Central African Republic Teens Say They Were Kidnapped and Raped by Putin’s Wagner Group

EBAM, Cameroon — Ella * and Béatrice * —June 16 — returned from visiting a friend earlier this year and discovered that their house was on fire.

Friends and neighbors, who have lost almost everything, are crying uncontrollably as their entire compound in the Central African Republic village of Aïgbado engulfs in flames.

It was January 16, the day of a notorious massacre—first reported by The Daily Beast—When Putin’s private army slaughtered more than 70 people east of CAR, setting houses on fire and leaving hundreds homeless near a gold mine outside Aïgbado.

In the sand outside their compound, the girls said they saw two bullet-riddled corpses, they couldn’t believe what they’d witnessed and could never have suspected their ordeal. will soon get worse.

After their home burned down, they fled to a refugee camp, where they said they were being held against their will and repeatedly raped by white men believed to be soldiers. leased by the Wagner Corporation.

The infamous Wagner Group is run by one of President Putin’s closest associates, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who sends mercenaries around the world on secret missions that the Kremlin wants to keep secret. Private troops have served extensively in Syria, several African countries and now in Ukraine, where war crimes are alleged.

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2016 in Vladivostok, Russia.

Mikhail Svetlov / Getty

The mercenaries were in CAR for four years and allegedly committed a series of barbaric acts including the Aïgbado attacks, which resulted in Ella and Béatrice immediately fleeing to a makeshift camp for The lost insider in Bria, a regional capital nearby.

Instead of taking refuge, they say they felt more pain at the hands of European soldiers, who they said kidnapped them, took them to a second location and subjected them to more sexual assaults. time.

“For us, it was like we were living in hell,” Beatrice said, “We kept begging them to have mercy on us but they didn’t listen. They made us bleed.”

In mid-February, the girls said that some Russian mercenaries showed up at the camp in Bria and separated the young girls from the rest of the refugees. They then allegedly picked up a dozen teenage girls, including Ella and Beatrice, and ordered them to get on trucks and drive them to a camp in Bossangoa, where they were held for weeks and weeks. rape.

“From the day we first arrived [at Bossangoa], the white soldiers, a lot of them, started harassing us,” Ella said. “If you tell them to stop, they will beat you mercilessly and threaten to put you in the bush so the rebels can rape you.”

During their time in Bossangoa, the Russians brought in other young women they had captured from various locations in town, according to Béatrice, who said that mercenaries were “not interested in women” in the area. .

We could hear the girls screaming.

“The [local] The women are treated worse than we are, who come from afar,” says Béatrice. “Not only were they sexually abused, but they were beaten regularly for no reason. It was as if the women in town had done something wrong.”

Over the past 18 months, the town has seen quite a few atrocities committed by the Russians. Last year, CNN reported that a United Nations drone video obtained and geolocated by the network showed burned houses very close to the town on February 23, after which the United Nations stated that “forces bilateral” – joined the Russian army and the army of the CAR – “burned a house in a village located 13 kilometers from Bossangoa. “Many months later, 12 civilians were reported to have been killed in town by Wagner mercenaries after they were captured while riding their motorbikes. The victims were mostly miners and artisan traders, who were often the target of Russian paramilitary forces that were highly interested in CAR gold deposits.

In mid-March, after more than three weeks in Bossangoa, Ella and Beatrice, along with four other girls, were taken to the town of Bouar, near the Cameroon border, where they say they were raped and abused by another group. . of Russian mercenaries in the composition of the sex trade.

“They kept us there for weeks and made us their slaves,” Ella said. “If any girl said she was pregnant, they would call a doctor to have an abortion. I’ve seen them do it with three girls.”

More than a dozen Russians were involved in the abuses, according to Ella, who said the girls were often taken to an empty room and a few paratroopers sometimes watched their colleagues take turns raping the girls. girl.

“We could hear the girls screaming when they were raped,” she said.

In the last few years, Russia has expanded its influence in CAR, a country steeped in coups and conflicts over the past two decades. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, whose government controls only the capital Bangui – the rest of the country is in rebel hands – moved to the Kremlin in 2017 for help in securing weapons and soldiers paramilitary after UN peacekeepers were powerless to extend state power. Mercenaries from the Wagner Corporation appeared not long after, causing increasingly violent abuses in the provinces and a voice in political and economic affairs in the country.

In late January, Wagner began pulling some of his personnel — an estimated 1,200 to 2,000 — from CAR to Eastern Europe to support Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Some of its bases were closed, and the mercenaries who stayed in the country were constantly moving around. When the people at Bouar were redeployed in April, Ella and Beatrice, along with the other girls, were kicked out of the base by their replacements. The girls fled to Ngaoundere in Cameroon’s central Adamawa region, where thousands of CAR refugees have settled, before moving to the town of Ebam, not far from the commercial city of Mamfe, in southwestern Cameroon, where one National CAR company is accommodating dozens of people. refugees from their own countries and help them find leisure jobs.

“It’s just my way to help my fellow countrymen do something meaningful,” said Laurent Nkeme, who has lived in Cameroon for almost two decades and owns several farms in the southwest of the country. “I will support the girls in any way I can and help them get back to school.”

Ella and Béatrice arrived in South West Cameroon in early May with help from a commercial transport operator, who told them they might have an opportunity in the area. Since arriving, they have worked part-time on cassava and yams farms owned by friends of Nkeme’s and are paid $3 to $5 a day for their efforts.

More than 300,000 Central Africans, who have experienced decades of severe hardship, live in Cameroon as refugees. Most live in the eastern and central parts of the country, but a few are scattered around western Cameroon, where fighting between government forces and English-speaking separatists has created a security crisis. and forced tens of thousands of people to flee to Nigeria.

Beatrice said: “There was a time when armed people infiltrated the cassava farm but we were lucky to escape. “People here say it happens very often.”

CAR’s teenage girls don’t feel completely safe in southwestern Cameroon but with conflicts and difficulties everywhere around them, they have almost no alternatives. Home is where they long to return, but the thought of seeing the Russians again continues to frighten them.

Beatrice said: “We want to see our family and friends again. “But I fear that we will see those white soldiers again and they will mistreat us.”

* Name changed to protect identity.

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