Teenage Twins Say They Were Drugged and Raped by Putin’s Rampaging Private Army

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images, Public Domain and Philip Obaji
Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images, Public Domain and Philip Obaji

BOUAR, Central African Republic—A pair of twin sisters were happy to escape a harrowing abduction when Russian paramilitaries rescued them from kidnappers who had snatched them from their home on motorbikes. Their joy was to prove short-lived.

Armed men had abducted Fatou and her twin sister, 17, from their home in the northwestern Central African Republic (CAR) market town of Bouar in September. The girls were being spirited out of town when Russian paramilitaries in a pickup caught up with them, arrested the men and rescued the girls.

“We were so relieved when we saw the white soldiers,” Fatou told The Daily Beast. “We thought we were the luckiest girls in the world.”

But that wasn’t the end of the girls’ terror.

For three days, Fatou said, she and her sister were kept in a small, “dirty,” rat-infested room inside a military base in Bouar. As soon as they arrived, she said, Russian paramilitaries gave them injections which they said were meant to treat any injuries they had sustained. “We were surprised they were giving us injections for wounds because neither of us was injured,” Fatou said.

It wasn’t just the injections—which Fatou believes were contraceptive shots—that were sinister. Fatou also said the girls were given medicine that was intended to make them unaware of themselves and their surroundings.

“They told us we couldn’t return to our home immediately, as they needed to treat the wounds we sustained and be sure we were of sound health before letting us go,” Fatou said. “But whenever they gave us the medicine, which they usually dissolved in water, we slowly became unconscious.”

The girls usually became fully conscious of themselves hours after the drugs were administered, according to Fatou, who said she and her sister often realized their underwear had been removed and that they sometimes felt pain around their vaginas. “On the first day they gave us the medicine, my sister woke up hours later and discovered she was bleeding from her private parts.”

The girls were convinced they had been raped by the Russians. They then confronted the men, who denied the accusation but warned them never to tell anyone about what happened: “They said they’ll find us and kill us if we ever told anyone that we were raped by white soldiers,” Fatou said.

In the three years since the town was recaptured from rebels in February 2021, Russian paramilitaries have drugged, raped and administered contraceptives to hundreds of young women, according to dozens of witness accounts.

The sexual violence continued even after the restructuring of the Wagner Group’s operations in Africa following the death of its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a plane crash last August. Under the supervision of the Russian Ministry of Defense, which has now named the paramilitary structure Africa Corps, the abuse has not ended.

In many cases, the girls say they were raped after being drugged and injected with contraceptives without their consent. Some say they were forced to take the shot at gunpoint, and were given emergency contraceptive pills after being raped. The victims are mostly teenagers—some as young as 13.

This report is based on interviews with a dozen young women who say they were injected and raped by Russian paramilitaries inside an army base in Bouar, a town about 100 miles from the CAR border with Cameroon. The Daily Beast also interviewed three former rebel fighters who were later recruited by the Russians, and four soldiers from the Central African national army (FACA), including a medical officer who worked in the military base. All were aware of the incidents.

The abuse of young women in the Bouar military base has been happening on a regular basis for three years, according to witnesses. Women who were either rescued from armed male kidnappers or arrested for associating with rebel fighters were held at the base for days or weeks. The victims were often told that the injections and pills were aimed at preventing them from contracting viral diseases. Those who refused to comply were often tortured and then forcibly injected, according to two FACA personnel.

Karmel was picked up from home by Russian paramilitaries who drugged and raped her at the Bouar military base when she was 17.

Karmel was picked up from home by Russian paramilitaries who drugged and raped her at the Bouar military base when she was 17.

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images, Public Domain and Philip Obaji

Karmel*, 19, told The Daily Beast that Russian paramilitaries arrived at her compound near a primary school in Bouar two years ago and ordered everyone to leave the premises. The Russians, she said, claimed they had received intelligence that rebels were about to attack the area. The teenager recounted how the paramilitaries then decided to take a few young girls to the Bouar military base, where they said the girls would be safer.

“When we got there, they gave us food and something that tasted like fruit juice which they served in cups for us to drink,” said Karmel, who was 17 at the time. “I fell asleep and when I woke up I was bleeding from my private parts. Someone had raped me.”

Karmel’s neighbor, Bibi*, who was one of five girls taken from their compound by the Russians, confirmed her account. “We knew we had been raped when some of us woke up with pain and blood coming out of our private parts,” Bibi, who was 15 when the incident occurred, told The Daily Beast.

At the age of 14, Bibi was one of five girls taken out of their compound to the Bouar military base by Russian paramilitaries who raped them.

At the age of 14, Bibi was one of five girls taken from their compound to the Bouar military base by Russian paramilitaries who raped them.

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images, Public Domain and Philip Obaji

Not every girl who was taken to the military base survived, according to Karmel. She said one of the girls was shot by a Russian paramilitary after she confronted camp officials whom she accused of raping her.

“She was cursing the soldiers and threatening to expose all of them for what they did to us,” said Karmel. “Suddenly, we heard a gunshot and before we knew it our friend was dead on the floor with blood everywhere.”

The event was corroborated by Bibi and Nidal*, another teenager from the same compound who was taken with her friends to Bouar military base on the same day.

“I saw the white soldier pull out a gun and shoot her at close range,” Nidal, who was 14 at the time, told The Daily Beast. “Minutes later, two [FACA] soldiers came and took her body away.”

Russian paramilitaries were not active in the northwest of CAR until early 2021, when FACA forces and the Wagner Group began a campaign to reclaim territories in the region seized by rebels from the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), an alliance of CAR’s armed groups formed in 2020 to disrupt the country’s presidential election. Realizing that it needed to boost its size to effectively take on the rebels, Wagner used the Officer’s Union for International Security (OUIS), a Russia-based company sanctioned last year by the United States Treasury Department, to obscure an increase of so-called Russian military instructors operating in CAR. Since their arrival, locals have consistently recounted incidents of human rights abuses.

Whispers about rape started as a trickle when Bouar, CAR’s fifth largest city with about 40,000 inhabitants, descended into conflict in 2020. The trickle became a flood in the years that followed. Young women have been trapped in the fighting between Russian paramilitaries, backed by FACA forces, and rebels from the CPC. In the last three years, tens of thousands have been forced to leave their homes, mostly to camps for internally displaced people. Others who encountered Russian paramilitaries either during rescue operations or when the Russians showed up in their areas ended up in the military base, where they say they were drugged and raped.

Alleged rape survivors in Bouar and their families are trapped in more ways than one, between their trauma and the fear that, in the highly insecure and volatile area they live, they could become victims again.

Nidal was 14 when Russian paramilitaries drugged and raped her at a military base in Bouar, Central African Republic.

Nidal was 14 when Russian paramilitaries drugged and raped her at a military base in Bouar, Central African Republic.

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images, Public Domain and Philip Obaji

“It seems everyone who carries a gun in Bouar also carries an intention to rape a woman,” said Nidal, who told The Daily Beast that armed rebels raped her on her way to the market weeks after she and her friends were let go by the Russian paramilitaries who had sexually abused them. “Soldiers are raping us and rebels are doing the same.”

Rebels from the CPC took control of Bouar, which sits strategically on the route leading from the capital Bangui to Cameroon, on Dec. 27, 2020, and immediately began to rape young girls, including a minor, according to a United Nations report (PDF). In February 2021, FACA forces and Russian paramilitaries regained control of the town. The U.N. said the fighters who recaptured Bouar “committed rapes.”

A general view of the RN1 road seen from a  helicopter, in Bouar, Central African Republic, the main road of the country linking the capital Bangui with Cameroon, on September 26, 2020

An aerial view of the RN1 road in Bouar, Central African Republic, the main road linking the capital Bangui with Cameroon, on Sept. 26, 2020.

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images and Public Domain

But it is from the Bouar military base, where the Russians are present, that the most devastating stories have emerged.

Two FACA soldiers told The Daily Beast that some of the girls brought to the military base were gang-raped by Russian paramilitaries who often drugged the victims to ensure that they weren’t fully conscious.

“There were often two or three white soldiers raping a little girl,” one of the soldiers said. “The victims were always given pills and injections to make sure they don’t get pregnant.”

This started when FACA and Russian paramilitaries took control of the town in 2021, according to accounts from soldiers. Witnesses said the perpetrators usually kept their victims in the base for days until they were sure that the girls had the required pill dosage to avoid pregnancy.

Dozens of Russian paramilitaries are involved in the atrocities, according to witnesses. The rapes, they said, often occurred in small rooms with two or three fighters sexually abusing between two and six victims.

The abuse did not only occur in Bouar, according to two of the victims who told The Daily Beast how the Russian mercenaries who drugged, raped and injected them in Bouar transported them to Béloko, a town near the border with Cameroon about 70 miles west of Bouar, where Russian paramilitaries at another military camp also sexually abused them.

“After two days [in the Bouar military base], the white soldiers put four of us in their [pickup] vehicle and drove us to Béloko without even telling us why they were taking us there,” said a 17-year-old fruit seller who claimed she was lured by Russian paramilitaries to the Bouar military base last August. “On the night we arrived, they took us to a room, turned off the lights and forced themselves on us.”

A FACA soldier and a former rebel fighter later recruited by the Russians corroborated the claim that girls who had been raped in Bouar were later transported to Béloko, where they faced more abuse.

“Sex trafficking occurred often [at the Bouar military base],” said the former rebel fighter who became part of a group of local recruits commonly referred to as “Black Russians.” “Sometimes, 10 girls could be taken at once to Béloko where the white soldiers [at the military camp] also rape them.”

Since 2021, when they helped FACA to retake the town from CPC rebels who had seized it at the end of the previous year, Russian paramilitaries have been active in Béloko. The town is CAR's first customs checkpoint on the trade corridor between Bangui and the Cameroonian port city of Douala.

Russian and CAR officials did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast on the rape allegations. Attempts to interview Aleksandr Ivanov, director of OUIS which in the past claimed to represent Wagner mercenaries in the country, were unsuccessful. In the same vein, emails sent to the Russian Embassy in Bangui, where Denis Pavlov, an intelligence official deployed by Moscow to keep an eye on Russian operations in the restive African nation, has an office, went unanswered. Russia’s Ministry of Defense, which currently oversees the operations of Russian paramilitaries in the CAR, also failed to respond to requests for comment.

The CAR is one of the most dangerous places in the world for women. Every hour, two people in the country become victims of “gender-based violence,” according to a U.N. report which stressed that the statistics only include cases where survivors had consented to sharing information.

Last year Doctors Without Borders, a charity that provides humanitarian medical care, reported that its teams took care of more than 19,500 survivors of sexual violence across CAR between 2018 and 2022. During the same period, the U.N. documented nearly 15,000 other cases of sexual violence in the country reported by other humanitarian organisations working in CAR, or by state structures.

In May 2019, the Central African government and the U.N. special rapporteur on sexual violence in conflict signed an agreement to tackle sexual violence by armed groups, including bringing attackers to justice and providing necessary services for survivors. But widespread and systematic use of rape as a tactic of war has continued, even by U.N. peacekeepers who’ve long been in the spotlight over allegations of child rape and other sexual abuse. In 2021, Secretary-General António Guterres ordered the immediate repatriation of the entire peacekeeping contingent from Gabon following credible reports of sexual abuse by some of its 450 members.

Of the dozen girls who told The Daily Beast that they were raped in Bouar, only half obtained medical care and none disclosed the rapes to medical personnel out of fear that they might be stigmatized, meaning that they were unable to get essential post-rape treatment. The victims said they’ve been depressed and traumatized since the incidents.

Decades of violence and instability, including six coups, have rocked the CAR since independence in 1960. Despite being rich in diamonds and gold, the country is one of the poorest in the world. Its resources have been plundered by those in authority, and rebel groups have funded their operations through the illegal gold and diamond trade. More recently, the Russians have got in on the act, seizing goldmines often through brutal attacks that leave dozens of locals dead, and colluding with CAR’s political leadership, enabling billions of dollars in gold to bypass the Central African state and depriving the fragile nation of hundreds of millions in state revenue.

In 2013, the country was plunged into civil war when a mainly Muslim rebel coalition called Séléka took control of Bangui and toppled the government. In response to rebel uprisings and looting, Christian vigilantes began a bloody ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslim minority. The U.N. imposed an arms embargo on CAR in December 2013 and established a peacekeeping mission in response to widespread human-rights abuses, but much of the fragile nation remains controlled by rebel fighters (who now call themselves ex-Séléka) and Christian militants, who struggle for control of territory and rich natural resources in a conflict that has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Central African Republic's President Faustin-Archange Touadera meets on sideline of the Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg in 2023.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra meet on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg in 2023.

Photo Illustration by Erin O'Flynn/The Daily Beast/Reuters and Public Domain

In 2016, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who previously served as prime minister, was elected president of the war-torn nation, but not long after he was sworn into office, the former colonial power France—which had sent troops to the country in late 2013 in an effort to prevent violence between the religious militias—ended its military mission in the troubled country. Touadéra then turned to Russia for help in strengthening his country’s military and overturning the U.N. arms embargo. The Kremlin accepted the request, but not without the African nation agreeing to allow Russia to explore its natural resources. (The U.N. approved a Russian training mission to CAR in 2017.)

Initially, Valery Zakharov, a former Russian military intelligence officer was installed as the national security adviser to Touadéra, overseeing the operations of Wagner paramilitaries across the country. He quit the role in 2022 and was replaced by his former protégés Dmitry Syty and Vitaly Perfilev.

For months, Syty, who was placed under financial sanctions by the U.S. Treasury in September 2020, acted as Wagner’s operational leader and communications adviser to President Touadéra, while Perfilev played the role of national security adviser to the CAR leader, supervising all Wagner contractors present in the country. Both men, who oversaw Russian paramilitary operations in the country as the rapes in Bouar and Béloko grew, are still in the country, but their influence has reduced since Russia’s Ministry of Defense created the Africa Corps and took control of its operations.

Syty and Perfilev did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.

Two FACA personnel told The Daily Beast that some soldiers who weren’t comfortable with what was going on had written to top government and security officials in Bangui to inform them that young girls were being raped by Russian paramilitaries in Bouar and then trafficked to Béloko where they were further abused.

“The letter was sent to the president, the national security adviser (Perfilev) and to the head of the military, but nothing was done about it,” one of the soldiers said. “Instead, some [FACA personnel] were moved from Bouar and sent elsewhere.”

When contacted, a senior adviser to President Touadéra told The Daily Beast that the CAR government “is not aware of incidents of rape” by Russia paramilitaries in Bouar and Béloko. “We have not received such a report,” he said.

Some of the victims of rape by Russian paramilitaries in Bouar and Béloko have had very challenging pasts.

Fatou and her twin sister lost their father, a carpenter, and older brother on Dec. 27, 2020, the same day CPC rebels took full control of Bouar after seizing a part of the town a week earlier. Fatou said both father and son left home early in the morning to visit an extended family member not far away from where they lived. In the evening, a neighbor found the bodies of the two men lying on the street. They had both been shot in the head.

“The death of our father, who was our breadwinner, and our brother brought hardship for our family,” said Fatou, who lives with her twin sister and ailing mother near the Bouar main market. “Because of lack of money, my sister and I have been forced to stop secondary school.”

When Russian paramilitaries rescued Fatou and her sister from their kidnappers last September, the girls were asked about their background and their responses proved how vulnerable they are.

“When we told the white soldiers that we had lost our father and that our mother was bedridden, they laughed at us and called us orphans,” said Fatou. “What we told them about ourselves made them believe we were poor children who had nobody.”

The sisters were let go after three days which Fatou described as the “worst days of my life.” The paramilitaries, she said, gave no explanation as to why the girls were finally allowed to go home.

“They came to us in the morning and told us we could go home,” Fatou said. “We were still in pain but we managed to trek home.”

Unlike Fatou and her sister, who were told that the injections and pills the were given at the Bouar military base were meant to prevent diseases, other girls told The Daily Beast that the soldiers forcefully gave them injections and pills without offering any explanation.

“They’ll threaten to kill you if you don’t comply,” one victim told The Daily Beast. “I took the injection because I didn’t want to be killed.”

Two FACA officials—one of them a medical official—who were at the Bouar military base for some time told The Daily Beast that the victims were often given the Depo-Provera contraceptive injection.

Also administered, according to the FACA officials, is Levonorgestrel, an emergency contraceptive that is used to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. A common brand given to the victims in Bouar is Postinor-2, the officials said.

“I didn’t see anyone react adversely to any of the drugs,” said the FACA medical personnel. “But it was necessary that they took them if they were to avoid being pregnant.”

Medical experts told The Daily Beast that women who seek to take Depo-Provera usually need a prescription for the injection from their health-care provider, who would likely review their medical history and possibly check their blood pressure before prescribing the drug.

Research suggests that Depo-Provera might cause a loss of bone mineral density especially in teens who haven't reached peak bone mass. And that the loss may not be reversible.

“There are other side effects like depression, decreased libido, leukorrhea, ectopic pregnancy, retinal thrombosis and pulmonary embolism which may not be noticed immediately,” Dr. Collins Anyachi of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital in Nigeria, told The Daily Beast. “That’s why it’s important for those who are given the shot to be closely monitored.”

For some of the rape victims in Bouar and in Béloko, the pain inflicted on them by their rapists will never go away.

“I cry every day when I think about the way I was abused,” Fatou said. “I will never forget what these white soldiers did to me.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

This story was supported by the International Center for Journalists through the Jim Hoge Fellowship.

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