‘We now face guns’: Small-scale miners fear Wagner’s advances in CAR

Local miners in the Central African Republic face eviction and violence as the Russian group takes over gold and diamond mines.

A soldier and a gold miner in CAR
A soldier looks on as a woman pans for gold near an open pit at a mine in Central African Republic [File: Siegfried Modola/Reuters]

Beloko, Central African Republic – When Sadock arrived in the northwestern Central African Republic (CAR) town of Koki in November 2022, he thought he had finally found a safe place to live and work.

For years, small-scale miners like him have been displaced and forced to relocate over and over again whenever foreigners entered a local area, seized surrounding gold mines and evicted local miners.

“Some of us [artisanal miners] decided to move to Koki because we thought at the time that no one was disturbing artisanal miners in the [northwest] region,” Sadock, who wanted to be identified by only his first name for fear of retribution, told Al Jazeera.

“We soon found out that we made a huge mistake,” the 23-year-old said.

After President Faustin-Archange Touadera asked for help to deal with rebel groups in CAR in 2017, Russia’s Wagner Group arrived.

The group has since amassed significant security and economic power and according to investigative group The Sentry, it is believed to have laid a blueprint for state capture, with reports that Wagner has “created a complex network of operations to plunder diamonds, gold, and other natural resources” in CAR.

In 2019 the Kremlin-linked group began taking control of gold mines in the central and eastern parts of CAR. In recent years they have also extended northwards.

In October, less than a year after Sadock moved to Koki, locals told Al Jazeera that Russian paramilitaries, in an attempt to seize a gold mine, allegedly executed at least a dozen people who had been rounded up in the town where less than 5,000 people live.

Some of the victims, witnesses said, were small-scale miners who, like Sadock, had moved there after being chased out of gold mines in the Andaha region in eastern CAR by Wagner forces two years ago.

“On a Sunday morning, they [Russian paramilitaries] arrived by helicopter near the mine in Koki, where miners mostly live, and started shooting at people,” said Sadock. “They killed 12 civilians, some of whom were artisanal miners, on that day.”

Russian officers from the Wagner group
Russian officers from the Wagner Group in Bangui, CAR [File: Leger Kokpakpa/Reuters]

Wagner and the CAR government officials did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment, but the Russian-linked forces have been accused of similar attacks against civilians in past years, and rights groups like Human Rights Watch have also denounced Wagner’s alleged violations in CAR.

Wagner has said its forces are in the country at the behest of the government to assist with security. However, analysts say the group is exchanging paramilitary services for Russian geopolitical gains.

Ndassima, Aigbado, Yanga attacks

In the last four years, Sadock said he has worked in four different mines across CAR before being forcibly displaced.

In 2018, at the age of 17, he began working at the Ndassima gold mine in the central part of the country and earned enough to be able to buy a motorcycle in his first four months of work. But things changed not long after.

The following year, the CAR government rescinded the exploration permits and mining licence for Ndassima gold mine from Axmin, a Canadian company, and then granted them in 2020 to Midas Ressources (PDF), a company affiliated to the Wagner Group.

The Russian private military company paid rebels from Union for Peace (UPC), a local group which controlled the mine at the time, to ensure that staff and properties owned by Midas Ressources were secure, The Sentry reported. When its relationship with the UPC went sour, Wagner mercenaries began a counteroffensive in 2021 against the rebels but they also targeted civilians, especially artisanal miners who lived near the mine, it added.

“The white soldiers [Wagner paramilitaries] came to Ndassima in 2021 and ordered all artisanal miners to quit the area but we all refused to leave,” Sadock told Al Jazeera. “Then they began to shoot at us.”

At least eight miners were killed on that day, according to Sadock, who said he was lucky to escape death because he ran away quickly as soon as he heard the first gunshot.

“The victims were people I knew so closely,” Sadock said. “They were making a living out of the work they did and catering for their families, but the white soldiers ended their lives and made the people they were looking after begin to suffer.”

Ndassima gold mine, CAR
Prospectors wash extracted soil and small rocks as they pan for gold near the open pit at the Ndassima gold mine near Djoubissi, north of Bambari, CAR [File: Siegfried Modola/Reuters]

After the incident, Midas Ressources gained complete control of the Ndassima gold mine, which has a gold deposit valued by the CAR government at an estimated $2.8bn. Last year, the company was sanctioned by the United States Department of the Treasury for “financing Wagner’s operations in the CAR and beyond”.

Sadock and four other artisanal miners, in search of a new gold mine to work in, then moved to Aigbado village in eastern CAR but tragedy struck just days after they arrived.

On January 16, 2022, two days after Sadock and his colleagues reached Aigbado, heavily armed mercenaries in a pick-up truck drove in, opened fire, and burned down houses near the gold mine, he said. At least 70 people were killed during the attacks that extended to the neighbouring Yanga community, where hundreds of frightened Aigbado villagers ran to but were still met by Wagner forces.

“Many of the people who fled to Yanga were artisanal miners and that was why the white soldiers chased us there because they wanted to make sure they killed us so that we won’t return to the Aigbado mine,” said Sadock. “Two of my colleagues who came with us from Ndassima were slaughtered when we fled to Yanga.”

‘Face consequences’

Following the incidents in Aigbado and Yanga, Sadock and a few other miners moved to the northwest in search of new mines.

They eventually settled in Koki after being unwelcome in a couple of other places.

“We first went to Baboua and later to Abba, but the people there were not friendly to us because we were outsiders,” said Sadock. “We feared for our safety so we went to Koki, where we felt at home before the white soldiers attacked the area.”

Russian paramilitaries have always targeted local miners in mining areas where they have interest, according to reports. Two years ago, dozens of miners were killed – some buried in a mass grave – in at least three attacks in the middle of March 2022 involving Russian paramilitaries who swept through encampments full of migrant miners mostly from Sudan and Chad in CAR’s Andaha region, according to a report by The Guardian.

Around the same period, more than 100 gold miners from Chad, Sudan, Niger and CAR were killed during a “massacre” by Wagner mercenaries in the same region, as Russia sought to establish control over the flow of gold and diamonds in the restive Central African nation, an investigation by Middle East Eye revealed.

Wagner in CAR
Wagner Group members have formed part Faustin-Archange Touadera’s presidential security system [File: Leger Kokpakpa/Reuters]

Since the Russian Ministry of Defence stepped in to oversee the operations of Russian mercenaries in CAR, now operating under a paramilitary structure referred to as Africa Corps following the death of Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash near Moscow last August, Russian-linked entities have been attempting to seize new gold mines.

Last September, Russian representatives from Midas Ressources arrived in the central town of Ndachima where they met community leaders and informed them that the company had bought the area of the town where mining activities take place from the CAR government. Local artisanal miners were told to evacuate the area.

“They [the Russians] said if the miners who live in the area do not leave the place they will face the consequences,” Tresor Baboula, one of the youth leaders who attended the meeting, told Al Jazeera. “The miners haven’t left yet, and we are hoping that nothing catastrophic happens in the future.”

Al Jazeera reached out to a representative of Midas Ressources for comment but did not receive a reply.

‘Disappearances’

The targeting of small-scale miners has continued this year.

In March, Russian mercenaries carried out numerous attacks on mining sites in Kotabara and Zaranga in the northwest, reportedly killing about 60 civilians, injuring others, and forcing survivors to carry stolen goods and gold, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project.

Despite its rich natural resources, CAR, a former French colony of about five million people, remains one of the most impoverished countries in the world.

The country has been in conflict since 2013, when Seleka rebels seized power and sacked the president. Militias called anti-Balaka groups then fought back, causing the United Nations to impose an arms embargo and create a peacekeeping mission.

President Touadera, who came to power in 2016, turned to Russia the following year for security assistance, securing weapons and military instructors drawn from the Wagner Group which has been exploring CAR’s natural resources, committing a number of atrocities in the process, according to rights groups.

Russian and CAR officials did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comments on allegations of the killing of artisanal miners in various locations across the conflict-hit nation. Emails sent to the Russian embassy in Bangui and to the spokesperson of the CAR government went unanswered.

Miners in CAR
A man holds a shovel as people work to find gold dust at a mine in the western part of CAR [File: Issouf Sanogo/AFP]

Following October’s attack in Koki, some miners who survived the raid moved to neighbouring Markounda, a town just 48km (30 miles) from Koki, to find work in a gold mine, but they are facing new challenges there.

“Many of our colleagues have disappeared mysteriously without trace since we got here last year,” Juste, an artisanal miner who also wanted only his first name mentioned for fear of retribution, told Al Jazeera. “We don’t know who is behind these disappearances.”

Since November, when they arrived in Markounda, as many as 10 artisanal miners haven’t been seen or heard from. Their colleagues are worried they may have been killed.

“They couldn’t have left Markounda without informing anyone,” said Juste. “It must be some people out there who don’t want artisanal miners to settle here that are behind these disappearances, just to scare us.”

As the targeting of local artisanal miners across CAR continues, those lucky to survive continue to live in fear.

“I don’t think I want to continue with artisanal mining because it has become so dangerous,” said Sadock, who fled to the northwestern village of Beloko, on the border with Cameroon, where he buys and sells vegetables. “In the gold mines, we no longer face dust and toxic chemicals alone, we now face guns.”

Source: Al Jazeera