EBAM, Cameroon – At first, Florencia Pirioua thought the Russian mercenaries she saw approaching her compound in Boko-Boudeye, just outside the western Central African Republic (CAR) town of Bouar, were in the community looking for rebels who had consistently attacked the area for the first four months of the year. But she says these paramilitaries of the notorious Wagner group had an ulterior motive – to rip children from their families.
Pirioua – a 33-year-old mother of two – said “six well-armed white soldiers” broke into her one-bedroom home in early May, taking her 13-year-old son and leaving her 10-year-old daughter behind. She said the Russians then went from house to house, seizing little boys and beating up family members who tried to stop them.
“If you don’t let go, they will break your hands,” said Pirioua, who had a bandage tied around her left elbow after it was gunned down by a Wagner fighter. She spoke to The Daily Beast in the southwest Cameroonian town of Ebam, where she now resides. “First they said he wasn’t my child and that I stole him. Later they said they were taking him for my own good.”
Christelle Youmbi says the Russians confiscated her only child when the 11-year-old was taking a bath just outside her home in Boko-Boudeye. She said a Wagner soldier struck her son in the head with a gun and carried him away “completely naked.”
“They (the Russian mercenaries) said the rebels were planning to attack the community and kidnap male children, so they took all the boys to keep them in a safe place,” said Youmbi, who turned 30 in July. “I asked them to tell me where they were taking him, but they refused to say anything.”
A total of seven boys were kidnapped by Putin’s private army, according to Youmbi, who said the children were aged between 10 and 13 and had “cried and fought” to escape the grasp of their kidnappers.
Most of the people living at the site in Boko-Boudeye are families who fled Bouar, 7 miles away, following attacks in January 2021 by a coalition of rebel groups opposed to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. This led to the displacement of over 8,000 people. Some of them took refuge in local churches, while others, like Pirioua and Youmbi, whose husbands have been missing since the deadly attacks, moved with their children to a settlement in Boko-Boudeye, near the Cameroonian border.
“We had settled in well in Boko-Boudeye until the white soldiers came and took our sons and then gave us the impression that we were being attacked by rebels,” says Youmbi, who – like Pirioua – works as a laborer on the farmland in Ebam, where a ZAR citizen takes in dozens of refugees from his country and helps them find menial jobs. “Some of us had to cross the border into Cameroon because we were afraid that either we would be killed by rebels or that the white soldiers would come back and harm us.”
No one has seen Pirioua and Youmbi’s sons since they were allegedly kidnapped, but their disappearance may be part of an emerging pattern.
Four witnesses told The Daily Beast that large numbers of children have been seen in gold and diamond mines controlled by the Wagner group since a spate of massacres in central Africa killed dozens if not hundreds of miners and many more Forced to flee Republic (ZAR).
“The sad thing is that many of these children have been kidnapped and their family members are still screaming to get them back.”
“I counted up to 20 children in a gold mine near Bambari controlled by Russian militants [in the central part of the country]’ Sylvestre, a 27-year-old miner from Bambari, told The Daily Beast. “One of the ones I saw is someone here in Bambari whose mother said he was kidnapped by Russian soldiers.”
“Children are now being put into gold mines as workers, while established miners are being driven out or killed by these Russian soldiers,” said Sylvestre, who – like other miners in the Central African Republic – The Daily Beast chooses to identify himself by his first name to protect him from possible retaliation.
A number of locals living in mining communities in the troubled Central African Republic told The Daily Beast that children were also taken from the communities by Wagner mercenaries. Three of them said they spoke to family members who claimed the Russians had herded the children into mining areas and made them work in open pit mines, where they scoured the red earth for diamonds with shovels and sieves, by the very group who she is accused of kidnapping.
“The sad thing is that many of these children have been kidnapped and their family members are still screaming to get them back,” a former rebel for the notorious Union for Peace (UPC) told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity. “We have identified some of them and the good thing is their families now know they are still alive.”
In recent months, reports of brutal attacks by Wagner mercenaries on established artisanal miners in the Central African Republic have mounted. In June, The guard reported that between March 13 and May 24, at least three attacks by Russian paramilitaries swept through camps full of migrant miners, mostly from Sudan and Chad, killing dozens of miners and burying some in a mass grave. Middle East Eye also reported last month that more than 100 gold miners from Sudan, Chad, Niger and Central African Republic were killed during a massacre by Russian mercenaries in Andaha, in the same Central African Republic region, as Russia attempted to seize control of the to obtain flow of gold and diamonds that could help the Kremlin survive the economic impact of sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine.
“[Russian mercenaries] have now brought many children to work in these mines.” Patrice, an artisanal miner in Andaha who fled a gold mine during a Russian attack, told The Daily Beast. “Every miner who worked in the Andaha area was either killed or forced to flee. So many are even missing.”
In many mining districts in the Northeast, particularly in gold-rich Andaha, many of the miners are migrants from Sudan who left the Darfur mining district to seek further gold opportunities in the Central African Republic because of conflicts in the region. In search of the precious metal, they began buying or leasing land. Wherever they found it, they set mines and built camps so they could live there. When the Russian invasion began in March, those who survived the massacre fled the area while Wagner paramilitaries took over the sites and camps where Patrice said the children they collected now live.
A local mining community leader said children are brought here because they are less likely to disobey the Russians than more established artisanal miners who might try to uphold their rights.
“Children will do anything you ask them and they will not be greedy,” said a local chief in the northern mining village of Kouki, where a number of miners were reportedly killed by Wagner mercenaries in April. “The Russians know that the artisanal miners will not be willing to work under their control unless under duress, and if that happened, those miners would one day find a way to stand up to them.”
Even in Kouki, according to the chief, who preferred not to be named so as not to be attacked by the Russians, children are “all over mining areas” after being brought here by the Russians.
Since first appearing in CAR in 2018, following an agreement (PDF) between the government and Russian authorities to allow “specialists” from Russia who are “mostly former military officers” to train Central African Republic armed forces, Wagner Mercenaries expanded their operations into the spheres of government and illegal exploitation of the impoverished nation’s natural resources. They are now reportedly trying to take control of the CAR’s gold and diamond flow, and it seems their need for cheap labor in the mining districts has led them to turn their attention to children.
The CAR as a country already has one of the highest rates of child labor in the world. During the 2020 COVID lockdown, when schools were closed, the number of children working in the country’s diamond mines increased by 50 percent, according to a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. But this time, the children who are forced to work in mines in the middle of an academic session are not doing it voluntarily.
The CAR Mining Act bans the employment of children in mining (PDF) and violators could be punished with a fine and up to three years in prison, but with the Russians seemingly in control of the country’s security apparatus, there is almost no enforcement.
Neither the government of the Central African Republic nor Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend of President Vladimir Putin who reportedly heads the Wagner group, responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the alleged kidnapping of children for use in mining areas. Emails sent to the spokesman for the CAR’s Ministry of Communications and Media and to Concord Management, a company majority-owned by Prigozhin, went unanswered.
There have already been reports of Russia-affiliated forces abducting children living in conflict zones. In June, the British Foreign Office accused Putin’s child rights officer Maria Lvova-Belova of supporting a program that “forced” thousands of Ukrainian children into Russia for forced adoption. She claimed she was behind the deportation of “2,000 vulnerable children from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions” in Ukraine. According to Ukraine’s foreign ministry, some of the forcibly deported children were children whose parents were killed by Putin’s troops.
For the Central Africans whose children were kidnapped by Putin’s private army, there is no hope of seeing their children again.
“Very soon we will return to our country to look for our children,” Pirioua said. “Those white soldiers must bring our sons back.”
https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-wagner-group-is-snatching-children-from-their-mothers-in-the-central-african-republic?source=articles&via=rss Why the Wagner Group is snatching children from their mothers in the Central African Republic