Jürgen Liminski interviews Mons. Cyr-Nestor YAPAUPA, bishop of the Diocese of Alindao in the Central African Republic, for Aid to the Church in Need International (ACN) about the new clashes between factions of the Seleka and the Anti-balaka still present in the region. The violence erupted on 8 May in response to the abduction and murder of several young people in Datoko by the Seleka. Following the intervention of UN troops, the situation has calmed down, for the moment. Nevertheless there are still around 5,000 refugees, who are currently being cared for in various centres of the Catholic Church.
ACN: Is it possible to speak of a normalisation of the situation in the country, since the political accords?
Bishop Cyr-Nestor YAPAUPA : The simple truth is that we cannot speak of a general normalisation of the situation in our country since the outbreak of the crises that have shaken us ever since 2012 and up to the present day. If from time to time and from place to place we have occasionally observed a temporary calming of the situation, here and there and in certain regions, these are nonetheless very ephemeral. There is no lack of fresh outbreaks of violence, creating new crises. More or less the majority of our country is infested with the presence of armed individuals who are a threat to the freedom of our citizens.
How do people live, and on what, in your diocese? Where do they get their food, water, milk?
The people in my diocese essentially live on the local agricultural produce; food from hunting and fishing having become very rare in recent times. As a result there is a risk of a food crisis, which we are already beginning to see. The people are no longer able to cultivate their fields safely, and the reserves and food stores of these country people have been ransacked, pillaged and even burned. As far as water is concerned, the majority of the people depend on man-made wells and boreholes, while others depend on natural water sources such as the rivers. The occasional modern water supply systems serve only a tiny proportion of the population. I can certainly tell you, however, that in the current crisis access to drinking water is is extremely difficult, not to say critical, since the climate of insecurity has made it very dangerous to approach the water sources. Some form of medical intervention is needed to detoxify some of these water supplies from natural sources or man-made wells; this would be of great benefit to the people’s health.
Are you getting any help from the international organisations? From the NGOs? From the Church?
Sadly, I have to tell you first of all that the crisis we are facing today seems to be very little known about, since it receives less media attention than what is happening elsewhere (in Bangui, Bangassou, Bria, Bambari etc.). And since our particular crisis has received so little media attention, how can we expect to get the aid we need from the international organisations? The Church here in my diocese is fighting alone to provide the barest minimum to live on for the refugees and displaced, through the Caritas network and CORDAID. But I can only tell you in all honesty that conditions are extremely precarious still and our resources very much inadequate for effectively helping all these unfortunate people.
Are the schools able to function still?
Even in normal times we were concerned about the schools in our area. We worked unstintingly for the education of the young. But now we face the double sorrow of finding all our efforts blocked by this wind of violence and our children unable to go to school at present. All the schools are closed now. We weep for our abandoned children! But nevertheless we are hoping for a lease of new life so that we can try and quickly establish something for them. I will be very grateful for anyone who can help us in this direction, so that we can give our children one more chance to catch up.
ACN: What are relations like between the Christians and the Muslims in your diocese of Alindao?
First of all I can tell you that my diocese is one of the parts of the country that still has Central African citizens of every religion, all mixed up together, including the Muslims. In this diocese the Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, all lived in perfect harmony with the Muslims. Proof of this is the fact that in almost all the sub prefectures of the region that coincide with my diocese there are organisations known as religious platforms which aim is to maintain links between the religions and consolidate the social peace between the different groups.
The big surprise was to find that during these events some Muslims behaved as persecutors towards some of their Christian brethren. This has certainly affected the bonds of mutual confidence that have hitherto always prevailed. But we intend to do all we can to work to repair this unexpected gulf and promote the path of dialogue and mutual respect, so that we can re-establish confidence.
How many sisters and priests are caring for the refugees?
In my diocese we only have priest at the moment. The sisters left the diocese following the events of 2013 and have not returned. It is impossible for them. With the priests and the other Church personnel we are ten people in all, and we organise ourselves to manage the ongoing work of the diocese, added to which today there is this humanitarian crisis which demands our support, based on our sense of evangelical commitment.
What is on people’s minds, what is talked about?
According to discreet soundings taken by my priests among the faithful after Mass, it appears that the crisis in Alindao is much marginalised. According to the opinions people have shared with us at this time it is only the Catholic Church that has grasped the full consequences of the situation and is struggling to provide its victims with security, protection, food and basic care.
Here is one such statement: « You have done enough! », said one Catholic parishioner to the priest who had celebrated Mass that day. « If there is no outside aid to support your efforts, then we know that no one can do the impossible. We are praying that these events will quickly come to an end so that we can soon return home. They are helping people everywhere else, but here they show no interest in our particular crisis. Our only refuge is God; that is why we come to Mass every day to ask God’s aid in our situation. Fortunately the Catholic Church is there for us. The bishop is a central figure in finding a solution to this crisis. »
And how about the children?
As you know, our children normally have various activities to shape the pattern of their day. In ordinary times their day is divided between school (for those who attend), working in the fields (for the children of the country people) and games and play for all of them after their various other activities. But in the conditions we face today the tensions for our children are very serious as they confront the problem of the violence that is forcing their parents to flee and disrupting their own normal daily activities. One wonders what impact this situation may have on the mental landscape of these children who find themselves brutally transported to these makeshift camps where the sound of gunfire never ceases to thunder around them.
To sum up, the children remain confined beneath the wings of their frightened parents. Together with my priests I often travel to visit the refugees in order to cheer up the parents and their children and give them fresh hope, but the anxiety is still very strong. Obviously, the children need lots of space and freedom to run about in, but sadly they have not the means to do so in this time of crisis. Hence the urgent need to create a space for them where they can play, and above all a makeshift school in which we can very urgently convey to them a spirit of peace and quickly drive from their spirits the tendency to violence, hatred or revenge. For as you know, children’s minds are very quick to remember events, simplistically, and react to them rather than discerning more deeply.
The foundation Aid to the Church in Need is in contact with Mons. Cyr-Nestor Yapaupa and asks for support and donations to assist the Diocese in the emergency situation in which it now finds itself.