The Central African Republic – a country surrendered to the mercy of looters and mercenaries

Gérard Ouambou is a journalist and cameraman from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. At the end of December 2020, as part of a project by ACN International (Aid to the Church in Need), he travelled to Bangassou to talk to the priests and religious sisters there who are caring for the victims of terror and violence. He had also hoped to report on the initiatives pioneered by the diocese of Bangassou to consolidate the peace that was beginning to return to the diocese. However, things turned out very differently. In the interview below with ACN he talks about the situation in the country and the reasons underlying the conflict. He was interviewed by Maria Lozano.

You were in Bangassou over the Christmas period. What was the situation like during the time you were there?

Already, as I was arriving at the airport in Bangassou I noticed how many of the employees of the NGOs were leaving the city, on the pretext of taking their end of year vacation. By the time I got there, rumours were already circulating of a possible attack on the town of Bangassou itself. As I had already worked there in the past, together with Cardinal Nzapalainga, to help the town during the earlier crisis of 2013, I checked in my address book in an effort to make contact with some of the former fighters, so as to gain a feeling for the situation and at the same time advise them, based on past experience, not to take part in any rebellion.

What was the mood among the people?

On Christmas Day itself, after Mass, some of the people were beginning to flee in the direction of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to a town by the name of NDOU, not far from Bangassou. Other people were seeking refuge at the military base of the UN MINUSCA (Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) forces, located 2 or 3 km outside the town, while yet another group of people chose to flee into the bush to take shelter from the impending attack. Meanwhile, all the traders in the central market shut up their businesses and stored all their goods away safely. All flights were cancelled.

What struck you most forcibly?

When I arrived at the base of the MINUSCA forces I was astonished to find all the political and administrative authorities of the town holed up there in safety, along with the defence and security forces (FDS) and the men of the Central African Armed Forces (FACA), who were supposed to be defending the population.

Despite warnings from Bangui, the senior leadership had turned a deaf ear. A few days after I had actually left Bangassou, the town was finally captured by the rebels. 10 days later Rwandan soldiers reached the town, and there were further clashes.

What is the situation like generally in the country?

As we speak, the situation remains tense. The rebels are part of the so-called “guerrilla” groups and are present throughout almost the whole of the country. I live with my family in the capital Bangui. A few days ago they even encircled this city. There were secret agents everywhere, in the various quarters of the town, and there have been numerous abductions and settling of scores with supporters of the former president François Bozizé and his political party, the KNK (Kwa Na Kwa = ‘Work, nothing but work‘). All in all, the situation in the Central African Republic is very worrying. If nothing is done about it we risk another coup. Among other things, it would be important to engage in dialogue, but the government will not hear of it.

Some of the media are reporting that two-thirds of the country is already in rebel hands. Is that correct?

I don‘t know on what basis these calculations have been made. At the moment I would say that 95% of the Central African Republic is in their hands.

It seemed at one time as though, after almost 7 years of violence (from 2013 to 2019), some kind of peace had begun to return to the country. Is that true?

In Bangui life had returned to normal, but not in the Central African Republic as a whole. In the interior the torment has been continuing for many years – with armed groups exploiting and oppressing the ordinary peaceful population. In some towns illegal roadblocks had been set up. But yes, during 2020 a semblance of peace had returned to the country.

Gérard Ouambou is a journalist and cameraman from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.
Gérard Ouambou is a journalist and cameraman from Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic.

Is there a religious dimension to the conflict? Or is it merely a question of wealth and power?

The conflict in Central Africa is by no means religiously motivated. On the one hand it is about the mineral wealth – the armed groups are occupying areas that are rich in diamonds, gold and so forth. At the same time it is also about the hunger for power, as in the present case. François Bozizé, who ruled the country from 2003 to 2013, wanted to stand again as a candidate for the presidential elections on 27 December 2020. But since the constitutional court, the highest judicial body in the land, had rejected his candidacy, he chose instead to form an alliance with those who had deposed him as president during the coup in 2013. Together with these people he formed a new rebel group called the “Coalition of Patriots for Change” (CPC), in an attempt to overthrow those in power in Bangui with the support of a group of foreign mercenaries.

There is another reason behind the conflict, namely the presence of Russian “military” personnel, which has upset France, which sees the Central African Republic as its own exclusive reservoir of mineral reserves. In order to protect these interests, France decided to violently destabilise the power of President Touadera. In the battle at a geopolitical level the ordinary people of the country are no more than pawns in a game of chess.

But there are many people who believe that behind these rebel groups and mercenaries from abroad there are radical Islamist groups who need these resources and this power to fuel their expansive growth. What is your opinion about this?  

The Central African Republic is a landlocked country in the heart of the continent, with an area of around 240,000 square miles (628,000 km²) and a population of around 5 million people. It has a young and overwhelmingly illiterate population and vast mineral reserves that have never been properly exploited, but only by basic manual labour. This potential wealth is an incitement to people to invade this country. This is true in the case of the Fulani, the wealthiest and most brutal tribe in Niger, with a population of around 15 million people, who have penetrated via Chad into the Central African Republic in search of pasture for their cattle. They are looking for a new paradise for their cattle and plan to settle there. But in order to achieve this they need to advance using violence and rebellion.

Are the rebel groups and guerrilla movements open to all religions? Can Christians and animists freely practise their faith and their convictions?

For the moment yes, the rebel groups and guerrilla movements are open to all religions; their first and foremost concern is merely to acquire power in Bangui. But as soon as this goal has been achieved they will split apart. Just as happened in the past with the Séléka, who initially included both Christians and Muslims. But once they were in power, the Muslim members of the Seleka decided to remove Christians from the scene, either by quietly killing them or by promoting Muslims to positions of greater power and authority than the Christians. It is all about power, and this collaboration is merely a temporary means to an end. There is no future in it.

What does the Church’s work consist in? What role does she have to play in all these conflicts that the country is currently experiencing?

The Church has done a great deal and continues to play her role as prophet and mediator. Through her position on the Platform for the Religious Confessions of the Central African Republic (PCRC) she has done a great deal for the return and consolidation of peace.

The Catholic bishops of the Central African Republic in fact held their annual plenary assembly just recently, from 11 – 17 December 2020. At the end of this conference, in a statement on the current situation, they spoke out against the increasing polarisation of the political classes who have surrendered the country to the looters and mercenaries of every kind, equipped as they are with weapons and sophisticated armoury.

They emphasise that the war that has been forced upon us is aiming to undermine the deepest strivings of the Central African people. We are weary and disillusioned with the political calculations, the conflicts and divisions.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Latest News

Over one hundred thousand children have already enrolled in this year’s “A million children praying the Rosary” ...
“Hearts filled with joy” is a phrase that translates the spirit of the Church in Nigeria following the release of three seminarians ...
Children studying at a Carmelite school in Kobayat, near Tripoli in Lebanon, gave thanks recently to the Blessed Virgin Mary for having saved two of their schoolmates...

Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

La visite du Pape nous remontera le moral, plus que toute autre chose. Tous les yeux de la planète seront dirigés vers Baghdeda. Le monde saura ainsi ce qui est arrivé à cette ville : les terribles destructions et la migration forcée. Ce serait également bien si nous recevions ensuite un peu plus d’aide et de soutien. Cette visite est très importante pour nous qui sommes ici, surtout après l’énorme migration forcée de tant des nôtres. Cette visite signifie que nous ne sommes pas seuls et qu’il y a des gens qui prient pour nous. Cela nous donnera de l’espoir, nous encouragera à rester dans notre pays et à ne pas le quitter.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Si j’ai l’occasion de le rencontrer, je voudrais le remercier pour sa visite qui nous rend très heureux, et pour ses prières. Je tiens également à le remercier pour toute l’aide qu’il nous a procurée ces derniers temps. Je n’oublie pas sa grande solidarité et le geste qu’il a fait en vendant aux enchères la Lamborghini qu’on lui avait donnée pour soutenir avec l’argent récolté la reconstruction de la plaine de Ninive. Je voudrais aussi qu’il continue à prier pour nous afin que la paix arrive en Irak.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

Je voudrais lui montrer l’église historique Al-Tahira et des photos de Baghdeda, je voudrais qu’il voie comment l’État Islamique l’a détruite et comment les gens d’ici ont eu le courage de la reconstruire.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa levantará el ánimo y la moral, más que cualquier otra cosa. Todos los ojos del mundo se dirigirán a Baghdeda. Así, el mundo sabrá lo que le sucedió a esta ciudad. La terrible destrucción y la migración forzada. También sería bueno si luego recibimos más ayuda y apoyo. Esta visita es realmente importante para nosotros, los que estamos aquí, especialmente después de la enorme migración forzada de tantos de los nuestros. La visita significa que no estamos solos y hay quienes rezan por nosotros. Esto nos dará esperanza, nos animará a permanecer en nuestra tierra y no dejarla.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Si tengo la oportunidad de encontrarme con él: quiero agradecerle su visita, que nos hace muy felices, y su oración. También quiero darle las gracias por todo lo que nos ha ayudado durante el último periodo. No me olvido de su gran solidaridad y del gesto de subastar el Lamborghini para apoyar con ese dinero la reconstrucción de la llanura de Nínive. También quiero que siga orando por nosotros para que la paz llegue a Irak.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Quiero mostrarle la histórica iglesia Al-Tahira y fotos de Baghdeda, quiero que vea cómo fue destruida por ISIS y cómo la gente de aquí ha sido tan fuerte para reconstruirla nuevamente.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes wird die Stimmung und die Moral heben, mehr als alles andere. Alle Augen der Welt werden auf Baghdida gerichtet sein. Dann wird die Welt erfahren, was mit dieser Stadt passiert ist, die schreckliche Zerstörung und die erzwungene Migration. Es wäre auch gut, wenn wir anschließend mehr Hilfe und Unterstützung bekommen würden. Dieser Besuch ist wirklich wichtig für uns hier, besonders nach der großen Zwangsmigration so vieler unserer Leute. Der Besuch bedeutet, dass wir nicht allein sind, und dass es Menschen gibt, die für uns beten. Das wird uns Hoffnung geben, es wird uns ermutigen, in unserem Land zu bleiben und es nicht zu verlassen.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Wenn ich die Gelegenheit habe, ihn zu treffen: Ich möchte ihm für seinen Besuch, der uns sehr glücklich macht, und für sein Gebet danken. Ich möchte mich auch bei ihm für alles bedanken, was uns in der letzten Zeit geholfen hat. Ich werde nie seine große Solidarität vergessen sowie die Geste, den Lamborghini zu versteigern (siehe Link zur Meldung), um mit diesem Geld den Wiederaufbau der Ninive-Ebene zu unterstützen. Ich möchte auch, dass er weiterhin für uns betet, damit im Irak Frieden einkehrt.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die historische Al-Tahira-Kirche zeigen und Bilder von Baghdida, ich möchte, dass er sieht, wie alles von ISIS zerstört wurde und welcher Kraft die Menschen hier es wiederaufgebaut haben.

What does the Pope’s visit mean to you?
The papal visit will lift up our spirits and morale more than anything else. All the eyes of the world will be on Baghdeda. And in this way the world will know what happened to this city. The terrible destruction and the forcible ethnic cleansing. It will also be a good thing if afterwards we get more support and help. This visit is really important to us, to those of us who are living here, especially after the massive ethnic cleansing and expulsion of so many of us. His visit means that we are not alone and that there are people who are praying for us. This will give us fresh hope and encourage us to persevere, here on our own soil, and not leave it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
If I get the opportunity to meet him, I would like to be able to thank him for his visit, which has made us very happy, and for his prayers. I would also like to thank him for all he has done to help us in recent times. I have not forgotten his great gesture of solidarity in auctioning the Lamborghini in order to use the money to help pay for the reconstruction of our homes on the Niniveh plains. I would also like to ask him to continue praying for us and for peace to return to Iraq.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? Which places should he visit?
I would like to show him our historic Al-Tahira church, and some photos of Baghdeda. I’d like him to be able to see how it was destroyed by IS and how the people here have worked so hard recently to rebuild it once more.

Qu’est-ce que cette visite signifie pour vous ?

La visite du Pape est ce que nous désirions le plus ici. C’est une grande bénédiction. Nous avons un grand désir de le voir. Ce qui rajoute de l’importance à cette visite, c’est la situation de vulnérabilité que nous, chrétiens, subissons en Irak. Il y a plusieurs raisons à cette fragilité, toutes sont les séquelles de l’État Islamique. Toutes ces destructions ont grandement contribué à l’émigration des chrétiens. De nombreux problèmes pèsent sur nous. Mais par sa visite, le Pape nous donnera de l’espérance et de la confiance, il nous encouragera et réduira notre fardeau. Bien que la situation soit instable en Irak en ce qui concerne la sécurité, tout spécialement dans le domaine politique, on s’attend à ce qu’à l’arrivée du Pape, sa sécurité soit correctement assurée.

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Je voudrais lui demander de me donner sa bénédiction, de bénir mon travail et le dévouement des prêtres d’ici, et de bénir le peuple par ses prières. Je voudrais lui demander d’aider tous ceux qui sont en danger dans ce pays, qu’ils soient chrétiens ou musulmans. Qu’il tente de mobiliser les pays du monde entier pour soutenir ce pays qui a besoin d’aide.

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais qu’il visite l’église Al-Tahira, parce que c’est un symbole et un élément du patrimoine de Baghdeda. Cette église est la mère, le foyer et le patrimoine de chacun des habitants de Baghdeda. Nos ancêtres ont construit cette église, nous avons tous le sentiment d’en faire partie. Bien sûr, nous serions heureux qu’il visite de nombreux endroits, des églises, monastères et maisons traditionnelles, et qu’il rencontre également beaucoup de gens qui ont le désir de le voir.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita del Papa es lo que más hemos deseado aquí. Es una gran bendición. Sentimos un gran anhelo de verlo. Lo que agrega importancia a esta visita son las condiciones tan vulnerables que sufrimos los cristianos en Irak. Hay varios motivos para esa fragilidad, todas las secuelas que ha dejado el ISIS, esa enorme destrucción ha llevado en gran medida a la emigración de cristianos. Muchos problemas pesan sobre nosotros. Pero cuando nos visite, nos dará esperanza, confianza y aliento y reducirá esta carga. Además del hecho de que la situación de seguridad en Irak, especialmente la política, es inestable, se espera que a la llegada del Papa se garantice su seguridad de manera correcta.

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Querría pedirle que me dé su bendición, que bendiga mi servicio y la entrega de los sacerdotes aquí y que bendiga al pueblo a través de sus plegarias. Le pido que ayude a todos los que están en peligro en este país, ya sean cristianos o musulmanes. Que intente movilizar a los países del mundo para que apoyen a este país que necesita ayuda.

 ¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda / Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me encantaría que visite la iglesia Al-Tahira, porque es símbolo y patrimonio de Baghdeda. Esta iglesia es madre, hogar y herencia de cada uno de los habitantes de Baghdeda. Nuestros antepasados ​​construyeron esta iglesia, todos nos sentimos parte de ella. Ciertamente, nos alegraría que visitara muchos lugares, iglesias, monasterios y casas tradicionales,  también que vea a muchas personas que anhelan verlo.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch des Papstes ist das, was wir uns hier am meisten gewünscht haben. Es ist ein großer Segen. Wir spüren eine starke Sehnsucht, ihn zu sehen. Was diesen Besuch noch wichtiger macht, sind die äußerst prekären Bedingungen, unter denen wir Christen im Irak leiden. Es gibt mehrere Gründe für diese Zerbrechlichkeit. All die Folgen, die ISIS hinterlassen hat, diese enorme Zerstörung hat in großem Maße zur Auswanderung von Christen geführt. Viele Probleme lasten auf uns. Aber wenn er uns besucht, wird er uns Hoffnung, Zuversicht und Ermutigung geben und diese Last verringern. Auch wenn die Sicherheitslage im Irak, insbesondere die politische Situation, instabil ist, hoffen wir, dass bei der Ankunft des Papstes seine Sicherheit ausreichend gewährleistet ist.

 

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Ich möchte ihn bitten, mir seinen Segen zu geben, meinen Dienst und die Hingabe der Priester hier zu segnen und die Menschen durch seine Gebete zu segnen. Ich bitte ihn, all jenen zu helfen, die in diesem Land in Gefahr sind, ob sie nun Christen oder Muslime sind; und die Länder der Welt zu mobilisieren, um dieses Land, das Hilfe braucht, zu unterstützen.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida / Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte, dass er die Al-Tahira-Kirche besucht, denn sie ist ein Symbol und Erbe von Baghdida. Diese Kirche ist die Mutter, die Heimat und das Vermächtnis eines jeden einzelnen Menschen in Baghdida. Unsere Vorfahren haben diese Kirche erbaut, wir alle fühlen uns als Teil von ihr. Sicherlich würden wir uns freuen, wenn er viele Orte, Kirchen, Klöster und traditionelle Häuser besuchen würde, und auch, wenn er viele Menschen treffen würde, die sich danach sehnen, ihn zu sehen.

What does the visit mean to you?
The papal visit is the thing we have longed for most of all here. It will be a great blessing. We have a great yearning to see him. What gives added importance to this visit is the so very vulnerable situation that we are suffering as Christians in Iraq. There are many reasons for this vulnerability, including the aftermath of what IS left behind, the enormous destruction which has led in such large measure to the emigration of the Christians. There are many problems weighing on us. But when he comes to visit us, he will give us new hope and confidence and some relief from this burden. In addition there is the fact that the security situation in Iraq, and especially the political situation, is so unstable, so we are hoping that when the Pope does arrive they will guarantee his security in the way that they should.

 

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?
I would like to ask him to give me his blessing, to bless my ministry and the hard work of all the priests here, and also to bless all the people through his prayers. I would ask him to help all those in danger in this country, whether they are Christians or Muslims. And that he might strive to encourage the countries of the world to support this nation, which is truly in need.

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places ought he to visit?
I would love him to visit the Al-Tahira church, because it is a symbol and a rich cultural legacy of Baghdeda. This church is the mother, the home and the inheritance of every one of the inhabitants of Baghdeda. Our forefathers built this church, and we all feel we are a part of it. Of course, we would be happy for him to visit many different places – churches, monasteries and traditional homes – and also for him to be able to meet all the many people who are longing to see him.

Que signifie pour vous cette visite ?

Elle a une valeur morale, et non pas économique. Cette question occupera l’opinion publique mondiale, et tout spécialement irakienne. J’ai l’impression d’y tenir une place importante.

 

Qu’aimeriez-vous dire au Saint-Père ?

Ce sera formidable de faire sa connaissance, et je voudrais lui dire : « Nous avons besoin d’une protection internationale parce que notre communauté chrétienne a subi une migration forcée ».

Qu’aimeriez-vous lui montrer à Qaraqosh/Baghdeda ? Que devrait-il visiter ?

J’aimerais lui montrer les églises et les maisons brûlées, afin qu’il voie les dégâts que l’État Islamique a laissés derrière lui dans cette ville. Et aussi notre Musée du patrimoine de Baghdeda pour lui présenter notre histoire et notre culture.

¿Qué significa la visita para usted?
La visita tiene un valor moral, no económico. Este tema ocupará la opinión pública en el mundo y especialmente en Irak. Siento que tengo un lugar importante en él.

 

¿Qué le gustaría decirle al santo padre?
Será genial conocerlo y querría decirle “necesitamos protección internacional, porque nuestra comunidad cristiana ha sufrido una migración forzada”.

¿Qué le gustaría mostrarle en Baghdeda /Qaraqosh? ¿Qué debería visitar?
Me gustaría mostrarle las iglesias y las casas quemadas, para que vea el daño que dejó ISIS en esta ciudad. Y también nuestro Museo del patrimonio de Baghdeda para presentarle nuestro historia y cultura.

Was bedeutet der Besuch für Sie?
Der Besuch hat einen moralischen Wert, keinen wirtschaftlichen. Er wird die öffentliche Meinung in der Welt und insbesondere im Irak beherrschen. Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich einen wichtigen Anteil daran habe.

Was würden Sie dem Heiligen Vater gerne sagen?
Es wird großartig sein, ihn zu treffen, und ich möchte ihm sagen: „Wir brauchen internationalen Schutz, weil unsere christliche Gemeinschaft unter der erzwungenen Auswanderung gelitten hat“.

Was möchten Sie ihm in Baghdida /Karakosch zeigen? Was sollte er besuchen?
Ich möchte ihm die Kirchen und ausgebrannten Häuser zeigen, damit er den Schaden sieht, den ISIS in dieser Stadt angerichtet hat. Und auch unser Heimatmuseum in Baghdida, um ihm unsere Geschichte und Kultur näher zu bringen.

What does this visit mean to you?
This visit has a moral value rather than an economic one. This is a topic that will engage public opinion around the world and especially in Iraq. I feel as though I have an important part to play in it.

What would you like to say to the Holy Father?

It would be wonderful to be able to meet him, and I would like to be able to say to him, “We need international protection, because our Christian community was forcibly displaced.”

What would you like to show him in Qaraqosh/ Baghdeda? What places should he visit?
I would like to be able to show him the churches and houses that were burnt out, so that he could see the destruction left behind by IS in this city. And also our Baghdeda Heritage Museum, so that we can show him our history and culture.