Central African Republic: a lost generation

Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalaing of Bangui and President of Caritas Central african Republic. © Xavier Schwebel/SC

Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalaing of Bangui and President of Caritas Central African Republic. © Xavier Schwebel/SC

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Central African Republic has descended into anarchy after rebels seized power in March. The situation has recently deteriorated with popular militias being formed to defend the local population against the rebels, sparking a cycle of retaliation. Marina Bellot of Secours Catholique (Caritas France) spoke with Caritas Central African Republic President Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalaing of Bangui about the crisis in his country.

In June, you said that Central African Republic was slowly dying. What is the situation today?

On 24 March, President François Bozizé was overthrown by a coalition of rebel forces called Seleka. Many of the rebel forces come from outside the country, from Chad and Sudan. The coup d’état came with promises of freedom and peace, but that was quickly replaced by disillusionment among the people.
We have never witnessed such widespread looting. There have been rapes and execution in full sight of everyone. We are accustomed to coups here, but normally they last for two or three days and the leaders of the ousted regime are the only ones who suffer. The current crisis has been going on for four to five months and the whole country is in pain.

It was saddening that rebel fighters looted and vandalized our churches. In some dioceses, all our vehicles were stolen in front of the bishop and priests, who were helpless to prevent them. Now, our pastors have no transport to reach the population.

We’re not surprised that people are fighting back in what I call a “revolt of the poor”. They are desperate, they have lost their parents, their children and their homes. What else do they have to lose.

The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF has expressed concern about the use of child soldiers.

Young people are suffering the most in the crisis. There have been no schools since December. Teachers with links to the former government have been hunted down. They have fled, leaving the children to fend for themselves. Some have been recruited as child soldiers, swapping their pens for Kalashnikovs. How will we be able to get them back to school? This is a lost generation.

The population seems deeply divided…

The Seleka rebellion has broken down our civil order. The rebels have sought to exploit religious difference in the country. Many of the fighters, especially those from Sudan and Chad, are Muslim and speak only Arabic. They speak only with our native Muslims, giving the guns and inciting them.
People equate Seleka with Islam. But that is dangerous thinking. This is not a religious conflict but a political crisis. That different faiths live side by side is a reality of this country. Our history of co-existence and soial cohesion should not be destroyed. But today everyone lives in fear of the other.

What role can the Church play?

Muslim, Protestant and Catholic national religious leaders work together to defuse tensions and explain that the crisis is political. We also train grassroots mediators to reduce conflict in communalities.

The Catholic Church provides aid to those in need. Caritas gives food and clothes and has provided seeds for replanting.

Do humanitarian agencies have access to people in need?

Most aid agencies are unable to leave the capital Bangui because of the danger. In September, two aid workers were killed. We need secure humanitarian corridors so that we can reach all the people.
What can the international community do?
The African Union peacekeeping mission MISCA must be strengthened. Some African countries would like to participate but don’t have the financial means to do so. We want the UN to strengthen its presence. We need security so that people don’t live in fear and can go about their daily lives.

Can the crisis be dealt with by the national government?

The president’s authority is weak. His support is not strong. His generals don’t obey him. The soldiers obey their generals. This is anarchy.
The government has no money. Civil servants haven’t been paid for three months. There aren’t chairs or computers in offices. How can they do their jobs?

Elections must be held in within 18 months. We must do everything to ensure this happens.

Caritas Central African Republic needs further support to carry out its humanitarian work.

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A refugee remembers Syria

The business of Karim, a shoemaker, was destroyed during bombings in Syria. He, his wife, Zahaya, and their year-old son also lost their home to the violence. The family has been living in this tent in Lebanon since late June 2013. Photo by Sam Tarling for CRS

The business of Karim, a shoemaker, was destroyed during bombings in Syria. He, his wife, Zahaya, and their year-old son also lost their home to the violence. The family has been living in this tent in Lebanon since late June 2013. Photo by Sam Tarling for CRS

By Caroline Brennan,

A family photo album. “If only I could see it,” says Zahaya. “Only then could I get the fuller picture.”

Zahaya, 21, is talking about her family and  life in Syria that was so recent—just a year or so ago—that might as well have been another lifetime.

We are sitting in her tent in the summer heat in a growing refugee settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Many refugees have come from their neighbouring tents, and they all want to talk about the Syria they remember. They are taking me back in time—all the way to 2010. They serve coffee, though they have nothing. It is the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, so they are not drinking. They insist and, after some time, there is no way to refuse their offer.

The nostalgia for what Syria was – and the effort to convey that  longing to others – seems to be for so many refugees the last grip on a normal life, to keep themselves from losing their minds. What is happening to their country is simply beyond comprehension. Many of them echo the same message: “We were the country that helped so many people in need. We were the stable ones in the Arab region.” Says Mona, a young woman in the group, “We are humiliated.”

Zahaya keeps referring to the lost family album. It’s not just a book to her—that is clear. It’s not just the loss of something in a move—that can happen to any of us. The album is central to her identity and is now a crucial document in her search for help.

She and her husband, Karim, lived in Ras Al-Ayn, a town near the Turkish border. They were safe for some time during the first year of the civil war in Syria, a conflict that began in March 2011 with a peaceful protest in the south that gradually escalated into a deadly fight for the country. Estimates put the number of people killed in Syria from March 2011 to July 2013 at about 93,000 to 100,000 people. Millions of people have been uprooted inside the country, and at least 1.6 million people having fled into neighboring countries to seek help.

As the indiscriminate violence began to transform sleepy middle-class towns and urban neighborhoods, Zahaya’s family started to feel the creep of danger.

Two events were pivotal to Zahaya’s decision to flee.

Zahaya’s mother, who was suffering from cancer but had already fled to Lebanon when violence engulfed her village, tried to return to Syria for chemotherapy that she couldn’t afford in Lebanon. The bus she was traveling on was hit by a bomb. No one survived. Zahaya still has trouble talking about it today.

Around the same time, Zayaha’s neighborhood started to shake from bombings at night. Community members decided to sleep outside to keep each other safe. One night in April 2013, after waking up, she and her husband walked back to their home and saw that it had been demolished.

“When we saw the house, a house we had worked so hard to physically build, we would have preferred to have died in our house than to see it that way,” Zahaya says. “We had nothing, only the clothes we were wearing. We knew it was time to leave.”

The family tried to go to Turkey, because it was close by, “but even that was too dangerous with bombings and insecurity,” says Zahaya.

So they made their way to Lebanon. Zahaya, Karim and their 1-year old son took several buses and made attempts to cross at three different borders. They were turned away each time because they didn’t have their papers or proof of identity—all destroyed in their house—and because they didn’t have any photos. “No albums?” they were asked when prompted to prove that Zahaya was in fact the mother of her son.

This affront to their identity seems to be the deepest wound many Syrians have endured. Their country is a living nightmare. Their homes and livelihoods are gone. Their families are torn apart. They have nothing to show for everything they lived and worked for.

“It is very difficult to live here in a tent. We live here because we have no money to pay for rent. We have no shower or bath here. We have no running water or electricity,” says Zahaya. “As a mother, it is difficult to manage my family here. Even when I want to bring water to clean clothes, my clothes get dirty with the process of collecting the water.”

The refugee families clutch memories shared in these tents and a hope that they will one day return and rebuild Syria as they remember it. For now, they try to create a semblance of home in another country, in living conditions far below their standards, awaiting news on the safety of loved ones.

“We want all countries around the world to know how we live in this very bad situation,” Zahaya says.” Our children have asthma, illnesses, allergies that we are struggling to care for here. Our life was good before. We were not afraid before.

“Even if I have to live in a tent in Syria, I will go back home the moment it is safe,” she adds.

Her mind goes back to Syria. Without photos of her family to show visitors or to convey what her country means to her, Zahaya hopes that words can do her justice.

“The characteristics of Syrians are generous and helpful. In [previous conflicts in the region] people came to Syria for help. We opened our schools and homes to them. We welcomed them.

“We hope people will be kind to us.”

Editor’s Note: Caritas Lebanon provide critical food, shelter and living supplies to Zahaya and her family. Caroline Brennan is a CRS senior communications officer. She is based in Chicago.

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Relief efforts start in India after Cyclone Phailin leaves trail of destruction

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Credit: Caritas India

Hundreds of thousands of people in India need help after Cyclone Phailin flattened their homes and destroyed their livelihoods.  Many people remain marooned with their villages cut off due to high flood waters.

It was the strongest storm ever to make landfall on India, crashing into the eastern coast at the weekend. The cyclone caused great swathes of damage in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states. As many as 9 million people are said to have been affected in 13 districts.

A mass evacuation effort – described as the biggest in India’s history – kept the death toll relatively low, but needs are still great as people return home.

“Even though many people had gone back to their own villages, they came back to cyclone shelters due to the fear of mud slides or drowning,” said Babita Alick of Caritas India. “Families are living in the open crowded buildings, some in the back of trucks  covering with  plastics.”

Caritas India says families are at risk due to poor hygiene and drinking untreated water.

Caritas India is supporting SWAD (Berhampur Social Service Society) and Balasore Social Service Society with immediate relief in camps and villages where government aid has not reached. Caritas India will provide food, non food essentials and medical aid to address possibilities of risk.

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Caritas India on Cyclone Phailin

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Together against poverty and exclusion debate

Representing Caritas Internationalis, Justin Kilcullen, and Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament (Right). Credit: Alfonso Apicella/Caritas

Representing Caritas Internationalis, Justin Kilcullen, and Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament (Right). Credit: Alfonso Apicella/Caritas

Caritas Internationalis and the EU Embassy to the Holy See sponsored a public debate Friday 11 October with Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament and Caritas Internationalis representative Justin Kilcullen.

By Martina Liebsch

On one hand, there was the perspective of the poorest and most excluded in the poorest regions of the world and the plea for accountability of politicians and governments.

On the other hand, the EU perspective, where a politician has to satisfy the interests of those who had been living a good life but now feel hopeless because of the economic crisis.

“Poverty is a failure of politics,” said Justin Kilcullen, Executive Director of Trócaire (Caritas Ireland), highlighting climate change, the exclusion of women and lack of accountability in governments as symbols of our collective inaction. (Full Speech)

“Failure to end world poverty and social exclusion is not due to a lack of resources, rather it is a lack of political will,” he said.

On climate change, he recalled a recent visit to communities in Uganda struggling to survive: “The reality is that a European citizen produces almost exactly one hundred times the carbon dioxide emissions as a Ugandan citizen.”

He said that due to EU regulations on carbon emissions, there are targets to replace carbon based fuels with bio fuels. This has seen huge areas of Northern Uganda bought up by multinationals to grow bio fuels like African palm.

“Deals done behind closed doors between companies and governments, result in small holders being driven from their lands as large plantations are established,” he said.

Citing the Millennium Development Goals,  a series of government promises for action on anti-poverty, he said, “These commitments included increasing development aid and ending tied aid, finding new and innovative ways of funding development, resolving the debt problem, changing international trading regulations to benefit the poorest countries…”

Instead development aid has fallen, there has been no creation of innovative funding, trade negotiations have been on hold after 12 years and subsidies for agricultural products in the wealthy countries continue to distort the market in favour of the rich.

Justin Kilcullen said to overcome poverty and to enable people to participate fully in all that concerns their lives, we need to reform those structures that cause the marginalisation and alienation in the first place.

“We have to engage as a whole society to hold politicians accountable, to overcome the lack of political will,” he said.

Decent life, for Martin Schulz, means being sure that what someone is doing will also bear fruit for the next generation. Referring to Italy, one of the biggest economies in the world, there are regions with a 50 percent unemployment rate.

This is happening at the same time of enormous speculations on the international financial market.

“We are living in a time of capitalism driven by speculation. The first step is to come to a common understanding that we can speculate about everything, but we must not. We should limit it,” he said.

The fight against poverty, he said, means giving access to credits to small and medium enterprises, those who create most of the jobs and often are carriers of innovation. However they have to fight against high interest rates. Without investment in the real economy there is no growth, with no growth no jobs, with no jobs no hope.

Referring to austerity measures, which are seen as a “recipe” against the economic crisis, he tried to balance the need for budgetary discipline and at the same time investing in social capital.

“We need to invest now in social capital, especially through education and vocational training for new generations,” he said. “On the other side, future generations should not pay for our sovereign debt. Reduce sovereign debt is a question of solidarity between generation.”

He said, “We need to finish the hypocrisy the EU is practicing, of hailing at change in developing countries, like the Arab Spring, while cutting back on domestic budgets, namely development aid.”

The debate reflected that in many countries, poverty is a question of life and death and in others a question of maintaining decent standards for the broad population. How we can we bring together these apparently existing different levels of poverty?

For Justin Kilcullen, “We need leaders of vision and courage who call upon all of us, the citizens of the world, to ensure the gifts of creation are protected and developed for the common good.”

Martina Liebsch is director of Advocacy and Policy at Caritas Internationalis

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Recovery efforts after cyclone slams India

Cyclone Phailin swirls over the Bay of Bengal, covering an area larger than France. Creative Commons

Cyclone Phailin swirls over the Bay of Bengal, covering an area larger than France. Creative Commons

Spread of disease is one of the biggest concerns as relief efforts gear up after Cyclone Phailin hit eastern areas of India at the weekend. Initial government estimates estimating 8 million people have been affected and 200,000 to 350,000 homes damaged or destroyed.

Caritas India staff and their local partners are assessing the damage in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa states. Caritas ground personnel say that a majority of the impact is on property, assets, telecommunications and the disruption of the natural environment.

Caritas India says people have started slowly moving back to the villages from cyclone shelters. The water has entered many villages leading to possible hygiene concerns. Efforts are underway to contact laboratory testing units, to ensure outbreak of disease can be controlled.

Prior to the cyclone making landfall, the local government and many aid agencies coordinated the country’s biggest evacuation in 23 years with more than 900,000 people moved from low-lying coastal areas to nearly 250 emergency shelters in schools and government offices. This massive evacuation helped keep reported casualties low thus far.

CRS, the American Caritas member, was involved in the evacuation efforts. John Shumlansky, CRS’ country representative in India, said that, “While reports of casualties are low, we shouldn’t underestimate the scale of this disaster. There are millions of people who will need support to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. CRS, the local Church, our sister Caritas agencies and other partners will work with the government to determine how we can help the poorest families as they begin that process.”

Kirti Mishra, Catholic Relief Services India’s operations manager based in Bhubaneshwar, spent the night in her home about 35 miles from the coast. “This morning when I left my home, it looked so devastating,” she said. “I could see roads blocked with uprooted tree and response teams clearing the roads. Houses made of mud and bamboo were the worst hit and homes in the slums have completely collapsed and roofs are blown away.

“Tomorrow I’ll be in the field helping with assessments and determining how CRS can best help. I’m looking forward to visiting some of the people who we help through long-term development projects and seeing how they fared in the cyclone. Catholic Relief Services and the local Church will walk with them through this emergency and continue the important work we’re doing in our ongoing projects.”

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Pacific welcome for Caritas Internationalis President in Aotearoa New Zealand

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By Martin De Jong

From the moment he received a Samoan lei (garland) at morning Mass, Caritas Internationalis President Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga knew he was in for a special experience. He was on a brief visit to Aotearoa New Zealand at the bottom of the South Pacific this week, before travelling onto Australia.

In a homily on Friday’s Gospel (Luke ‪11:15-26)‬, where Jesus casts out devils, Cardinal Maradiaga reflected on the ‘modern devils’ – such as the greed behind the 2007 global financial crisis – that we are called to expel today. Reflecting on the work of Caritas, and Christ’s word to us today, he said we are called not to promote a globalisation of greed, but ‘instead a globalisation of solidarity and love’.

Shortly after the Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington, Cardinal Maradiaga was formally welcomed in a whakatau – a Maori welcome acknowledging the sacred dignity of visitor and host alike. Maori are the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand, represented by 12 per cent of the population, which now includes many descended from more recent European, Pacific, Asian and other arrivals.

‘I can’t describe what I have in my heart,’ said Cardinal Maradiaga. ‘It’s beautiful to come to another culture that you don’t know, and be greeted by a different language – but it’s the same language: love,’ said Cardinal Maradiaga.

Later, In a meeting with staff and representatives of Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand and the Caritas Oceania regional organisation, he encouraged them in facing their challenges, highlighting the importance of education and formation of the Catholic laity, of love and mercy, and Pope Francis’ message to go to the margins. He appreciated the staff’s important work in advocacy and education, and addressing the needs of poor and vulnerable people in Aotearoa New Zealand and abroad.

Responding to a staff member’s question, ‘How do you show God’s love in a practical way when writing a report?’, Cardinal Maradiaga quoted the Spanish: Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente, which he expressed in English as ‘It is necessary to see, in order to share.’

In a discussion on the impact of climate change on low-lying Pacific islands, Cardinal Maridiaga expressed concern for the plight of Kiribati, whose President Anote Tong has sought opportunities for his country’s people to migrate elsewhere if rising seas make some islands in his widely dispersed nation uninhabitable. The Cardinal said Caritas Internationalis was lobbying on climate justice, despite the ‘indifference’ often found at international fora and among nations such as China and the United States.

Talking to Catholic media at the end of the day, during discussion on a lack of named Saints orginating from Oceania, the Cardinal said, ‘There is a lot of holiness in the Church, more than people think. There are quiet and simple, beautiful Christians going about their work.’

Today (Saturday), Cardinal Maradiaga is meeting New Zealand’s Catholic Bishops whose biannual meeting in Wellington coincided with his visit. He is also being interviewed live on New Zealand’s National Radio at 8.15am NZT (Friday 9.15pm Rome time):  http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday  (available by podcast shortly after the interview).

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