Last week Bishop Juan José Aguirre of Bangassou denounced an attack by an Islamist group on a mission station in Gambo. The station is located in his diocese in the south-eastern part of the Central African Republic. It is estimated that around 40 people were killed. Most of them had their throats slit by the jihadists. Bishop Aguirre spoke with the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the current situation in the region and about the catastrophes that are again breaking out in the heart of the African continent.
– ACN: The mission station in Gambo was attacked last week. There were many dead and displaced persons. What is the current situation in Bangassou?
– Bishop Juan José Aguirre: What is currently happening can only be understood if you look back on the attacks carried out by the Séléka four years ago. They were funded by oil countries and supported by the president of Chad. They occupied half of the country. These jihadists completely disrupted the country. Four years later, neither the government nor the administration nor the MINUSCA (UN soldiers) have taken any steps to expel the Séléka from the country. The UN soldiers even cooperated with them. Now many young people have taken up arms to fight against the Séléka. They have managed to chase them out of a certain area. They began to attack the Muslim community in Bangassou. The conflict is between Muslims and non-Muslims, the many followers of traditional religions and non-Christian sects. We had to protect the Muslims, including many women and children, who had locked themselves away in a mosque.
– ACN: What were you able to do to help them?
– Bishop Juan José Aguirre: For three days, we even acted as a human shield to defend them. We took them to the seminary of the diocese, where they are still living almost two months later. We are supporting about 2,100 people with the help of several NGOs and other organisations. However, several organisations left Bangassou a month ago following a few incidents. And they have not returned since. The Anti-balaka came to other mission stations such as Pema o Gambo. They reacted to a massacre carried out by the Séléka, during which the throats of many non-Muslims were slit. The last thing we heard was that many of the corpses have yet to be buried one week later. The people are very dissatisfied with the Moroccan soldiers of the MINUSCA, who are supposed to be UN peace troops. We would like to see whether God will let us know how we can find our way out of this dead end.
– ACN: Were you able to visit the mission station in Gambo that was attacked by the Séléka?
– Bishop Juan José Aguirre: I have not been able to visit the mission station in Gambo, even though it is not far from Bangassou. About 2,000 people who have been displaced from there have come here. I hope that I will be able to celebrate Holy Mass there on Sunday. We have sent them food and emergency aid. We asked a priest and a journalist from a French news agency to travel to Gambo on a motorcycle. Upon their return, they told us that the situation there is dire. This can only be understood as the Silence of God. People died at the Red Cross hospital after having their throats slit. They bled to death and are now decomposing there because it has not yet been possible to bury them. There were apparently around 40 casualties. They reported that half the village has been burned down, the church was looted and set on fire. Something similar happened to the house of the padres. Reconstruction will be very difficult. But we know that it will happen, that with God’s help we will find the ways and means to rebuild everything.
– ACN: You were, however, able to cross the border to the Congo, to visit those who had fled there. How are they doing? How was the Eucharistic Mass you celebrated with them?
– Bishop Juan José Aguirre: It all went smoothly. We crossed over the river on a paddle boot. The Anti-balaka let us pass through. There were almost 17,000 people there, about 1,000 of which were waiting for us in the church. We were able to speak clearly with them, to give them hope and tell them that tomorrow things will be better, that we should not be drowning in a teacup. However, they really are desperate. We spoke of Our Lady, because it was the Feast of the Assumption. We tried to console them, to count the tears of my people. Often there is nothing to say, you can only keep silent and listen. These people have suffered greatly. They are going to wait there until the situation in Bangassou improves. They will return, but they will have to start from the beginning again. Because they will find their fields bare and their houses destroyed. This is how life is here, it is very difficult. The suffering is great. We only have the solace of God and, when He does not speak, the Silence of God.
– ACN: What currently needs to be done in Bangassou to put an end to this situation?
– Bishop Juan José Aguirre: A Central African governor and a Central African national army is needed to establish discipline. The national army bearing the name FACA is trained by Spanish soldiers. They, however, are complaining that they don’t have any weapons. But weapons are being smuggled into the country via Chad, South Sudan and the Congo. Many are getting rich from arms deals that are controlled by multinational corporations. They create so-called low-intensity conflicts to enrich themselves. What is happening here is an example of this. But we have not lost hope that we will be able to make headway. For this reason, we are putting up a brave front. The Vatican has just appointed an auxiliary bishop, the Comboni missionary Jesús Ruiz Molina. He is to be ordained bishop on 12 November in Bangui. With his help, I will be able to stand by these people as they make their difficult journey through the desert.