By Christian Mukosa, Central Africa Researcher at Amnesty International
The bleak reality on the ground in the ever-worsening internal armed conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) has often crowded out hope. But this week I had one of those rare breakthrough moments: a tiny glimmer of hope piercing the darkness.
A contact at UNICEF confirmed the good news. A group of 44 children from CAR, aged 13-17 – including two girls – were released from Korotoro maximum security prison in Chad, and are now in the UN agency’s custody. They had been at the remote desert prison, along with more than 200 adult combatants, since January 2014.
All of the children had fled the armed conflict in their native CAR among a group of 248 people, mainly armed ex-Seleka fighters – who are predominantly Muslim. Upon crossing into neighbouring Chad in January, the group handed themselves over to the Chadian authorities. They were then arrested, disarmed and taken to the Chadian capital N’Djamena before being transferred to and held at Korotoro, 600 km to the north. In March 2014, Chadian authorities told Amnesty International delegates that their cases were under investigation, but it was unclear what, if any, charges the group were facing.
You can imagine my delight this week when I heard that the 44 children are now free and out of harm’s way. Amnesty International played a key role in raising their case with the Chadian authorities and questioning the legality of their detention. Our efforts paid off and ultimately helped to secure the children’s release. We are still seeking details about a two-year-old baby and a five-year-old boy who we believe were also detained with family members at Korotoro.
Under international human rights law, children must never be detained together with adults. This case was particularly troubling as there was no clear reason given for their detention in the first place. They were being held with former combatants in a maximum security facility where they were vulnerable and at risk of further human rights violations. State authorities must always have children’s best interests as a primary consideration – which clearly wasn’t the case in this instance.
As of 26 April, all 44 children were in good health and in UNICEF’s custody in N’Djamena. The UN agency is working with other organizations to try to reunite them with their relatives as soon as possible.
In another bit of good news for the embattled civilians of CAR, on Wednesday the European Union military mission (known as EUFOR-RCA) deployed its first contingent of 150 troops to the country. They took up positions at the airport in the capital, Bangui. Their deployment means that the French Sangaris troops who had been previously guarding the airport and the massive IDP site nearby can now patrol in other areas of CAR that are in dire need of an increased security presence.
The deployment of up to 1,000 EU soldiers was announced in early April to assist the 7,150 existing African Union and French forces on the ground. It is intended as a “bridging” mission until the United Nations peacekeeping mission – MINUSCA – is deployed in September this year.
These reinforcements are sorely needed – recent months have seen the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Muslims, as well as war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed with impunity in Bangui and around the country. Just this past week, an armed attack on a hospital killed 16 people – including 13 local leaders and three aid workers from the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières – and a UN convoy transporting more than 1,300 Muslims to safety in the country’s far north came under attack, leaving at least two people dead. Several journalists and a priest were also targeted with attacks – some of them deadly – in recent days.
Given such a horrific backdrop, good news – like the child detainees’ release – is often fleeting. But each small victory for human rights must be celebrated.
In the meantime, Amnesty International will continue to push hard for the international community to do much more to protect civilians everywhere in CAR, as well as refugees who have fled. And we will continue to work to ensure the perpetrators of atrocities, including Seleka, anti-balaka and their respective allies, are brought to justice.
Lessons from beyond the mass grave (Blog, 17 April 2014)
The Central African Republic’s human rights crisis (Q&A, 9 April 2014)
EU and African leaders must not fail the people of Central African Republic (News story, 2 April 2014)
Central African Republic: Ethnic cleansing and sectarian killings (News story/report, 12 February 2014)
Counting bodies in the Central African Republic (Blog, 12 February 2014)
Central African Republic: War crimes and crimes against humanity in Bangui (News story/briefing, 19 December 2013)