities are “lumping together the atrocities committed by armed groups with the civilian population.”
“The problem is now the Muslim population versus the Christian population…we don’t want a religious conflict; we absolutely refuse it, but there’s very clearly an inter-communal conflict,” one of Alindao town’s religious figures told Amnesty.
Asked about the religious nature of the conflict, Mariner told IPS that the conflict is sectarian-based rather than religious-based.
“The armed groups attack civilians because they see them as supporters of a rival armed group and not based on any religious doctrine or ideology…religion is merely a dividing line between the different groups,” said Mariner to IPS.
The increasingly sectarian nature of the violence is perhaps the most worrying aspect of the current crisis, according to Amnesty International’s Central Africa Researcher- Balkissa Ide Siddo.
The level of anger and hatred as well as the desire to humiliate and degrade has reached unprecedented levels in the country, as witnessed by the UPC’s use of rape as a systematic weapon of war in Basse-Kotto.
At least 600,000 people are currently displaced within the country, the highest number since August 2014, and another 438,700 are refugees in the neighboring countries of Cameroon, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to Amnesty.
Emergency action is needed in Central African Republic to prevent further imminent atrocities, Mariner told IPS.