In his first Urbi et Orbi message, on Christmas Day 2013, Pope Francis spoke about the Central African Republic (CAR), asking the Lord to restore peace to that country, which has been engulfed by conflict. He said, “Grant peace, dear Child, to the Central African Republic, often forgotten and overlooked. Yet you, Lord, forget no one! And you also want to bring peace to that land, torn apart by a spiral of violence and poverty, where so many people are homeless, lacking water, food, and the bare necessities of life.”
Last week, following his general audience, Pope Francis met with Archbishop of Bangui Diedonné Nzapalainga; the president of the Central Africa Republic’s Evangelical Alliance, Nicolas Guerekoyame Gbangou; and the president of the Islamic Council in the CAR, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama. The French newspaper Le Monde has called these men “the three saints of Bangui.” Vatican Radio reported that the Pontiff “encouraged them to remain united and close to their communities, and to continue to work together to combat attempts of division.”
In February, I had the chance to speak with Father Paterne Mombe, SJ, a Jesuit from the Central African Republic and coordinator of the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN), which is based in Nairobi. Father Mombe shared an overview of the history of the conflict in his country, efforts by churches and faith communities to end the violence and initiate reconciliation, and his personal experience of the conflict in the capital city, Bangui, in December 2013.
CWR: The conflict in the CAR caught international attention and gained much media coverage in December 2013. Please share with us briefly, the genesis of the ongoing conflict in your country.
Father Mombe: In early December 2012, a rebellious movement in the north of the country began its advance towards the capital Bangui. They moved very fast and by the end of December (the same year), they were within 200 kilometers of the capital city. The rapidity with which they gained ground is a result of atrophy of the state in the country side, as well as a national army which felt that the members of the presidential guard, mainly drawn from the then-president’s own ethnic community, were favored at their expense. Two previous regimes have also developed the army based on ethnic grounds as opposed to meritocracy and professionalism. The regime of president André-Dieudonné Kolingba (1981-1993) had started well, but ended up installing bad governance as a default way of running the affairs of the state. His successor, President Felix Patasse (1993-2003), fared no better, with ethnicity [favoritism] being rife. Then followed President François Bozize (2003-2013) who, besides ethnicity, also tolerated nepotism, with members of his immediate family being appointed to head key government agencies.
After negotiations in neighboring Libreville, Congo, President Bozize and the rebel movement struck a deal. However, later on, and more specifically on March 15, 2013, in a speech marking the 10th anniversary of coming to power, he indicated that he was unwilling to leave office and would change the constitution. This sparked off another round of violence, and the rebels this time overran the capital and seized power.
CWR: What was the composition of the rebel movement and what was their plan?
Father Mombe: The rebels (Seleka) are a coalition of three movements, many of whom were trained in Chad, Darfur, and Northern CAR. Soon after taking over the capital, they installed Michel Djotodia as president. So we ended up with a Muslim president, although with a Christian name! The CAR is mostly Christian [ed: about 80 percent] with about 10 to 15 percent of the population being Muslim. But he seemed to have no clear vision or plan on governing the country. Slowly he even lost control of his own troops, who resorted to imposing sharia law and looting everything including premises belonging to UN agencies. They did not spare government offices, which they also looted, destroying many government records.
CWR: How did the religious tensions start?
Father Mombe: The Seleka rebels, in their looting sprees, attacked businesses but spared Muslim-owned shops. On one occasion, they fired rockets at a Protestant church, interrupted Mass at several Catholic churches, and beat up priests. They also destroyed churches in the countryside, and villagers were asked to pay taxes to the rebels in one case where the chief had ran away fearing for his life. Basically, the rebels got very arrogant and were mistreating the population, even humiliating some civil servants by beating them up in public.
In response to these events, some young people organized themselves to protect the population from the excesses of the Seleka rebels. This was in September of 2013. This organized group of youth, called the anti-Balaka, felt that there was not enough, consistent international response to the looting, killing, and sexual violence carried out by the Seleka rebels. However, the anti-Balaka slowly evolved from protecting the population to revenge attacks and killing of Muslims. They helped to fan anti-Muslim sentiment in the population, and this led to revenge attacks on Muslims, including savage killings and looting of Muslim-owned shops.
CWR: Please tell us about your personal experience of the conflict in the CAR. How has your family been affected?
Father Mombe: We have been neighbors with the brother of the former president, Bozize. In March 2013 the Seleka rebels looted the house after the coup. They set up an intelligence office at the home and, very often, people connected with former president Bozize would be brought there and tortured. Since our houses are only separated by a wall, my family could hear the noise from the house. One of my sisters could not stand it. She went to the UN mission offices and reported the matter, after which the rebels stopped their activities at that house.
In early December 2013, I had gone home for the funeral of my mother. One evening, as I said Mass in the courtyard of our family house, I heard a noise followed by the sound of a car driving off at high speed. Someone had been killed by the rebels just outside, but I was not told until much later, after the Mass was over. Then one morning, the rebels sent a message that we could no longer use our courtyard to celebrate Mass. They felt uncomfortable by the presence of people so close to where they carried out their atrocities. They even sent a group of women to intervene on their behalf, three days before my mother’s burial.
On the 5th of December, just three days before the end of the mourning period and my mother’s burial, there was an outbreak of violence between the Seleka rebels and the anti-Balaka youth. Some of the rebels came over, purportedly to re-assure us of our safety. In reality, they were surveying our compound with a view to kill us. That evening, they asked us to turn off the security lights. We kept indoors and felt unsafe. At around 11:00 that night, I heard our dog barking very strongly and nervously so I asked my brother to check why he was barking. Later we found out that there were four rebels trying to scale our wall, but because of the barking, they did not get in. I have never been so afraid. I called Father Rigobert Minani, SJ (coordinator of the Social Apostolate of the Jesuits in Africa), and explained to him the situation. He in turn gave me the contacts of the head of the African peace-keeping mission in Bangui, who came to help us.
Three days later I moved around in town to see for myself what had happened. I learnt that a cousin of mine had been killed by Muslims. He was buried by the Red Cross.
CWR: How have religious leaders responded to the conflict?
Father Mombe: The archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapailanga, has been visiting different communities around Bangui, to help restore peace. He has teamed up with a Muslim imam (Imam Oumar Kobine Layama) and a Protestant pastor (Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame Gbangou), to pass the message that “this is not an inter-religious conflict.” They speak to communities about reconciliation and highlight human rights violations that are going on around the country.
I once accompanied the archbishop and staff from the Jesuit Refugee Services to St. Paul’s Parish in Bangui to visit the displaced population. He showed strong leadership and pleaded for their case to the UN mission. The people were shouting, “God only knows you are the one who is president,” referring to the concern and leadership that he has shown since the crisis started. In fact his surname, “Nzapailanga” means “God only knows.”
CWR: How about the political leaders? What are they doing to restore peace?
Father Mombe: President Michel Djotodia has since been forced to resign and replaced by an interim president, Mrs. Catherine Samba-Panza. There is a now a transitory parliament, which we hope will take the necessary steps to bring stability and re-organize the administration, to ensure rule of law and order prevails across the country. I feel there is a need for a strong push to restore peace. We already have peace-keeping troops from neighboring countries as well as France. But the troops need to have a stronger mandate to disarm and collect weapons from all groups. A section of the Seleka is still heavily armed, with heavy artillery, including anti-aircraft guns, which were discovered by the French army just before Christmas. The monopoly of security must be ensured by the international community.
CWR: In closing, what else would you like readers to know?
Father Mombe: There are two other key priorities in the CAR now: humanitarian crisis and reconstruction. On the humanitarian front there is need for food. Farmers have not been growing food due to the conflict. There is also a great need for access to medication, because the Seleka rebels emptied hospitals during their looting sprees. The interim authority needs to assert itself on the territory and to ensure observance of human rights. Many killings have occurred in full view of children. They need massive counseling to enable them to grow and to nurse the scars of what they have witnessed.
Most importantly, there is need to give hope and life to the people of the CAR.