The killing fields of CAR
Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri uncovers a bloody massacre that no one has heard of and hopes to highlight unnoticed human rights abuses
It is rare to uncover an event no one has heard of. But in the Central African Republic (CAR), human rights abuses go unreported because investigating them is too dangerous.
This is my third trip this year to the nation where so many people never get the chance to tell of their plight.
Rebel group Seleka, meaning “Coalition”, helped bring about a coup in March that ousted President François Bozizé. Thirteen South African soldiers were killed in the preceding Battle of Bangui.
Although Seleka was officially disbanded in August, the army and police have no real power in the provinces and the armed men who fought Bozizé remain a force to be reckoned with. Among them are those who kill, rape and recruit child soldiers.
We began at the main hospital in Bouar, in the nation’s western region, where most of the dead and the survivors were only taken on October 27.
Hospital staff carefully documented the names and ages of the 18 dead and 13 injured. The oldest was more than 60 and theyoungest just two weeks.
Despite the danger, the only way to confirm what happened was to get to the site of the shooting. A witness and a local contingent of forces from Gabon agreed to escort us.
We drove a few kilometres in our 4x4s on a tiny dirt track until we reached a rock face. Unable to go any further, we set off on foot.
A few kilometres later, we came across a tiny hut.
Spent casings and bullets from an AK-47 littered the ground. Our security adviser counted the bullet holes and said a magazine of about 25 bullets was shot into a space the size of a large closet. Dried blood covered the ground next to a rotting puppy. A blood-covered bullet was embedded in the wall.
A grave was nearby. Three wooden sticks in the ground suggested three of the victims were buried there. The smell of death was overwhelming. It clung to me for days.
On the morning of October 26, a group of armed vigilantes known as Anti-Balaka, meaning “anti-machete”, attacked Seleka rebels in Bouar.
After a long gun battle, three or four other families fled to the little hut in the bush, the only shelter for kilometres in the heavy rain.
But something kept Clarisse Demokombona up that night. She was the first to realise something wasn’t right.
“I was in the corner by the door when Seleka men shone a torch inside. I quickly grabbed my baby and put her in a straw bag,” she says.
One of the men then started spraying bullets into the hut. Demokombona bravely shouted out: “I have a baby in my hands. Why are you shooting?”
But by the time they heard her cries and stopped, it was too late. They had already killed everyone who slept on the floor. Her baby survived. She herself was shot in the back, but her five-year-old daughter and six-year-old son died from their injuries.
Demokombona’s husband, Maxim Nganabeam, managed to hide behind a rock. He watched helpless as his six-year-old son was killed.
“When they shot my little boy, he fell to the ground. I lay down on the ground too,” he said. “And I heard my wife screaming and crying. I broke down in tears as I was devastated.”
I have interviewed many mothers who have lost their children. Demokombona was still in an initial state of shock, unaccepting of her loss.
Her three surviving children tried their best to get her attention, clinging to their mother. But she was unable to even look at them, let alone give them any reassurance, or love.
After the interview, I bent down next to her and whispered through a translator: “Your children need you now more than ever.”
She replied: “I know, but I don’t have the strength inside me to take care of them. Perhaps God will give me that strength.”
How and why armed men decided to shoot into this hut is unclear. But witnesses say the son of the shack’s owner stole a mattress earlier that day and was taken to a Seleka base.
Possibly, as a way of escaping trouble, he told them Anti-Balaka fighters were hiding there. His name, along with his father and mother, are on the list of the dead at the hospital.
Demokombona and other witnesses say although the men had a torch, they only stopped shooting after she cried out and the surviving children began to cry.
The men left the dead and the injured. It was only the next day that the survivors’ relatives helped get them to the hospital.
I hope what we uncovered will receive international attention and that something is done about this crisis in the heart of Africa.
I have seen it so many times in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Sudan. When I leave for the safety and comfort of my home, I always ask: Have I made a difference? Was it worth the risk? Will those with guns always win in the end?