In this Interview with Maria Lozano of ACN International, Bishop of Alindao speaks of the situation in the Central African Republic and his Diocese in particular.

How is the situation generally in the country at the present time?

The Central African Republic is continuing to strive as best it can emerge from the crisis that has affected it like a gangrene for the past five years and more. Over 80% of the territory is still under the control of rebel groups, who now number around 15 altogether. The major part of the country is firmly in the red zone of extreme insecurity, completely under the domination of the rebel groups.

How is the situation in your own diocese? Alindao has been at the centre of some of these fratricidal struggles in recent years. What is happening at the present time?

The prefecture Basse-Kotto in the diocese of Alindao is held hostage on the one hand by the faction known as the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic – a group that has emerged from the Seleka and the Muslim militias – commonly known as the mujahedin, and on the other by the self defence groups also known as the Anti-balaka. Meanwhile, the civilian population finds itself between a rock and a hard place. For some time now the two groups have switched to a new strategy: rather than confront each other directly they instead set up roadblocks and ambushes on the highways, choosing their victims arbitrarily and above all from among the civilian population, who are simply trying to get on with their lives as best they can. This new strategy is claiming more victims, and the majority of their bodies have not even been found as yet.

How is this affecting your work in your diocese?

On a daily basis, it is difficult, if not impossible, to travel from one town or village to another, owing to the insecurity on the roads, with the result that these places are left isolated from one another. There are numerous reprisal killings directed against civilians, both by the Seleka and the anti-balaka. In the absence of an official judicial system, mob justice has taken over. The armed groups set themselves up as judges at every level and use torture, mutilation and execution with impunity as a means of repression and punishment against all who oppose them.

The violence has caused thousands of people to flee. Where are these refugees?

Some are living crowded together in their thousands in a few refugee camps, while others are scattered through the mountains. Then again there are those who have chosen exile in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For example, in the city of Alindao alone, there are over 30,000 refugees, gathered in four separate refugee camps.

Who is taking care of them?

In the town of Alindao at least, they are being cared for by various international and national NGOs, including the diocesan Caritas, who are providing health care, education, protection, water supplies, sanitation and hygiene. As for the other towns and villages, which cannot be reached owing to the savagery of the rebel groups, the people there are unfortunately deprived of any humanitarian support. These include such subprefectures as Mingala, Satéma, Mobaye and Zangba, whose populations are without any help at all.

According to what we have heard, in these areas, the level of mortality is very high, both among pregnant women and among children of five years and under. Women are giving birth in the mountains without any help from nurses or midwives since there are no functioning health care facilities available.

In addition, a great many religious houses and places of worship have been destroyed, and the prefecture of Basse-Kotto has been left with thousands of ghost villages. The refugee camps have now replaced the traditional towns and villages.

How is your pastoral work affected by the violence all around you?

Generally speaking, the pastoral life of the diocese is paralysed on account of the prevailing insecurity. A few of our priests and Catholic faithful are split between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic (this includes the people of Mobaye, Zangba and Kongbo), while others have joined the community in Alindao (notably the people of Pavia, Kembe, Mingala/Poudjo and Table). The Christian population of these parishes and areas is scattered among the various refugee camps, while a few have taken refuge in the forest and others are still living in exile. Their chapels are in ruins or have been burnt out and even profaned by the rebel groups. The priests can no longer organise pastoral visits to the rural communities or even to those on the outskirts of the towns. Some of the parish houses have been vandalised, some totally, others partially (Kembe, Mobaye and Zangba). Only the cathedral parish in Alindao and the one in Mobaye are still functioning, while those in Kongbo and  Zangba have now tentatively resumed their activities. As far as the parish of Kembé is concerned, access to the districts of Mingala/Poudjo and Tagbalé continues to be difficult because of the climate of insecurity. The catechists there are giving spiritual support to the people.

The last community of religious sisters, the Oblates of the Heart of Jesus, were forced to leave the diocese in 2014 owing to the constant threats to their safety. We are awaiting the arrival of a new community of sisters in the parish for the beginning of the 2018-2019 pastoral year, but we still have to repair the convent, which was ransacked and vandalised by the Seleka.

In your view, are the priests and religious equipped to tackle these difficulties?

The magnitude of the crisis, especially at the end of the first semester in 2017, was a surprise to many because we were not prepared for it. Many priests are still traumatised because they were victims of looting and ransacking or forced, helpless, to witness the murder of their faithful, while others were attacked or even threatened with death. Sadly, up till now, they have not received any psychological counselling or support, but they are still trying to maintain their morale so as to be able to comfort their despairing faithful, who have even greater need of being “de-traumatised”.

Is there a particular message you would like to convey to the benefactors of ACN?

We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to all our benefactors for their generosity and solidarity because it is thanks to you that the diocese has been able to respond to the dehumanising situation facing the people by providing health care education, Christian formation of the faithful and caring for the clergy. Many thanks for the help you are giving us! The presence of the priests and their missionary spirit of self-denial as they work among the displaced faithful who are living in poverty is a continuing and powerful testimony by our youthful diocese which, ever since its infancy, has known nothing but difficult times and which is now struggling to rise again from its ashes. We commend all our pastoral workers, who are working day and night to alleviate the suffering of the thousands of refugees and instil courage into their troubled hearts, to the prayers of our benefactors and to their generosity.

We plainly acknowledge that the diocese of Alindao is still a vast field of work where everything has to be rebuilt following the painful events which continue to destabilise the Central African Republic. Without a doubt, we still face a great many urgent challenges – the care of our pastoral workers, logistics, the rebuilding of our infrastructure, the pastoral outreach to and vocational and professional formation of our young people, healthcare, education and the promotion of good intercommunity relations, etc. And we trust you to be always at our side to help us to confront these long-term challenges. Because the situation is a grave one!

Interview by Maria Lozano, ACN International