Fatouma was at home with her children in the town of Bambari when the firing began, on the afternoon of February 15.
Terrified, she gathered them up and fled to the nearby mosque, thinking it would be a safe refuge in the Central African Republic (CAR) market town.
But instead of finding sanctuary within its walls, she and dozens of others – men, women and children – became targets. Both her children were shot but survived. At least a dozen people didn’t.
“It was the Russians and the FACA [the CAR army],” Fatouma said.
Russian mercenaries, supported by at least one combat helicopter, attacked the neighborhood as they hunted for rebels known as the Seleka. But according to multiple witnesses, they opened fire indiscriminately against civilians, many of them hiding at the al Taqwa mosque.
“There was not a single Seleka element found in the mosque,” Fatouma said. “It was just the civilian population that they killed. We didn’t even see a dead Seleka body on the ground, it was our children they killed.”
CNN has changed the names of witnesses and victims to protect them from possible retribution.
Other local sources say there may have been two Seleka taking refuge in the mosque, but they were unarmed.
The incident in Bambari is one of dozens investigated by CNN and The Sentry that show a wide range of human rights abuses by Russian mercenaries deployed to CAR.
The Sentry is an independent investigative group co-founded by George Clooney and John Prendergast that follows the money connected to mass atrocities.
Despite a pervasive climate of fear, dozens of people in the Central African Republic have spoken of summary killings, instances of rape and torture, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including the burning of homes.
CNN and The Sentry have spoken with multiple witnesses to events in Bambari that afternoon. According to some, several civilians were shot in cold blood when the Russians and local troops ordered people to leave the mosque late that afternoon.
One 20-year-old man, Abdoulaye, told CNN that he came out with several others, hands in the air. They were searched but then Russians and FACA started shooting.
“We were five meters from them when they opened fire,” he said in an almost matter-of-fact way, using his hands to show what happened. “Four people were killed, another escaped over a wall.”
A bullet struck Abdoulaye in the lower leg as he ran. He hid for nearly 10 hours because access to the local hospital had been blocked by the FACA and later had to have his leg amputated below the knee.
Others told CNN that they were fired on by Russian helicopters that afternoon. CNN has confirmed that several Russian combat helicopters were shipped to CAR earlier this year.
The total number killed in and around the mosque that February afternoon is unknown; but from the accounts gathered by CNN it was somewhere between a dozen and 20. It was far from an isolated incident.
CNN and The Sentry obtained confidential UN documents that support the accusations against the Russian mercenaries made by witnesses and victims.
A report compiled by the UN peacekeeping force in CAR, known as MINUSCA, said that in Bambari, “FACA and bilateral forces especially Russians and elements believed to be Syrians may have committed war crimes, especially in executing civilians and other individuals who were not taking part in hostilities.”
Sources tell CNN that an unknown number of Syrian mercenaries who had been fighting for Russian contractors in Libya were subsequently sent to the CAR. CNN has previously reported on their role in Libya.
In its report on the incident in Bambari, the UN Working Group (UNWG) on Mercenaries said Russian mercenaries stood “accused of using excessive force and shelling protected sites such as a mosque and IDP camps.”
One woman in Bambari, Adja, told CNN her husband had taken shelter at the mosque. “Even though civilians took shelter there, the Russians fired,” she said. “For three days, the Russians would not allow us to retrieve the bodies.”
Another woman, Djibrila, told CNN her 15-year-old son was killed by Russians firing from a helicopter. When her husband tried to find him, he too was cut down; he died in hospital four days later.
“My husband was buried together with my 15-year-old son,” Djibrila said, cradling her baby.
The MINUSCA team that investigated the incident in mid-March reported that three men were believed to have been “executed” by FACA/Russian forces. “These three men were not armed when they were arrested at the entrance of the mosque,” according to the confidential MINUSCA report.
Two weeks later, the UN went public with its concerns, with experts saying they had received “and continue to receive, reports of grave human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, attributable to the private military personnel operating jointly with CAR’s armed forces (FACA) and in some instances UN peacekeepers.”
The UNWG sent a list of allegations to the governments of Russia and the CAR, as well as to representatives of the military contractors.
One member of the working group, Sorcha MacLeod, told CNN: “We’re seeing some of the most serious human rights violations and humanitarian law violations. And we’re seeing them on a widespread scale. People on the ground are absolutely terrified.”
MacLeod, a law professor at the University of Copenhagen, added: “We gather evidence from a wide variety of sources, and it is corroborated.”
UNWG has not received a reply from the company running the mercenary operation. The Russian government denied the allegations and insisted the contractors in CAR are “unarmed and do not take part in hostilities.” The CAR government also denied the allegations but said an inquiry would establish the facts.
An expanding mission
In 2017, the UN Security Council waived an arms embargo on CAR, agreeing to the deployment of 175 Russian trainers for the local military.
For the Russians, that was a foot in the door.
A former Russian military intelligence officer, Valery Zakharov, became the security adviser to CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera.
But as CNN has previously reported, all but five of the trainers who arrived – along with a large supply of weapons – were not Russian military but private contractors, hired by companies linked to a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
A MINUSCA document obtained by Sentry estimates there are now some 2,300 mercenaries in the CAR, including the Syrian contingent.
Alongside Rwandan paramilitaries and CAR troops they are doing a lot less training and a lot more fighting, especially since a counter-offensive against rebel groups began in January.
The Russians have also imported armored personnel carriers, combat helicopters, such as the Mi8 and Mi-24, and drones.
One source told Sentry: “They have drones, they use them at all times to locate people.”
Additionally, according to an internal MINUSCA document obtained by Sentry and reviewed by CNN, the Russian mercenaries are using the same type of anti-personnel mines that they used in Libya.
All sides in CAR’s conflict have been accused of human rights violations, but the Russians’ role on the front lines has become deeply problematic for the UN peacekeeping force in CAR.
The office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner said in March that “state [CAR] agents and their allies arbitrarily kill civilians,” and that people had been “tortured, ill-treated and arbitrarily arrested.”
Several human rights and aid organizations in CAR would not comment on incidents involving the mercenaries, citing the risk to their staff.
A CNN team that applied for permission to visit CAR this month to report on the security and humanitarian situation was repeatedly denied accreditation.
Officials came up with several explanations, but in a text message the minister of communications, Ange Kazagui, told CNN: “Our position is maintained, namely that your background and the evidence in our possession do not support us in granting the requested accreditations.”
This appears to be a reference to CNN’s 2019 reporting from the country on the links between the Russian mercenary presence and lucrative mineral concessions.
A gruesome pattern
Reported incidents of abuses have spiked since late December, when Russian mercenaries joined a government offensive against rebel groups that had tried to advance on the capital.
In a letter to Ivan Mechetin, the Russian mercenary force’s representative in CAR, in March the UNWG wrote that: “the deployment of your personnel appears to have contributed to the rapid escalation and intensification of hostilities, in turn resulting in civilian harm and suffering.”
Besides the killings in Bambari, CNN and Sentry have gathered testimony on many other incidents.
Late in December, Russian mercenaries opened fire on a truck that failed to stop at a checkpoint.
CNN spoke to the driver of the truck, Malik, who said he received a wound to his hand, which was later amputated. He said three people had been killed – including an employee of the group Medecins San Frontieres (MSF). MSF confirmed the death but would not comment further.
An internal report by MINUSCA “confirmed the excessive use of force by Russian forces at the checkpoint” had left three civilians dead. The report said that the impacts of the bullets “may indicate that shooters intended to kill as many people as possible they could.”
UN drone video obtained and geolocated by CNN showed homes being burned in a village near the town of Bossangoa, on February 23.
According to an internal MINUSCA document, “bilateral forces burned homes in a village situated 13 kilometers (eight miles) from Bossangoa.” The term bilateral means FACA/Russian.
And on March 14, a group of Russians shot dead the chief of a village near Bambari after accusing him of being sympathetic to the rebels, according to a community leader from a neighboring village, who spoke to Sentry on condition of anonymity.
The community leader said the Russians set fire to 60 homes and stole motorbikes and other goods.
He also alleged that the Russians also assaulted several women, some of whom fled into the bush to escape. MacLeod told CNN that in many conflicts “when there’s no oversight, where there’s no monitoring of their activities, then the risk of sexual gender-based violence goes through the roof.”
Russian abuses have included the abduction of community leaders. According to a MINUSCA document, four members of the Fulani community were “extracted” from the town of Bria and flown to an “unknown destination.” CNN has seen photographs of the men, with hoods on their heads, being put on a plane by Russian mercenaries at the local airstrip at the end of April.
The MINUSCA document adds that the incident “causes great anxiety among the population where some fear disappearance,” and urges an immediate investigation into where the four might have been taken.
Several witnesses told CNN and Sentry that the Russians had a base outside Bambari where torture was commonplace.
Nimery, a 39-year-old, said he and others had been taken to the base and roped together. Held for a week, he said he’d been beaten and stabbed in the foot with a bayonet.
Still wearing a bandage around his ankle, Nimery chose his words carefully. “The Russians were wicked and barbaric,” he said.
Another account came from a 16-year-old who was detained with his brother by local troops in late February and taken to a Russian camp on the outskirts of Bambari.
He said he was beaten until he passed out and when he regained consciousness, he saw his brother “covered in blood, tied up like an animal, his feet and hands bound behind his back.”
The interrogators accused the pair of being Seleka rebels. When his brother was finally released, the teenager said, he was unconscious in hospital for three days.
For the 15,000 UN peacekeepers from many nations deployed to CAR, the Russian mercenary presence has become a dilemma.
MINUSCA’s chief, Mankeur Ndiaye, said in April that he had discussed allegations of human rights abuses by the Russians at a meeting in Moscow with Russia’s deputy foreign minister, and that the Russian authorities had promised full cooperation with the UN’s investigations.
Zakharov – the Russian adviser to President Touadera – shot back within hours. “The declarations of M. Ndiaye are false and have no relation to reality,” he tweeted.
Things have only deteriorated since, with regular protests against MINUSCA in Bangui and frequent attacks on its performance by CAR government ministers.
At the end of May, Ndiaye condemned “the mobilization of 13- and 14-year-old kids who should be at school and who are being given money to protest in front of MINUSCA [headquarters] demanding the departure of MINUSCA.”
At the same time, the head of UN peacekeeping missions, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, said there had been “several worrying cases of difficulties with the Central African Armed Forces and their partners.”
MINUSCA told CNN on Monday that its “report on human right violations is being finalized in coordination with the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights and will be released soon.”
The quest for gold
As CNN has previously reported, the growing Russian presence in CAR serves multiple goals. Several companies linked to the mercenaries are part of the business empire of Yevgeny Prigozhin.
They include Sewa Services, Wagner PMC and Lobaye Invest. Prigozhin has denied any link to Wagner and has repeatedly refused to talk to CNN.
UN experts said in March that they were “deeply disturbed” by the interconnected roles of all three and “their connections to a series of violent attacks that have occurred since the presidential elections” in December.
To exploit those mineral concessions, the companies need territorial control. CNN’s analysis of the focus of Russian mercenary activity shows it is concentrated in areas rich in minerals.
Near Bambari, for example, there are extensive gold deposits at Ndassima.
Last year, the CAR government revoked the license of a Canadian company at Ndassima. According to documents obtained by Sentry and seen by CNN, the Ministry of Mines then gave a 25-year concession to a company called Midas Ressources, which was listed as a Russian entity.
The Sentry gathered testimony from several people who say the mercenaries have expelled locals from the mines. One man alleged that Russian mercenaries carried out summary executions of suspected rebels in a village near gold and diamond deposits. He told The Sentry: “Everything that is mining is their priority … In Bambari, in the Bornou and Adji neighborhoods they loot in search of gold and diamonds.”
A community leader from a village south of Bambari alleged that when the Russians and CAR troops found local people at a gold mine they slit their throats, adding “they want to create fear so that people don’t go to the mining area anymore.”
According to John Prendergast, co-founder of The Sentry: “This lucrative new model for plunder represents a rapidly spreading threat, delivering death and devastation, and undermining peace and security not only in Central Africa but in other hotspots around the world.”
The Russians have not been shy about advertising their military presence in CAR.
A feature film showing Russian mercenaries fighting alongside local troops against rebels was made at the Russians’ main base at Berengo and given a gala premiere at the sports stadium in Bangui in May.
An on-screen caption before the movie read that it was “dedicated to the heroic Central African and Russian defenders who have liberated Central Africa.”
The film was produced by a Russian company linked to Prigozhin’s business empire.
The Russians now exercise overwhelming influence over the government of President Touadera, and judging by their responses – at government and private level – appear to prefer to shrug off the pattern of accusations rather than to address them.
“Unacceptably, there seem to be no investigations and no accountability for these abuses,” according to the UN experts.
As one civilian said of his experience at the hands of the mercenaries: “There is no clarity, no charges, someone can be executed for nothing.”
France – the former colonial power – has expressed alarm at the situation. In an interview last month, President Emmanuel Macron described Touadera as a hostage to the Wagner group, and this month France suspended military cooperation with CAR.
The government of CAR, meanwhile, has requested another 600 Russian trainers. Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitri Polansky, pledged that if deployed they would be unarmed.