The Central African Republic is not only the poorest country in the world, but at the same time one of the most dangerous. For five years now an on-going civil war has been ravaging the country, with fighting continuing between the Islamist “Seleka” rebels, the so-called “Anti-balaka” militias, drawn from the non-Muslim population, and soldiers of the regular armed forces. The international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) spoke recently with the Spanish-born Comboni missionary Juan José Aguirre Muñoz. Now aged 64, since the year 2000 he has been bishop of the Diocese of Bangassou, in the south-east of the Central African Republic
ACN: The Central African Republic rarely hits the headlines. Nevertheless, there is a humanitarian tragedy unfolding there. Islamist rebels, non-Muslim militias and regular troops are fighting one another. And in the midst of it all is the civilian population. Again and again there are brutal attacks and atrocities. And they are continuing in your diocese of Bangassou. A mission station was attacked there on 31 December 2018, was it not? What happened there, and who was responsible?
The town of Bakouma was attacked on 31 December 2018 by the armed rebels led by the warlord Nourredin Adam of the FPRC (Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique, Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic, a Muslim Seleka faction). The town was destroyed, and the Catholic mission pillaged. A week later there were still unburied bodies lying in the streets of the town. 9,000 people from the town of Nzacko who were living in a refugee camp there, fled into the bush in conditions that were unspeakable – in their haste to escape the violence of these very violent mercenaries. The people of Bakouma also fled! Many of them eventually arrived in Bangassou, 85 miles (130 km) away, exhausted, their lives in ruins. Our truck made several trips to and fro to help the exhausted refugees. In our “Mama Tongolo” orphanage there are still dozens of unaccompanied children who arrived in Bangassou in complete disarray, without even knowing where their parents are or whether they are still alive or not; whether they are still hiding in the bush, or whether they have stopped at some village or other on the way. A year ago the town of Nzacko, 50 miles (80 km) further north, was also attacked by these same mercenaries, most of whom are foreigners (from Chad, Sudan, Nigeria…). They drove every non-Muslim out of the town, so that the non-Muslim population have now lost everything, many of them even their lives. The Catholic mission was completely destroyed, razed to the ground – the presbytery, the operating theatre, fully equipped for major operations, the Catholic school, the old church and the new one as well… We feel especially persecuted by these radical Muslims. There are millions of ordinary Muslims in the world who love God and respect their neighbour. But these radical Muslims of the Seleka, who invaded Central Africa five years ago… they are bad people, they do not know Islam.
ACN: Again and again there are attacks on the refugee camps in the Church’s care. In November 2018 a refugee camp was attacked within the grounds of the Catholic cathedral in the town of Alindao. 2,300 people fled. How is their situation, and how do people cope with the ever present fear?
What happened in the non-Muslim refugee camp in Alindao on 15 November last year was a crime against 26,000 unarmed refugees. There were 80 people killed, including two priests, Abbé Blaise Mada and Abbé Célestin Ngoumbango. As of today there are 550,000 internally displaced Central Africans living in the refugee camps. Many of them have been victims of criminal attacks, and even crimes against humanity. Similarly, other refugee camps have sprung up close to the Catholic cathedrals, as in Kaga-Bandoro, and even in the Catholic missions, for example in Bria, Ippy, Zemio, etc.
ACN: In your diocese you are also sheltering many refugees. But the Muslim population was also attacked…
On 15 May 2018, 2000 Muslims from Bangassou were harassed and threatened by groups of Antibalaka (an incensed crowd of non-Muslim ‘self-defence’ groups and criminal elements) and were escorted to the mosque by soldiers of the UN Minusca forces. A few hours later the Minusca forces abandoned the area and 300 gunmen (irregular soldiers?) opened fire on the mosque, which was filled with women and children, attacking it pitilessly. I went there with three priests and stood in front of the mosque, trying to persuade the Antibalaka to stop the killing. Over the course of three days they killed around 30 Muslims, despite our presence, standing in front of their guns for those three days. Afterwards, with the help of the Portuguese Minusca contingent, the Muslim community in Bangassou asked to be taken to the Catholic cathedral to shelter there. This Muslim refugee camp outside the cathedral in Bangassou has now been there for a year-and-a-half. The attacks by the Antibalaka are becoming less and less frequent. However, those of the warlords Ali Darass, Abdoulai Hissein and Alkhatin, are aimed at expelling the non-Muslims from the areas they have conquered, and ultimately they are seeking the partition of the country into two.
ACN: On a superficial level one might think that what is happening in the Central African Republic is a religious conflict. Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Archbishop of the capital Bangui, rejects this vehemently. He has written to ACN that “It is absurd to assume that religion is the sole reason responsible for the chaos.” How do you see the situation, and what are the real causes of the civil war?
The religious conflict is merely a smokescreen to hide the truth. Thousands of mercenaries –some of them Central Africans of the Rounga and Ngoula ethnic groups, but most of them foreigners – have invaded the country from the north, aided and armed by the Gulf states and by Chad, and with the complicity of other countries of the African Union, such as Sudan, Niger, etc. Their aim is to divide up the country, and they are helping themselves like pitiless predators to the mineral wealth of the country – the gold, diamonds, mercury, platinum, the livestock and so forth. Camouflaged beneath the appearance of a struggle between Muslims and non-Muslims (which is also a real one) or of cultural clashes, their underlying instinct is to loot the riches of the Central African Republic.
ACN: The rebel factions seem to have an endless arsenal of weapons at their disposal. Do you know anything about those who are supplying them? Is there any way for the international community to help de-escalate the situation?
The rebels are very well armed, with weapons, munitions, vehicles, logistics… I believe that everything is coming from the Gulf nations, with the complicity of the government of Chad. The Central African Army (FACA) is hampered by an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations. It’s all very well to see Russian mercenaries arriving as instructors, but if the soldiers of the FACA whom they are training don’t have any weapons, then what kind of an Army is that? The responsibility for ensuring a level playing field in the conflict depends on the five member states sitting on the permanent committee of the UN and who are currently imposing the arms embargo on the Central African Republic. Which of them wants to see the Central African Republic fall into a black hole? The United States and Saudi Arabia are involved in the business, and I think that France, as a former colonial power, is too…
Then again, for the past five years all the major decisions concerning the Central African Republic have been taken outside the country. There is a secret agenda to split the Central African Republic into two, driven by the Muslim countries and with the complicity of various other countries hiding in the shadows, such as Chad, Niger and Libya. But in the end, after all this politicking, it is always the poorest who pay the price, who have to pay the bills that they never signed. It is the women and the children, the lost young people who don’t know where to turn next, the girls and women who have been raped inside the refugee camps, the old people accused of sorcery, whom we are protecting in our Houses of Hope in Bangassou, the damaged children and war orphans… We, as missionaries of the Gospel, are there beside them, trying to support these poor people and give them some hope for the future, telling them that God is still Lord of history. Even though the NGOs are leaving for the sake of their own safety, the Catholic Church will always remain on the spot, alongside the poorest and most deprived. So often it happens, in moments of extreme peril, that the people run to the Catholic mission to seek refuge there.
ACN: The spiral of violence is continuing, however. Christians are also taking up arms. What can you do as a bishop to prevent this escalation?
For the past five years we have organised encounters promoting social cohesion between Muslims and non-Muslims, in order to open up a dialogue. We have set up platforms such as the Women for Peace, and inter-community meetings, to promote social cohesion. All this worked well. The moderate Muslim communities were willing to engage in the dialogue – right up to the time when the new acts of aggression took place, and so now the meetings have lost their raison d’être, because the non-Muslims are accusing their Muslim neighbours of complicity in their hearts.
At the same time we have denounced all the crimes against humanity, both on the part of the Seleka and on the side of the Antibalakas, and even on the part of the soldiers of the Minusca forces, when some contingents failed to protect the civilian population and simply stood by while they were being massacred, as happened on 15 November in Alindao with the contingent from Mauritania.
In many high-risk areas we have set up Catholic schools, both in the zones under control of the Seleka and those controlled by the Antibalakas. Thousands of children, both Muslims and non-Muslims, attend them, spending the morning there and mixing together, dressed in the same uniform. They play together, study together, associate together… At school they create a relaxed atmosphere that could serve as a model for the adults in the area. It is an investment for the future. Hats off to the teachers who are willing to go and work in such high-risk areas and support the priests, even at the risk of their own lives.
ACN: How do you see the future of the Central African Republic, and what can organisations such as ACN do to contribute to its future development?
ACN is already helping us in an important way. Our priests, our seminarians, our catechists, who remain there resolutely, like pillars of bronze, in some of the most difficult regions, were in many cases trained with the help of the foundation; you also supported formation sessions for Christian families… There are places in the diocese where many Christians have died a martyr’s death. The fact that there is still a Catholic school that is still actually functioning is already a miracle. And ACN is also a part of this miracle, because you are helping us to encourage these exiled families to return and rebuild their homes, helping for school, orphaned and refugee children… The missions of Bema and Zemio in our diocese are able to keep their schools running thanks to ACN and its benefactors. ACN is encouraging our pastoral workers, our religious and priests, by enabling them to take part in retreats and recharge their batteries, and to obtain aid for those who have been traumatised and are suffering from post-traumatic stress. The missionary Church is more alive throughout the world thanks to the grace of God and the work of ACN. Through your publications and media work you are able to show people the trials and tribulations the missionary Church is actually undergoing, all over the world.