Sexual assaults rise in Central African Republic. Wagner, bandits and even peacekeepers are blamed

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — It was too late for the mother to shield her children when the two masked and armed Russian fighters burst into her home, held her at gunpoint and took turns raping her. Her five children were forced to watch in the dark.

Seated in a restaurant in Central African Republic’s capital, where she has since fled, she wiped away tears. Two years on, the assault has "stayed with me in my core,” she said. The Associated Press does not identify survivors of sexual assault.

She blamed the Russians who are part of the Wagner mercenary group that operates alongside Central African Republic's army and has been accused by locals and rights groups of abuses. She had seen them patrolling in her town of Bambari before. On the day of the assault, they were fighting rebels there.

Gender-based violence is rising in Central African Republic amid ongoing conflict, weak legal and care systems and the stigma of speaking up, locals and aid groups say.

Since 2020, incidents have jumped from about 9,200 reported cases to 25,500, according to cases tracked by the U.N. and partners.

But international funding for the country has dropped, with gender-based violence receiving some of the least support. The humanitarian request for about $14 million received less than 15% of that, according to the U.N.

Central African Republic has been in conflict since 2013, when predominantly Muslim rebels seized power and forced the president from office. Mostly Christian militias fought back. A 2019 peace deal only lessened the fighting, and six of the 14 armed groups that signed later left the agreement.

Wagner, a U.N. peacekeeping mission and Rwandan troops are all on the ground to try to quell the violence.

“More than 10 years on since this crisis unfolded, many people are still displaced, vulnerable and live at the mercy of armed groups," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch. “A new dynamic has emerged as well whereby mercenaries aligned with the government are also, at times, preying on the local population.”

Doctors Without Borders, one of the main organizations working on gender-based violence, says it has seen an increase in patients due to the expansion of services and outreach. But it says the majority of survivors likely don’t come forward, often because help is not available where they live.

The 37-year-old who fled to the capital, Bangui, said she received mental health treatment and assistance for her children from an international aid group. She's too afraid to return home and survives by selling charcoal in the market and on handouts from friends. She never reported the attack to police because she thought it was futile.

“Who can arrest the Russians in this country?” she asked.

A local fighter who works with Wagner asserted that he saw six of the Russians rape a local woman in the tent where he was sleeping at their base in Bambari in early 2023. He said the Russians give women canned food like sardines or bottled water afterward. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

The Russian government didn’t respond to questions.

Women don’t usually blame Wagner because its fighters are so entrenched in communities that they fear retaliation, aid groups said. During a visit by The Associated Press in March, Russians could be seen driving trucks around Bangui and walking in the western town of Bouar.

Women who come forward find it hard to receive justice, said Lucie Boalo Mbassinga, vice president of the Association For Women Lawyers for Central Africa. She said they had 213 cases of sexual assault and rape reported in 2022 and 304 cases in 2023. Sometimes women open a case against local fighters but withdraw it because perpetrators' families pay survivors not to proceed, she said.

The challenges are compounded by funding cuts.

In November, Mbassinga's organization closed a program that was helping survivors across eight provinces, including in the capital, because there was no more money, she said. The cuts by the U.N. Development Program have prevented staff from reaching women in more rural areas, accompanying them to court and providing medical and mental health support, she said.

“Victims are abandoned,” Mbassinga said. She suggested having mobile courts to better reach rural areas.

Donor fatigue and multiple global crises are part of the reason for cuts in funding, but some diplomats and aid workers say the presence of Wagner mercenaries embedded so closely with the government and in communities makes it hard to justify giving aid. There are concerns that funding could be associated with Wagner.

But not only Wagner fighters are accused of rape.

The AP spoke with three women who said they had been sexually assaulted. One blamed Wagner. One blamed an armed bandit. One, a security guard, blamed a U.N. peacekeeper.

The 39-year-old security guard said she was assaulted in November while on the night shift in Bangui at the peacekeeper's home. He left her about $65 when it was over, she said.

She asked her supervisor to be transferred to another house but never reported the attack. Her pastor cautioned against it to keep her job.

The U.N. mission didn't receive any allegation of sexual assault involving its personnel last November, spokesman Vladimir Monteiro said, and stressed that the U.N. takes such allegations seriously.

The U.N. has long wrestled with allegations of sexual assaults by U.N. peacekeepers in Central African Republic and elsewhere. Three years ago, the secretary-general ordered the immediate repatriation of the entire U.N. Gabonese peacekeeping contingent following credible reports of sexual abuse.

The government's justice ministry didn't respond to requests for comment. The new constitution has measures to tackle the issue, saying authorities must ensure that sexual assault is eliminated.

But that comes as little comfort for survivors.

In December, a 29-year-old woman said she was assaulted at a market about 124 miles (200 kilometers) from Bangui. Three men with knives and machetes robbed her and one raped her.

She didn’t report it because she didn’t know the man and thought police would refuse to investigate.

Now the mother of two wants to move on. She finds comfort in a program run by Doctors Without Borders, meeting weekly with a dozen other survivors.

“The advice I’ve been given is not think about the aggressor and to stay busy,” she said.

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Sam Mednick And Jean Fernand Koena, The Associated Press