KENZOU, Cameroon—Doris* didn’t even know her photograph had been taken, let alone posted on Facebook. She had no idea that she had been crudely listed for sale.
The 17-year-old was sold into a criminal underworld of gold and diamond smuggling and found herself being raped, abused, and subjected to a forced abortion, she told The Daily Beast. She says her rapist was a Russian fighter from the Wagner paramilitary force known as Putin’s private army.
The post advertizing Doris had remained live on Facebook—as though it was some kind of dystopian 21st century slave market—for more than 24 hours after I warned the U.S. social media giant that it was there.
Just like Agnes*—another victim tracked down by The Daily Beast—it appears that the teenager was sold in the time it took Facebook to take action.
That Facebook post, Doris says, would ultimately lead her to a Wagner compound where she was assaulted.
She describes her attacker as a tall “white soldier from Russia.”
“He left me terribly traumatized,” Doris said. “I just want him to know what he has done to me and possibly get him arrested.”
Doris says she was never in any kind of relationship with the Russian, who is a mercenary from the Wagner Group run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend of Vladimir Putin.
The teenager has lived in Kenzou since early 2020 when she arrived from Nigeria. Her journey began at the Adagom refugee settlement in Ogoja in Nigeria’s southeastern Cross River state, where she lived after fleeing the fighting between government forces and English-speaking separatists that killed her parents.
Doris says her move to Cameroon was orchestrated by a man who set up a Facebook account in the name of Stan Wantama, an alleged human trafficker previously caught displaying photographs of vulnerable young girls on Facebook by The Daily Beast.
“Madame Brigitte later told me she had informed the white soldiers that I was pregnant and advised them to find a way to terminate the pregnancy.”
I first came across Wantama’s Facebook posts advertising Doris and two other girls on the afternoon of Dec. 29, 2019—at which point they were still for sale—and at 5 p.m. Nigerian time I emailed the company’s spokeswoman Sarah Pollack and policy director Andrea Saul to alert them to the posts that I suspected may be linked to people trafficking.
Facebook took no action for 29 hours. Then, at 10:02 p.m. on Dec. 30, Kezia Anim-Addo, head of communications for Facebook in Africa responded to my email, saying the company was “currently looking into this at the moment.”
Wantama’s account was suspended shortly after but not before Doris and Agnes, who was 16 at the time, had been sold.
In December 2019, Doris was among a number of girls in the Adagom refugee settlement who Wantama advertised on his Facebook page as maids. According to the posts, seen by The Daily Beast, he asked for people wishing to “hire” them to reach out to him for negotiations. She did not know that her photograph was uploaded on the site by Wantama, whom she had never met at the time.
According to Doris, her first encounter with the trafficker was in late January 2020 when Wantama visited her at her home introducing himself as an agent for a company that helps find jobs for women as maids. He told her that there was a family in Cameroon that needed a young girl as housemaid and that he was going to inform them that he had found one should Doris show an interest. The teenager quickly accepted, but there was no family waiting for her.
“He mentioned the names of other girls in the settlement that he had gotten jobs for in Cameroon, and that made me believe he was genuine,” Doris told me. “In addition, it was becoming very difficult to survive without a job in Adagom, so I was eager to leave.”
In early February 2020, Doris says Wantama returned to the refugee settlement at about 5 a.m., in a red saloon car, to take her away. When they got to the Nigeria border town of Ikom (about 60 miles south of Ogoja), she says he picked up three other girls Doris thought were about her age. They all arrived at Yaoundé, the Cameroon capital, at about 9 p.m., and were kept in a dirty single-room apartment with little ventilation in the innermost part of Melem, one of Yaoundé’s biggest slums. Wantama drove away.
For days, according to Doris, the girls stayed in Yaoundé “doing nothing” while a number of Wantama’s male friends visited them and “touched us” inappropriately, squeezing their buttocks and breasts.
The following week, said Doris, Wantama returned very early in the morning, ordered just her to pack her bag and handed her to a bus driver who transported her to a village located some 120 miles away from Kenzou, from where she was put on another commercial vehicle that took her directly to the border town.
Doris says a middle-aged woman in a Toyota Sienna picked her up.
“When we got to her home, she showed me a screenshot of my photograph that was posted on Facebook and asked, ‘Are you really the one here?’” said Doris. “I was surprised to see my photograph on Facebook. I don’t even remember ever taking such a photo.”
Doris soon realized she wasn’t in Kenzou to work for a family. Rather, Wantama had sold her to a woman called Madame Brigitte* who Doris claims is an alleged people trafficker and smuggler.
Madame Brigitte lived in an apartment with three rooms in a noisy and crowded neighborhood in the heart of Kenzou where loudspeakers blare in shops selling pirated compact discs and audio cassettes, hawkers call attention to their wares while older men drinking local gin and boys smoke marijuana.
“We were six girls living with her,” said Doris. “Three girls shared a single room, while [Madam Brigitte] stayed alone in one room.”
Doris says they initially worked in a nearby guest house, cooking, cleaning and waitressing.
She says she was treated well at first by Madame Brigitte who pampered her by buying her new clothes on a regular basis and giving her up to 20,000 CFA Francs (about $32) every month as an allowance. “For a whole year she treated me like her daughter,” the girl said.
But things changed in April 2021. Doris says Madame Brigitte called her one morning and told her she was sending her to Gamboula, a CAR border town located about 10 miles northwest of Kenzou, to get a parcel from a client, whom she described as a Russian soldier. The idea of traveling to a new country made Doris excited. A commercial taxi driver, who seemed to be close friends with Madame Brigitte, picked Doris up and transported her to Gamboula.
In Gamboula, according to Doris, the driver dropped other passengers at a bus station and took her directly to an encampment where “white soldiers” lived. “From the way they exchanged pleasantries, it was clear that the soldiers and the driver were familiar with each other,” she said.
“The driver told the soldiers that Madame Brigitte had sent me to them,” said Doris. “One of them asked me to follow him to the place where I’ll be spending the night.”
She had been told in advance that she would stay at the encampment overnight before bringing a package home the following day.
“I was taken to a nearby house that had no one living there,” said Doris. “Then, the white soldier that brought me there started touching my body.”
Doris said she “begged” the man to let her go but he refused. “He pinned me to the bed, raped me, and left afterwards,” she said.
“There was blood all over the bed,” the girl said. “I was crying all through the night.”
The following day, the Wagner mercenary returned to Doris’s room, gave her a parcel containing precious metals wrapped in a nylon bag and told her she could return to Kenzou. The same driver picked her up in the evening and returned her to Cameroon.
When Doris returned to Kenzou, she told Madame Brigitte that she was raped by the Russian. “All she said was ‘they are soldiers and can do what they want so don’t let that bother you,’” Doris said.
“I told Madame Brigitte that I didn’t want to return to Gamboula again,” said Doris. “But she told me it wasn’t my decision to make.”
In the weeks that followed, Madame Brigitte sent other girls to Gamboula while Doris stayed back in Kenzou. She says they suffered the same experience.
“On some occasions, the white soldiers kept them in Gamboula for weeks,” said Doris. “Madame Brigitte was only interested in the gold they brought back and not in what happened to the girls.”
Gold and diamond smuggling is widespread in CAR, with mercenaries from Wagner involved in the trafficking of gems and precious metals that often enter foreign markets through neighboring countries, mainly Cameroon, Chad and Sudan, and via air routes with the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.
A joint investigation recently carried out by the France-based All Eyes On Wagner project, the London-based Dossier Center, and the European Investigative Collaborations network revealed that individuals linked to the Wagner Group have set up a shell company in CAR known as Diamville to secure and sell diamonds. The Wagner mercenaries reportedly force the country’s poor miners and collectors to turn over their gems or sell them only to the Russian-owned company in a trade that violates the rules of the Kimberley Process, an international initiative designed to prevent the marketing of diamonds from conflict zones.
Despite being rich in diamonds and gold, CAR, a former French colony which gained independence in 1960, remains one of the most impoverished and unstable nations in the world. Much of the country’s resources have been plundered over the years by its leaders, and the illegal diamond trade has funded rebel groups.
Valery Zakharov, a former Russian military intelligence officer, has been installed as the national security adviser to the president. Moscow now sends weapons and hundreds of military advisers and mercenaries from the Wagner Group, who have reportedly been harassing citizens and silencing opponents, in their role as an extension of the government’s security forces while also exploiting the country’s gold and diamond resources.
“There is a booming gold market in eastern Cameroon and that is as a result of mineral smuggling from CAR,” said André Kounde, an experienced bus driver who regularly takes passengers along the smuggling route between Gamboula and Kenzou.
Kounde says it’s “smart” to use women or girls to smuggle gold and diamonds because they get less rigorous checks from the predominantly male law enforcement officials on the border.
“Female smugglers are usually not caught because they hide these precious metals and stones in their underwear,” said Kounde. “With women as smugglers, traffickers don’t have to spend money bribing corrupt officials at the border.”
Kenzou, a town whose 25,000 inhabitants include many refugees from war-torn CAR, has a history of involvement in the illicit gold and diamond trade. In 2015, a United Nations Security Council panel of experts said it was investigating diamond trafficking through the town, including the discovery of a large, 40-carat stone.
“Clients come from as far as Yaoundé to buy from Madame Brigitte,” said Doris.
In May 2021, Doris says she discovered that she was pregnant. She says Madame Brigitte arranged for her to travel to CAR the following month to meet the man who impregnated her and let him know what had happened. When Doris arrived at the Wagner encampment in June, she met face-to-face with her rapist.
“He took me to the same house where I stayed the last time and then invited someone whom he said is a doctor,” said Doris. “The doctor first checked [my vitals] and then gave me an injection and some pills and said everything was fine.”
Hours later, when Doris arrived back at Kenzou, she says she felt a pain in her stomach and thick blood seeped out of her. She says Madame Brigitte heard her screaming and took her to a local health center where a nurse examined her and told her she had lost the baby. Doris believes the Russians aborted her child.
“Madame Brigitte later told me she had informed the white soldiers that I was pregnant and advised them to find a way to terminate the pregnancy,” said Doris. “It was her that arranged the vehicle that took me to CAR.”
Doris isn’t the only girl who says she was raped by a Wagner mercenary and then tricked into an abortion in Gamboula.
Mira*, 22, told me she was attacked by a Russian mercenary who lured her to a Wagner encampment in the town in September 2021. When she found out she was pregnant a few weeks after, she returned to inform the man responsible. At the camp’s entrance, she said one of the Russians interrogated her and she opened up to him, telling him how she was raped and describing the man who raped her. He then told her she needed to see a doctor immediately, so the Russian mercenary took her to a small tent inside the camp and asked her to wait while he got both the doctor and the man she came to see.
“After about two hours, the white soldier returned with another man who gave me an injection and a pill to swallow and said it is what I’m supposed to take in my first month of pregnancy,” said Mira. “When I asked about the man who raped me, they said they couldn’t find him.’
Hours later, said Mira, “there was pain around my abdomen and I began to bleed, and that was when I realized they had aborted my pregnancy.”
“No matter where he is, I’ll go looking for him. I’ll do everything to make sure he pays for his crime.”
Mira said she returned to the camp to complain but the Russians denied they aborted her pregnancy. When she continued to insist, she says they threatened to kill her.
A Central African soldier who worked with the Russians in Gamboula until late last year corroborated claims by both Doris and Mira that Wagner mercenaries terminated pregnancies at their camp. The soldier also said he witnessed how a young girl died from an abortion in September 2021 after she was injected by the Russians.
“One woman was screaming so loud and requesting help,” said the soldier, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “After some time, they brought her out of the tent, wrapped in a bag. She had died.”
The victim’s body, according to the soldier, was dumped in the nearby Bombe river where bodies of locals allegedly murdered by the Russians have been discovered in the past.
Another Central African soldier told The Daily Beast that Wagner paramilitaries believe the physical appearance of any children born after a rape would make it obvious which group was responsible and damage the reputation of the private military company.
“If the women deliver half-caste babies, then everyone would believe their claim that they were raped by white soldiers,” said the second soldier, who worked with Wagner paramilitaries in Gamboula until the start of the year. “They don’t want to leave any trace behind them.”
In July, The Daily Beast revealed that girls seized in February by Russian mercenaries from an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Bria, a regional capital, and taken to an encampment in the western town of Bouar also claimed they were abused and raped for weeks. “If any girl said she was pregnant, they’ll just invite a doctor for an abortion. I saw them do it to three girls,” one of the victims told me.
In CAR, both the government and the Wagner Group have remained silent on allegations of rape and forced abortions targeted at young girls. Emails sent to the spokesperson of CAR’s Ministry of Communication and Media and to Concord Management, a company majority-owned by Prigozhin, went unanswered.
In Kenzou, Doris continues to live with the pain of losing her pregnancy. She says she escaped from Madame Brigitte’s home without her knowledge in July 2021.
In an attempt to get justice, Doris traveled to Yaoundé in August and told her story to a human rights group which took her to the police to report the incident. When the police went in search of Madame Brigitte, they discovered she had shut down her guest house and left the area.
“There’s no trace of Madame Brigitte anywhere,” Estelle Ajembe, founder of the women’s rights group, Girls Together, which reported Madame Brigitte to the police, told me. “Even the girls who worked for her are nowhere to be found.”
An officer with knowledge about the case confirmed to The Daily Beast that the incident has been reported to the police, and said they are “on the lookout” for Madame Brigitte who is now at-large.
Four of Madame Brigitte’s former neighbors confirmed to The Daily Beast that she used to live in the neighborhood with a number of girls, including Doris, and ran the nearby guesthouse where the girls who lived with her worked. “We saw them leave their home regularly to the guest house and also saw them return after a day or two,” one of her neighbors said.
Cameroonian authorities admit young people, as well as precious minerals, are trafficked through Kenzou but they say it isn’t widespread and doesn’t occur often. “Our men are always looking out for traffickers on that route and I can say that they don’t carry out their business as much as they used to in the past,” a police spokesperson said.
But the alleged activities of individuals like Madame Brigitte in the last year shows the business still persists and vulnerable girls like Doris continue to be used as tools.
Despite the challenge of traveling across the border by herself, Doris wants to return to Gamboula to confront her rapist. But by the time she finds a way of reaching there, it may be too late, as Wagner mercenaries have started their withdrawal from much of western CAR.
At the time, over 100 Wagner mercenaries were stationed in Gamboula, according to a number of locals. But that number began to reduce early last year as Russia prepared to invade Ukraine. Only a handful of Wagner paramilitaries, who the International Crisis Group estimated to be between 1,200 and 2,000 as of the end of last year, are now present in CAR with the vast majority of the private military company’s soldiers fighting Putin’s war in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
“No matter where he is [in CAR], I’ll go looking for him,” said Doris. “I’ll do everything to make sure he pays for his crime.”
She is determined to keep fighting for justice and will never forget what she believes led to her torment.
“If my photograph didn’t appear on Facebook, maybe no one would have thought of bringing me to Kenzou,” said Doris. “Everything started from Facebook.”
*Names have been changed