CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
“Bangui is wounded and in need of heroes”
At the most difficult moments heroes arise, and I do not doubt that these heroes exist here too in the Central African Republic, willing to rise up as one and say ‘no’ to violence, ‘no’ to barbarity, ‘no’ to the destruction of their own selves.” This was the appeal addressed by Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Archbishop of Bangui to the people of the capital and of the entire nation, during these critical days, so fraught with tension and sadness.
So what happened in Bangui? On the morning of 1 May, during the celebration of Holy Mass in the church of Our Lady of Fatima, just a short distance from our own Carmel, a group of armed men from the Km5 quarter of the capital (a majority Muslim enclave which for years has been the main focal point of the tensions in the capital) opened fire on the people praying there, leaving many dead and wounded. The attack happened in reprisal for an attempt on the part of the forces of law and order to capture some of the members of this armed group, which in practice is holding the capital to ransom, including even some of their own fellow Muslims in the quarter.
The faithful in the church has just finished proclaiming their faith and were about to begin with the Offertory. But instead, the Mass continued with the sacrifice of 16 Christians, among them a priest, Fr Albert Tungumale Baba. The clashes then continued – for several days – in other parts of the city, leaving more people dead, others wounded and two mosques destroyed. Moreover, the attack on Our Lady of Fatima church, which has wounded the entire city and left it stunned and incredulous, came just a few weeks after the murder in Séko, in the centre of the country, of another priest, Fr Désiré Angbabata, along with 11 of his parishioners.
Fr Albert, aged 71, was one of the oldest members of the clergy in Bangui and was a priest well known and admired for his simplicity and kindly manner, and above all for his quiet but indefatigable efforts for reconciliation between Christians and Muslims. During some of the most critical moments of the war, in his parish, which is extremely close to the Km5 enclave, he took in thousands of refugees from the surrounding quarters. Abbé Albert was moreover known to everyone for his great love of the Sango language, the national language of Central Africa, which is not particularly rich in its vocabulary. Abbé Albert managed to translate every single word – without using French – by using ingenious solutions or amusing turns of phrase. On one occasion, as we were travelling by car together, he translated my name quite simply, declaring that I should call myself Bwa (which in Sango means priest) Federici.
In an interview, Fr Albert once said that only God can save Central Africa. He was not so far from the truth. So many of us have tried, and are still trying, to save Central Africa – the national army, the troops of the African Union, the French mission (which at least has had the great merit of preventing the conflict from degenerating into a massacre), the soldiers of the European Union, then MINUSCA, the major UN mission (which, despite all its limitations, remains the only possible solution for the moment), and now even the Russians are on the horizon. Even Pope Francis has tried, with his visit in November 2015, which at least secured us a truce sufficient to enable us to democratically elect a new president. But with time, however, the effects of his visit seem to have evaporated and the opportunity to turn a new page has been squandered for the umpteenth time.
The clashes have increased throughout the country, and the peace, which we had barely begun to touch, now seems almost further away than before. At the end of March, Don Désiré Angbabata, parish priest of the Church of Séko, 60 km from Bambari, was killed in an assault on the village by the UPC. Two weeks ago, the militiamen of Ali Darassa, at the head of the Union for Peace in Central Africa (UPC) ravaged the town of Bamabri, 300 km from the capital, Bangui. The area of Bambari is strategically important because of its gold and diamond mines as well as its central position.
“The population is devastated, houses burned and looted. The bodies of the victims lie on the ground”, says Fr. Firmin Gbagoua, Vicar General of Bambari. UPC men attacked the gendarmerie, the police station, and the local base of MINUSCA (UN Mission in Central Africa). Not even the local NGO offices and Saint-Jean parish were spared. Médecins Sans Frontier said 300 inhabitants of the city took refuge in the local hospital on the night of 14 May when the UPC assaulted the city.
Why did this war come about? And why does it seem impossible to stop it? Wars are always complex matters, started for so many different reasons and evolving over time. Even for people who have been living here for years it is difficult to explain the real reasons behind the conflict, and still more difficult to suggest the right method to put out the fire, while at the same time preventing it from breaking out again here and there – just like the fires in the savanna, so to speak – leaving nothing but death, destruction, fear and despair. At the present time the two opposing factions are not even as easy to tell apart as they were in the early years of the war – with the Seleka (the majority Muslim coalition of militias, which also included foreign mercenaries) and the anti-balaka (the self-defence militia which arose in defence of the people of the country – nominally majority Christian, but from which the bishops have always kept their distance). The Seleka have been officially dissolved. Every rebel group has its own leader, its own goals and its own area of influence. There is no longer the fighting house-to-house, and quarter by quarter, which Bangui witnessed in 2013 and 2014. Now the battles involve self-defence groups, UN soldiers and the Armed Forces. Three-quarters of the country is effectively out of control and beyond the authority of the state. The war in Central Africa, which in reality began in 2012, is not a religious or ethnic conflict. Rather it is yet another of the umpteen conflicts for power and the exploitation of the abundant mineral riches beneath the soil. Sadly, however, the denominational element has become a violent part of it, poisoning that peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims which made of Central Africa – in a time that now seems long ago – an example of peaceful coexistence. Seko and Fatima are confirmation that we still have a long way to go before we can return to that earlier situation.
During his homily for the funeral of the murdered priest and for some of the other victims, the Cardinal of Bangui had some tough words for everyone, denouncing the inertia of the government, the slowness of the UN and the risk that Christians might give way to despair or, worse still, to the logic of violence and vendetta. There is an insidious enemy who is trying to destroy Central Africa. And this enemy, as the Cardinal spelt it out, is the devil. Only the weapons of faith can defeat him.
Bangui, although wounded to the heart of its faith, has not become angry with God. Rather, it is angered by those men do not want peace and seem almost to obey a hidden agenda, determined to paralyse the country as though it were invariably condemned to poverty and war. Bangui and all of Central Africa are in need of heroes – among our rulers, our soldiers, our young people. May they rise up as one man and say ‘no’ to war and ‘yes’ to peace.