BANGUI, Central African Republic – “There was a camp of Russian soldiers and others, they started to question me. ‘You are a girlfriend of the rebels, you came to spy on our positions and report to your lovers,’ they said. I said no, but they insisted.”
Zara, whose name has been changed for her protection, was walking along the main road into the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui, when she was arrested by this joint unit of Russian and Central African troops.
It was days after a rebel movement known as the CPC came close to overthrowing the government in January. Intent on taking over the government, the rebels still surrounded Bangui. The national military and a paramilitary group known colloquially as les requins or “the sharks” were on high alert for suspected rebels and rebel sympathisers.
Zara was on her way to reassure her family that despite the situation, she was safe. But then the Russian soldiers arrested her.
“Some soldiers were behind trees, I was surprised,” she told VICE World News. “They came out and took me into a dilapidated house. They bound me and said I’ll be killed if I don’t tell them the truth.”
Zara remembers that four foreign men handcuffed her foot to the chair and came back hours later.
“One said, ‘We’re back, tell us the truth now.’ And he opened his pants, while talking to the others in a language I don’t know.”
“He wanted to force me,” she continued, looking down and speaking quietly.
“I refused and cried. He opened his zipper [and] pushed my head violently on it. With guns and all that. I got scared. I did it for both of them.”
Zara says she remained in the house for several more hours after the two men forced her to have oral sex and later, they walked with her back to her family home.
“I thought they were going to shoot me down on the way,” she said.
The Russian soldiers are part of a deployment of several hundred private military contractors hired by the Central African government to wrest the country back from rebel control.
Abidah, a shop-owner in Bangui whose name has also been changed, tells a similar story of being caught up in the sweep against suspected rebels in January and gang raped.
After losing her ID card when she fled a rebel attack, she was arrested by a joint unit of the “sharks” and Russian soldiers.
She said that the mixed unit took her to a hillside outside of Bangui and berated her with accusations of sleeping with the rebel leader.
Then, “the white men” took her SIM card from her phone and checked “with a computer, to see if I contacted the rebels...Most of my calls come from my family.”
Despite no evidence that Abidah was connected to the rebels, the abuse continued.
“There were three white men among the rapists. When they finished, the others, sharks, dragged me away and raped me again for six hours.”
That evening, “they threw me behind the stadium [in Bangui]” and Abidah made her way home. “I couldn’t walk.”
Abidah told VICE World News that she saw “piles” of bodies on the hillside.
“They killed many people behind the hill,” she said. “I’m not at peace. My mind isn’t working well.
The Russian soldiers in the CAR are military contractors, members of the shadowy, Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, deployed to train the Force armee centrafricaine (FACA), the national military.
Since a rebel movement overthrew the government in 2013, the FACA has been unable to extinguish the rebel groups that grew out of the brutal sectarian conflict that followed.
Today, rebels still control nearly three-quarters of the country, as the conflict has morphed from a sectarian war between Muslims and Christians into an opportunistic scramble for resource-rich areas and control of the government.
Despite the presence of French and other European troops, and an approximately 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission known as MINUSCA, efforts to train and reinforce the national military have amounted to little in terms of taking back territory and protecting civilians.
Dimitri Chop, a Russian soldier working as a public information office for MINUSCA, put it plainly.
“We were the first ones to organise shooting weapons with real weapons. Before us they were trained with sticks. I’m not joking,” he said, referring to EU and French training exercises.
“Russian instructors were the first ones to organise training with real weapons.”
Russia signed a deal to provide military support and training to the Central African Republic in 2017. After Russian lobbying, Moscow was granted a relaxation of a UN Security Council arms embargo on the CAR, in order to provide light weapons in 2017 and again to provide military mounted vehicles in 2020. The exception has been a source of controversy and tension between France and Russia.
On the ground, Chop said, “This is a really fruitful step. These armed groups are equipped much better than the army. They have rockets, good ammunition.”
Outside of the weapons sales, the details of the deal between Russia and the CAR are opaque and the active role of Wagner “trainers” on the frontlines has not been officially acknowledged by either government.
A VICE World News team observed Russian so-called trainers manning mounted weapons throughout the capital and in the city of Bouar, and was told several times by Russian sources in-country that the troops were on the way to and returning from the frontline fight with the rebels.
Beyond potential violations about the use of private military contractors in active conflict, VICE World News spoke to victims and rights activists in Bangui and uncovered a disturbing pattern of claims that Russian contractors are involved in torture, extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual abuse.
The UN Working Group on the use of Mercenaries wrote to the CAR government and Russia in April, highlighting allegations of “grave human rights abuses” and involvement on the ground that goes far beyond military training and potentially violates international laws of war.
“There is a level of transparency: The Russian contractors have been brought in to provide training. But we’re seeing something far beyond that,” Dr Sorcha Macleod, an academic and a member of the Working Group, told VICE World News.
“When they become directly involved in the hostilities, that’s the allegation that we have here. It’s not clear who they’re accountable to.”
As well as having to contend with Russian mercenaries and Central African paramilitaries, Central Africans like Zara and Abidah, are also falling victim to abuses at the hands of CPC rebels attempting to take strategic cities and highways.
“So for civilians, it's really difficult. If they're on the receiving end of violence and humanitarian law violations, they don't know who to turn to because they don't know who actually committed these abuses against them,” Macleod said.
This was the case for Abdullahi, who was tortured and later killed in his hometown of Bambari, where there is a Russian base.
Abdullahi was a street vendor, arrested on the roadside and taken to a Russian base.
His brother Bashir, told VICE World News that after Abdullahi reported torture at the hands of the Russians to local government officials, he was killed by local assassins, in an alleged hit ordered by Russian leaders in Bangui.
At the base, “they tortured him,” Bashir said, “they cut off his middle finger during the torture.”
When he was released three days later, he was transferred to a hospital in Bangui and his case became widely known. In search of justice, he reported the torture to a local political leader.
When he returned to Bambari, “he restarted his life,” Bashir said. “One day...he is coming back home from prayer, some [rebel] elements followed him, shot him down and ran away.”
His death was blamed on the rebels but his father went to local rebel leaders for an explanation.
“The Russians paid for him to be killed to silence him,” Bashir insisted. Both Bashir and Abdullahi’s names have been changed for their own protection.
Diplomatic sources in Bangui told VICE World News that the claims of Bashir’s family are credible.
Assassinations are in line with the allegations in the UN letter and with a still unsolved case of the murder of three Russians journalists who were killed in an ambush in the CAR in 2018, while investigating the role of Wagner in the conflict.
VICE World News received no response from repeated requests for comment from Russian diplomats in the CAR, however on Facebook, the Russian embassy dismissed abuse allegations with “indignation,” calling them “baseless accusations against those who are trying to restore peace and order.”
And Central African defence minister Marie Noelle Koyara, one of the chief architects of the deal with the Russians, said the government had yet to receive any direct reports of abuses at the hands of Russians or FACA soldiers.
“This saddens me…NGOs make a report, say[ing] that human rights are not respected,” she said. “If you don’t turn to the concerned government, how can we investigate?”
When presented with specific examples of alleged abuses by VICE World News, Koyara said, “There's too much manipulation, and the politicians too, they write things that influence the population, and that's not good,” before abruptly ending the interview.
As the authorities continue to blame atrocities on rebel groups alone and dismiss emerging abuse allegations about the Russian contractors in the media and by the UN Working Group, Abidah, the shop-owner in Bangui, remains terrified she will encounter Russian soldiers in the capital.
“I’m not at peace. I don’t sleep at night. I’m scared and hardly go out,” she said.
“I ask the government: ‘Why me?’ I can’t believe what happened. I don’t understand.”