Teenagers Say They Were Kidnapped and Raped by Putin’s Private Army
EBAM, Cameroon - Ella* and Béatrice* - both 16 - returned from visiting a friend earlier this year to find their homes on fire.
Friends and neighbors who had lost almost everything howled uncontrollably as their entire compound in the village of Aïgbado, Central African Republic, went up in flames.
It was January 16, the day of an infamous massacre first reported by The Daily Beast, when Putin's private army slaughtered more than 70 people in eastern Central African Republic, torched homes and hundreds near a gold mine outside of made Aïgbado homeless.
On the sandy ground outside their compound, the girls said they saw two bodies covered with gunshot wounds. They couldn't believe what they saw and never thought their ordeal would soon get worse.
After their homes were burned, they fled to a refugee camp, where they were allegedly being held against their will and raped repeatedly by white men believed to be Wagner Group soldiers.
Survivors say Russian mercenaries murdered 70 civilians in a gold mine massacre
The infamous Wagner Group is run by one of President Putin's closest associates, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who sends the mercenaries on secret missions around the world that the Kremlin wants to keep off the books. The private army has served extensively in Syria, several African countries and now in Ukraine, where it has been accused of war crimes.
Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2016 in Vladivostok, Russia.
The mercenaries have been in the CAR for four years and are accused of a series of barbaric acts, including the attacks on Aïgbado, which prompted Ella and Béatrice to be immediately transferred to a makeshift camp for internally displaced people in nearby Bria, a regional capital, fled.
Instead of refuge, they say, they found more agony at the hands of European soldiers, who they say kidnapped her, took her to a second location, and subjected her to repeated sexual assaults.
"It was like living in hell for us," Béatrice said. "We kept begging them for mercy, but they didn't listen. They made us bleed.”
In mid-February, the girls said, several Russian mercenaries showed up at the camp in Bria and separated young girls from the other refugees. They then allegedly selected a dozen teenage girls, including Ella and Béatrice, and ordered them into their trucks and drove them to a camp in Bossangoa, where they were held and raped for weeks.
"From the first day we arrived [in Bossangoa], so many white soldiers started harassing us," Ella said. "If you tell them to stop, they'll beat you up mercilessly and threaten to send you off into the bush to be raped by rebels."
While in Bossangoa, the Russians brought other young women who they seized at various locations around the city, according to Béatrice, who said the mercenaries had "no regard for the women" in the area.
"The [local] women were treated worse than those of us who came from far away," Béatrice said. “Not only were they sexually abused, they were regularly beaten for no reason. It was like the women of the city had done something wrong.”
Over the past 18 months, the city has witnessed numerous Russian atrocities. Last year, CNN reported that United Nations drone video obtained and geolocated by the network showed homes in the immediate vicinity of the city being burned down on February 23, with the UN afterwards declaring that “bilateral forces” – citing Russian paramilitaries and the Central African Republic Army - "burnt down houses in a village 13 kilometers from Bossangoa." Months later, 12 civilians in the town were reportedly killed by Wagner mercenaries after being arrested on their motorcycles . The victims were mainly miners and traders, who are often the target of Russian paramilitaries with a keen interest in the Central African Republic's gold deposits.
In mid-March, after spending over three weeks in Bossangoa, Ella and Béatrice, along with four other girls, were taken to the town of Bouar near the Cameroonian border, where they say they were further raped and abused by another group of Russian mercenaries in what constitutes sex trafficking.
"They kept us there for weeks and handed us over to their slaves," Ella said. "If a girl says she's pregnant, she'll just invite a doctor for an abortion. I've seen them do it to three girls."
Over a dozen Russians were involved in the abuse, according to Ella, who said girls were often taken to an empty room and some paramilitaries sometimes watched as their peers took turns raping the girls.
"We could hear girls screaming as they were being raped," she said.
In recent years, Russia has expanded its influence in the Central African Republic, a country plagued by 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 - turned to the Kremlin in 2017 for help in securing weapons and paramilitaries after the UN peacekeepers failed in the were able to extend the state's disposal. A little later, mercenaries from the Wagner group appeared, committing abuses that increasingly fuel the violence in the province, and having a say in the country's political and economic affairs.
In late January, Wagner began withdrawing some of his personnel - estimated to be between 1,200 and 2,000 - from the Central African Republic to Eastern Europe to support Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Some of their bases were closed and mercenaries remaining in the country were constantly being moved around. When those in Bouar were transferred in April, Ella and Béatrice, along with the other girls, were thrown out of the base by their replacements. The girls fled to Ngaoundere in Cameroon's central Adamawa region, where thousands of ZAR refugees have settled, before later moving to the town of Ebam, not far from the commercial town of Mamfe in southwest Cameroon, where a ZAR national is hosting dozens of them refugees from his country and helps them to find simple jobs.
"It's just my way of helping my countrymen to do something worthwhile," 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 southwest Cameroon in early May with the help of a commercial transport company who told them they could find opportunities in the region. Since their arrival, they have been working part-time on cassava and yam farms owned by Nkeme's friends and are paid between US$3 and US$5 a day for their efforts.
Putin's private army is accused of raping young mothers in the maternity ward
More than 300,000 Central Africans who have endured severe hardship for decades are living as refugees in Cameroon. The vast majority live in the eastern and central parts of the country, but a handful are scattered in western Cameroon, where fighting between government forces and English-speaking separatists has sparked a security crisis and forced tens of thousands to flee to Nigeria.
"There was a time when gunmen entered the cassava farm, but we were lucky to escape," Béatrice said. "People here say it happens so often."
CAR's teenage girls do not feel entirely safe in south-west Cameroon, but with conflict and hardship all around them, they have almost no alternative. They want to return home, but the thought of meeting the Russians again still scares them.
"We would love to see our family and friends again," said Béatrice. "But I'm afraid we'll run into those white soldiers again and they'll mistreat us."
*Names changed to protect identity.
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