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 in search of rebels who had consistently targeted the area in the first four months of the year. But she says these paramilitaries from the infamous Wagner Group had an ulterior motive—to snatch children from their families.
Pirioua—a 33-year-old mother of two kids—said “six well-armed white soldiers” forced their way into her single-room home at the start of May and took away her 13-year-old son, 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’ll break your hands,” said Pirioua, who had a bandage tied round her left elbow after it was hit with a gun by a Wagner fighter. She was talking to The Daily Beast in the southwest Cameroonian town of Ebam, where she now lives. “At first they said he was not my child and that I stole him. Later they said they were taking him away for my own good.”
Christelle Youmbi says the Russians seized her only child while the 11-year-old was taking a bath just behind where they live in the same compound in Boko-Boudeye. She said a Wagner soldier hit 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 were taking all the boys away to keep them in a safe place,” said Youmbi, who turned 30 in July. “I begged them to tell me where they were taking him to but they refused to say anything.”
In total, seven boys were taken away by Putin’s private army, according to Youmbi, who said the children were between the ages of 10 and 13, and were “crying and struggling” to escape the grip of their abductors.
Most of the people who lived in the compound in Boko-Boudeye are families who fled Bouar, 7 miles away, after January 2021 attacks by a coalition of rebel groups who were opposed to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. That led to the displacement of over 8,000 people. Some of them sought refuge in local churches, others, like Pirioua and Youmbi, whose husbands have been missing since the deadly attacks, moved with their children to a settlement in Boko-Boudeye, not far from the border with Cameroon.
“We had settled down well in Boko-Boudeye until the white soldiers came and took our sons and then gave us the impression that we were about to be attacked by rebels,” said Youmbi, who—like Pirioua—works as a laborer on farmland in Ebam, where a CAR national is accommodating dozens of refugees from his country and helping them find menial jobs. “Some of us had to cross the border to Cameroon because we were afraid we may either be killed by rebels or the white soldiers will come back and harm us.”
No one has seen the sons of Pirioua and Youmbi since they were allegedly snatched but their disappearance could be part of an emerging pattern.
Four witnesses told The Daily Beast that large numbers of children had been seen in gold and diamond mines controlled by the Wagner Group since a spate of massacres killed scores if not hundreds of artisan mine workers—and forced many more to flee—in the Central African Republic (CAR).
“I counted up to 20 children in a gold mine controlled by Russian fighters near Bambari [in the central part of the country],” Sylvestre, a 27-year-old artisanal miner based in Bambari, told The Daily Beast. “One of those I saw is someone here in Bambari whose mother had said he had been kidnapped by Russian soldiers.”
“Children are now being brought into gold mines as workers while established artisanal miners are chased away, or killed, by these Russian soldiers,” said Sylvestre, who—like other miners residing in CAR—The Daily Beast is choosing to identify by his first name to protect him from possible retribution.
A number of locals who live in mining communities across the restive Central African Republic told The Daily Beast that children have also been taken from communities by Wagner mercenaries. Three of them said they have spoken to family members who claimed the Russians had driven the kids into mining areas and made them work in open-pit mines where they use shovels and sieves to scour the red earth for diamonds by the very group accused of abducting them.
“The sad thing is that many of these children were kidnapped and their family members are still crying to have them back,” a former rebel with 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 that their families now know that they are still alive.”
In recent months, reports of brutal attacks on established artisanal miners in CAR by Wagner mercenaries have been on the rise. In June, The Guardian reported that dozens of miners were killed—some buried in a mass grave—in at least three attacks between March 13 and May 24 involving Russian paramilitaries who swept through encampments full of migrant miners mostly from Sudan and Chad. Middle East Eye also reported last month that more than 100 gold miners from Sudan, Chad, Niger, and CAR were killed during a massacre by Russian mercenaries in Andaha in the same region of CAR, as Russia seeks to establish control over the flow of gold and diamonds that could help the Kremlin survive the economic impact of sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine.
“[Russian mercenaries] have now brought many children to work in these mines.” Patrice, an artisanal miner in Andaha who escaped from a gold mine when the Russians attacked, told The Daily Beast. “Every miner who worked in the Andaha area has either been killed or forced to run away. So many are even missing.”
In many mining sites in the northeast, especially in gold-rich Andaha, many of the miners are migrants from Sudan who left the mining area of Darfur because of conflict in the region to to look for more gold opportunities in CAR. They began to buy or rent lands, in search of the valuable metal. Wherever they found it, they set up mines and built encampments 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 the encampments, where Patrice said the children they've gathered now live.
A local leader in a mining community said kids were being brought in because they are less likely to disobey the Russians than more established artisanal miners, who may try to safeguard their rights.
“Children will do whatever you ask them to do and they won't 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 be unwilling to work under their control except under duress, and if that were to happen, one day these miners would find a way to revolt against them.”
Even in Kouki, according to the chief who preferred not to be named to avoid being targeted by the Russians, children “are everywhere on mining sites” after they were brought in 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 “primarily former military officers,” to train Central African Republic forces, Wagner mercenaries have extended their operations into the spheres of governance and illicit exploitation of the impoverished nation’s mineral resources. They now reportedly seek to take control of the flow of CAR’s gold and diamonds, and it seems their need for cheap labor on mining sites have made them turn their attention to children.
CAR as a country already has one of the world’s largest child labor rates. During the 2020 COVID lockdown, when schools were closed, there was a 50 percent increase in the number of children working at diamond mines in the country, according to a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. But this time, the children made to work in mines in the middle of an academic session are not doing so willingly.
CAR's Mining Code prohibits the employment of children in mining (PDF) and violators could be punished by a fine and up to three years in jail, but with the Russians seemingly in control of the country’s security apparatus, enforcement is almost non-existent.
Neither the CAR government nor Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend of President Vladimir Putin who reportedly runs the Wagner Group, responded to The Daily Beast's request for comments on the alleged abduction of children for use in mining sites. Emails sent to the spokesperson of CAR’s Ministry of Communication and Media and to Concord Management, a company majorly owned by Prigozhin, received no replies.
There have been reports of Russian-linked forces kidnapping children living in conflict zones before now. In June, the British Foreign Office accused Putin’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, of facilitating a scheme in which thousands of Ukrainian children were “violently” taken to Russia for forced adoptions. It alleged she was behind the removal of “2,000 vulnerable children from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions” of Ukraine. Some of the forcibly deported kids, according to Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, were children whose parents were killed at the hands of Putin’s troops.
For those Central Africans whose kids were seized from them by Putin’s private army there is no giving up hope of reuniting with their children.
“Very soon, we’ll return to our country to look for our children,” said Pirioua. “Those white soldiers have to bring back our sons.”