The president of the Central African Republic (CAR), Faustin-Archange Touadéra, declared three days of national mourning after attacks left over 50 civilians dead in the villages surrounding the north-western village of Paoua, near the border with Chad. The killings, which took place on the 21st of May, are thought to have been committed by the militia known as 3R. Authorities have demanded that those responsible be handed over to the government to face trial. President Touadéra stated that the days of national mourning would also honour a 77 year-old missionary nun, who was killed and mutilated in the vicinity of Paoua.
Doctors Without Borders (a.k.a. Médecins Sans Frontières) published an eye witness account from a survivor of the attacks, called Alphonse. In the north-west villages of Ndjondjom, Koundjili and Bohong, gunmen rounded up civilians on the pretence of organising a community, then opened fire on those they had gathered. Alphonse recounted how “they started to tie us up. They tore my shirt to tie my arms. They piled us on top of each other, then started shooting. It felt like it was raining bullets.” Alphonse also told MSF that he only survived by playing dead; there were few who survived the attacks.
This act of violence has been widely condemned, though it has not been extensively reported. According to a spokesperson, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called on the government of the CAR to “investigate these attacks and to swiftly bring those responsible to justice recalling that attacks against civilians may constitute war crimes.” In the wake of this new assault, the spokesperson of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), Uwolowulakana Ikavi-Gbetanou, reiterated that “3R in particular and all the armed groups in general [should] show strict respect for international human rights and the reconciliation and peace agreement [signed in February].”
The bloody anarchy of the CAR is largely left out of the international media news cycle, despite being one of the most devastating ongoing conflicts. It is difficult to ascertain the exact state of affairs in the country, but reports from international aid organisations and the UN mission itself indicate that human rights violations are rife, including genocide, the raping and killing of civilians, and torture. Events in the CAR do not garner much attention at the best of times and conducting research into the events of the 21st of May has proven especially difficult given the lack of media interest in the nation.
The 3R militia is one of 14 signatories, including the government, of a February peace accord. It does not bode well for peace and justice in the CAR that members of rebel groups which have signed the peace agreement continue to commit violent atrocities while their leaders sit in the cabinet. It is estimated that as much as 80% of the country is controlled by armed non-governmental forces running amuck in the wake of a rebel coup d’etat in 2013. Though tragic, this attack is hardly surprising in a country with a history of colonial rule, repeated seizures of power and an underwhelming level of international attention and aid.
It appears that the February peace agreement has been ignored by armed actors on the ground, even if it has been headed by the leaders of these rebel groups. For peace and stability in the CAR, it is essential that justice be acknowledged as foundational. President Touadéra was right to call on the leader of 3R to hand over the perpetrators. Unfortunately, the country is experiencing a crisis of trust around the fact that human rights abuses have gone on so long without consequences. It is now urgent that international observers, MINUSCA, and the government itself commit themselves to justice. Without this commitment and continued lacking in the structure to make good on it, incidents such as those around Paoua will sadly continue.
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