Ten unarmed United Nations peacekeepers traveling in a clearly identified UN minibus were wounded on Nov. 1 by gunshots fired at them by presidential palace guards in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Two of the peacekeepers were seriously injured. These facts are undisputed. The cause of the attack — and even the chain of events — is not, reflecting the invariably complicated relationship between a “host government” and a UN peacekeeping mission in the country.
In a Nov. 2 press release, the UN peace operations in the country, Minusca, said that the bus driver took a wrong turn, missed the entrance to the Egyptian peacekeeping camp and ended up 120 meters from the palace where President Faustin-Archange Touadéra lives. The peacekeepers, newly arrived from Egypt, suffered “heavy fire from the presidential guard without any prior warning or response, even though they were unarmed,” Minusca said.
Then, while fleeing the scene, the bus struck a 16-year-old girl, who died from her wounds, the UN Department of Peace Operations said in an email to PassBlue.
The government of CAR, as the country is known, has a different take. The peacekeepers were shot at not before but after their bus hit the girl, Lumière Joie De Sagesse, the government said in a Nov. 3 press release. The guards tried but failed to force the bus to stop by shooting at its tires, and “unfortunately” they injured the peacekeepers.
Minusca is conducting its own investigation of the incident, it said, despite the Central African Republic’s demand for a joint probe. It is not clear whether Minusca’s findings will be made public; the results of many internal UN probes are not.
The fatal incident has worsened the deep mistrust of Minusca within Touadéra’s administration and among many Central Africans. It also underscores the challenges facing Minusca, which is charged with protecting civilians in a mineral-rich nation torn apart by violence dating at least to 2013. Tensions intensified a year ago during a hotly contested presidential election. Human-rights violations — by the government, its allies and rebel groups, including those united as the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) — are widespread and have disproportionately hit civilians, according to UN experts. A cease-fire in mid-October, agreed by the government and the CPC, is fragile.
Created in 2014 with a mandated ceiling of 14,400 military personnel and 3,020 international police, Minusca is one of the UN’s costliest peacekeeping operations, with a current annual budget of $1.12 billion. Despite that investment and the high price paid by some peacekeepers — five were killed in 2020 and at least four this year — Minusca is struggling. Working in one of the world’s poorest countries, it is viewed with suspicion by warring factions and civilians alike.
Possible war crimes
Here is what else is known about the Nov. 1 tragedy. The peacekeepers, members of the Egyptian Constituent Police Unit, arrived at M’Poko International Airport that day as part of Minusca’s periodic rotation and deployment of peacekeepers. After the attack, one peacekeeper was evacuated to a hospital in Kampala, Uganda; others who were injured have recovered, according to a spokesperson for the UN.
Three days later, UN Secretary-General António Guterres strongly condemned the incident and emphasized that an attack on peacekeepers may constitute a war crime (generally his statement when peacekeepers are assaulted). He called on the CAR authorities to spare no effort “in holding accountable the perpetrators of this unacceptable attack.” He wished a “speedy and full recovery” to the 10 wounded peacekeepers and expressed his condolences to Lumière Joie De Sagesse’s family.
But much about the incident remains murky. In a video posted on the Facebook page of Bangui 24, a media outlet, the girl’s mother, Adèle Mireille, said the bus hit her daughter after the presidential guards asked the Egyptian peacekeepers to stop filming or photographing the presidential palace as they drove by. Other children of Mireille’s were with the victim when she was killed. Some of the passengers got out, “pulled the body off the road” and left, Mireille said.
A Nov. 3 press release signed by Serge Ghislain Djorie, a spokesperson for the government’s Ministry of Communications and Media, stated that after hitting the girl, the bus dragged her more than 20 meters. The presidential security guards, “having seen the girl under the bus, fired warning shots in the air and at the tires of the vehicle for the bus to stop, to no avail.”
At a press conference on Nov. 6, a presidential spokesperson, Albert Yaloké Mokpème, said that on three occasions before Nov. 1, Minusca buses had stopped so passengers could take pictures of the presidential palace, “which is strictly forbidden,” he said. Instead of surrendering their phones to the presidential guards to confirm that the pictures or videos had been deleted in the Nov. 1 incident, the contingent decided to flee, hitting De Sagesse, Mokpème said.
He added: “It was at this point that elements of the presidential guard yelled at them, firing shots in the air to stop the vehicle. Since the vehicle didn’t stop, they started shooting at the tires.”
If this version is accurate, the presidential guards shot at the tires of a moving vehicle with a civilian dragged under it or lying wounded on the road. Shots in any case were off-target, according to photographs posted on Facebook by Henri Grothe, the chief of staff under former President François Bozizé, who now leads the armed rebel groups. They show that at least half a dozen bullets struck the UN vehicle: three bullet holes and a shattered rear window; one bullet hole in the driver’s-side door, inches from the window; and two bullet marks in the windshield. The front of the bus shows signs of an impact. The floor of the bus is shown stained with blood.
The CAR government said the driver entered the “safety zone” surrounding the palace. A UN peacekeeping spokesperson, who asked not to be named, said that the bus did not veer inside the zone, adding, “There is no indication that the occupants of the bus were taking pictures.” The day of the accident, Minusca representatives presented their condolences to Mireille and her family. “The mission has also put the family in contact with the United Nations insurer for vehicle third-party liability,” the spokesperson said.
The incident got quickly entangled in geopolitics. On Nov. 12, the UN Security Council voted to renew Minusca’s peacekeeping mandate, with abstentions by Russia and China. Russia — which has been training the CAR army in its fight against the armed rebel groups — disputed the UN’s version of events about the Nov. 1 attack, blaming “mistakes that the Minusca leadership made,” a Russian deputy ambassador to the UN, Anna Evstigneeva, said in a statement.
The UN legacy
Segments of CAR’s population oppose Minusca because it is perceived as pressuring the government to negotiate a peace deal with the CPC, which opponents see as “foreigners” or “terrorists,” according to a report that a panel of experts presented to the Security Council in June. Many Central Africans oppose negotiations that would leave atrocious crimes committed against civilians unpunished. Surveys conducted by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative found that a sense of impunity is widespread, helping to drive the conflict.
“The balance is very difficult,” Viola Giuliano, a peacekeeping researcher, said in a phone interview. Giuliano, who is with the Center for Civilians in Conflict, or Civic, an international group based in Washington, D.C., that works to protect civilians, continued, “That balance is between bringing these perpetrators to justice at some point, those who broke the peace deals, and leaving the necessary space for them to negotiate and put their arms down.”
The UN panel concluded that civil demonstrations against Minusca were “spontaneous.” At the same time, the report said, Touadéra‘s political party, the United Hearts Movement, or MCU, has also sponsored demonstrations against Minusca and “defamation campaigns” on social networks.
This is the context for local media accounts of incidents involving peacekeepers connected to the killing of civilians. The most controversial case this year was the death of a 12-year-old girl named Kaltouma Djouma, allegedly shot in August in the city of Bria by peacekeepers who tried to disperse a crowd. Protests in Bangui demanded justice for Djouma, and after the killing of De Sagesse protestors have gathered almost every day in front of the Minusca headquarters in Bangui. One slogan read, “Minusca, another year of murders.”
According to the Citizen Movement for the Awakening of Consciousness, a local group formed about two years ago, Minusca has killed as many as six civilians in the country this year alone. The fatalities include three motorcycle-taxi drivers (two in Bria, one in Hamadagaza) and a student at the University of Bangui, according to a written account sent to PassBlue by Euloge Koï, a former professor of law and politics of the University of Bangui and now the secretary-general of Citizen Movement.
“Minusca has done nothing in terms of compensation or indemnification,” Koï told PassBlue in a phone interview from Bangui. “They have never compensated any family. I can tell you. I am in contact with the families of all these people. The UN has never compensated anybody.”
The UN’s image may also have suffered from two incidents confirmed by the UN itself. Minusca peacekeepers from Portugal were accused in November of trafficking diamonds, gold and drugs, and the Gabonese military contingent was sent home in September following credible reports that they had sexually abused five girls. On Dec. 13, the UN spokesperson’s office said that Minusca also deployed “immediate response teams to several remote locations and gathered information regarding more recently reported allegations of sexual misconduct involving UN troops.”
A March report by the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies found that the presence of Minusca in the Central African Republic “has drawn the ire of certain sectors of the population who feel it has lasted too long and has not improved the situation fundamentally.” The report concluded that the UN must prioritize development instead of military action. “Interventions should focus on rebuilding the economic fabric of the country,” it said. “More targeted investment is needed in the training, education and agricultural sectors.”
People’s need for protection is high, and their expectations of Minusca may not be realistic considering the size of the country (just under that of Texas), Giuliano, the peacekeeping researcher, said. She pointed out that when violence erupts, civilians shelter around Minusca bases, adding, “It is a good indication of how much Minusca is still wanted and needed in many areas of the country.”
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Maurizio Guerrero is an award-winning journalist who for 10 years was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).