Tag Archives: Caritas CAR

Reflections from Central African Republic

Catherine Mahony in Bangui, Central African Republic. Credit: Matthieu Alexandre/Caritas

Catherine Mahony in Bangui, Central African Republic. Credit: Matthieu Alexandre/Caritas

By Catherine Mahony

I’m in the Central African Republic as part of the Caritas Internationalis Emergency Response Team, supporting Caritas CAR in delivering assistance to communities which have been devastated by violence since the coup in March this year.

While the crisis is only just beginning to register in the consciousness of the international community, for months now I’ve been reading reports from Caritas CAR, detailing the horrors faced by members of their parishes.

I’ve shuddered as I’ve read about communities so traumatised by vicious attacks they cannot bury their dead, whose corpses lie strewn about the burnt down villages until they become a hazard to the remaining survivors. Each week a litany of atrocities grows, that I feel disrespectful to repeat, lest they become ghoulish or vulgarised.

To understand the scale of the crisis, in a country of five million, half a million are displaced. Nearly one and a half million are severely food insecure, and as people are too afraid of being attacked to go to their fields to plant crops, this will worsen. Health centres, few, far between and under-supplied at the best of times, have been systematically pillaged. The coalition of Seleka forces, whose rebellion overthrew the government of Francoise Bozize, roam virtually unimpeded throughout the country, taking by force whatever they choose.

The tension is palpable on arrival. When I ask Abbe Dieubeni, who came to meet us at the airport, how things are in Bangui, he looks away uncomfortably as he tells me it’s not good. The journey from the airport through the city of Bangui takes us quickly through darkened and deserted streets.

There is no enforced curfew, but people don’t go out. We’re asked to return to the guesthouse by 5pm, due to an increase of car-jackings at night, and we heard that the night we arrived the driver of an INGO was killed during one such theft. Our driver, Brice, is chatty and funny, a great guide to the town, but as it gets darker, he’s visibly twitchy. So great is the fear of the brutality, people don’t take chances.

Caritas Central African Republic President Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalaing of Bangui has taken time to explain the situation to us. He describes a country which has been chronically neglected, to the point where it has become so vulnerable that it has been overrun by a loosely allied coalition of rebels, known as the Seleka. Many of these are thought to come from neighbouring Chad and Sudan, and are here to extract everything of value that they can from the country.

Religion has been used as a means to divide communities and further destabilise the country. Ill-trained if at all, and without a formal command structure, Seleka commit atrocities with impunity. Many are afraid that without action to rapidly stabilise the country, the situation will collapse into a spiral of ever more bloody revenge attacks.

We headed out to Ngandala, a village which Caritas CAR is supporting after they suffered repeated raids by Seleka. Each time, without any warning, the community was pillaged, taking anything of value, including agricultural tools, cooking equipment and food. People fled to the bush in fear of their lives, and with good reason. In the village further up the road, two people were executed on the spot for resisting demands. The village was deserted for days, while people hid, exposed to the elements, in the long grass and trees that surround the area.

Sister Flora Guerekopialo, Programme Manager for this response, tells me that in the last month it’s been calmer, and people are starting to return to normal patterns of life. The community has joined together to form small cooperatives, or ‘groupements’ where they grow food collectively and share it to eat and sell.

Caritas is supporting these cooperatives by providing them with tools and cassava saplings to grow on communal land. While the crowd of smiling faces show people are clearly happy with this assistance, the fear that remains is evident in the speed with which they gather up and hide away their tools after the distribution.

The children in the community provide some perspective. I’ve noticed that Bangui seems to be a town of dancers – as we’re driving along I frequently notice people dancing, even when there’s no music, sometimes alone, just to pass the time.

During our visit to the village, I sat with the children who were interested in my camera. One started a wriggly little dance, and I danced back. Soon they were all dancing, and spontaneously they struck up a beautiful, loud, exuberant song. I was sitting down, surrounded on all sides, by about thirty wriggling, giggling children, tiny tots to ten year olds, belting out songs in Sango, the national language.

All around me were ecstatic faces, and behind them their parents, clapping and laughing along. All I could do was laugh and wriggle myself, and wallow a while in their happiness.

I find it strange, but right, that just after Sister Flora has told the desolation of village when everyone fled to the bush, I’m suddenly immersed in the most joyful mass of children. This is what I’d really like to share of the story of CAR.

Here people of different tribes and religions have a long and strong history of peaceful cohabitation. I’d like people to know that there are beautiful things here: hardworking farmers, dedicated teachers, laughing children. We’re not in the abyss, but we are on the precipice. We must act now.

Caritas and the inter-religious platform of CAR are calling upon the international community to take immediate action to bring stability to the country, ensure smooth transition to democratic governance and provide support for quick and effective humanitarian relief.

Catherine Mahony is an Emergency Coordinator for West Africa at CAFOD, a Caritas member in the UK.

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Central African Republic road movie

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On the road in the Central African Republic

Fr Aurélio Gazzera is the local diocesan Caritas director in Bouar in Northern Central African Republic

Read this story in French

Scene from a Western

These days I had been in Bangui for meetings. Coming back Thursday, we arrived at the ‘PK12’ roadblock, the gateway and exit to the capital. Men belonging to Seleka forces, the rebel group who seized the country in March, asked to search the car. I told them that they had no authority to do so, but if the police want to do the search then fine. There were policemen on the other side of the street.

One of the rebels fighter insisted on carrying out the search. Again, I refused and we left. After 500 m, I saw in the mirror a rebel with a machine gun on a motorbike coming up behind the car. I was motioned to stop, and I did. The rebel pointed the gun in my face and told me to return to the checkpoint.  He started to shoot at the tires and then in the air, expecting me to reverse.

With bullet holes now in the tires, I explained to him that I couldn’t move the car. A stray bullet had also hit a woman passerby. I was trying to calm the situation down, when luckily a joint patrol of Central African and Congolese soldiers came by. They tried to get the rebel soldier to relax and then we changed the tires of my car.

We went to a police station and called the local chief of police.  The rebel who had shot at us was arrested. The rebel chief asked for a search of the car again and so the police chief asked what was inside and we told him 4 pots of paint. He was satisfied.

Scene from thriller

After buying two new tires, we were back on the road again heading for PK12. A government minister had now joined us and insisted on coming along (for our protection).  A land cruiser with blacked out windows was waiting now at the roadblock. We passed it by.

But then further up there were two more pickups with rebels waiting on the road. We feared they were out for revenge or wanted to take one of us to bargain for their arrested colleague or were just angry because PK12 is a big source of income and we were threatening that lucrative sideline. We did a U-turn on the minister’s suggestion.

The rest of Thursday and Friday, we tried to get out of the city. But we needed to organise an escort and that was difficult to find. There was a UN plane, but not until next week and not to Bozoum. We could drive another way, but that would be long and wouldn’t be safe either. We resigned ourselves to wait.

Scene from a spy story

On Saturday morning , it rains for 4 hours. After prayer and Mass , I said to my companions that we could take advantage of the weather to try to pass.  All agree. We pick up Joseph, our driver, and his wife and we hit the road. I get in the back, disguised in dark glasses and a sweater.

We arrive at PK 12. Joseph goes to sign the necessary paper work ( and pay the 1000 f cfa bribe). Then Seleka revels says they want to search the car. But before the search can start, the police stop the rebels, saying that NGO or Mission vehicles are only to be searched by the police.

After ten minutes waiting in silence in the car, with the windows now fogged up, we hear someone shout to Joseph if he has Fr Aurelio with him. It’s a policeman who had been at the seminary. It’s a moment of terror.  Luckily, he sees Fr Stefano and they greet each other. Finally we leave.

Scene from a tragedy

Why all this? It is absurd that the entrance to the capital is left in the hands of the rebels who act like cowboys. It is absurd that people should continue to support all these atrocities and injustices . It is absurd that the government fails to do its duty and allows an armed man to shot in broad daylight in one of the busiest places in the capital city.

I hope and believe that speaking about the risks involved in this work can be used to change something …

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Giving is receiving in Central African Republic

Aid delivery in CAR. Credit Fr Aurelio/Caritas

Aid delivery in CAR. Credit Fr Aurelio/Caritas

By Fr Aurelio Gazzera, Bozoum

Now there are already 2,400 displaced, and I fear the numbers will increase as the situation in the country continues to be precarious. This week in the capital Bangui there was shooting and looting and at least one dozen people were killed. But also in the rest of the country there is no peace.

In Bohong (80km apart from Bouar), a parish which belongs to our diocese, the shooting and the pillaged forces the priests and religious sisters to leave the place. One of the priests, Fr Michel went 80 km on foot. In Beboura (about 150 km apart from Bozoum) also many people were killed. The first displaced are now arriving to Bozoum.

Here in Bozoum this week we were able to start to provide relief supplies to the refugees. In spite of a bridge which was blocked, we have received significant supplies of food stuff and other goods. Thanks to UNICEF and HRC we have received a truckload of the most urgent goods: 600 blankets, 600 mosquito nets, 600 plastic awning, 600 canisters, 4520 pieces of soap, 300 hygiene kits and 300 kitchen kits.

The food stuff was provided by the World Food Program: corn flour, salt, dried peas and oil. Two truckloads… But the main challenge is to distribute the foodstuff to the families in accordance with the number of their members. But with patience (both on the part of the refugees and on the part of the parish volunteers) the displaced have received a bit of help which allows them to look into the future with a little more hope.

Thanks to UNICEF, HCR and World Food Program. Thanks to ACF (Action contre la Faim), which is in charge of the logistics. Thanks to all who are by some means or other trying to do something, like Nejamin, Robert… Great thanks to all volunteers, who have been working with courage and love. And thanks also to the displaced, as a smile from the little ones, the women and men is Good News.

En français Continue reading

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Central African Republic on the brink

Credit: Fr Aurélio Gazzera/Caritas

Credit: Fr Aurélio Gazzera/Caritas

Fr Aurélio Gazzera is the local diocesan Caritas director in Bouar in Northern Central African Republic. Rebel Seleka forces seized power in CAR in March, plunging the country into anarchy. The United Nations said last week the country was on the brink of collapse and the crisis was threatening to spread beyond its borders. Caritas Internationalis has launched an international appeal for over €700,000 to support its work for peace and reconciliation, help people meet their immediate needs and re-establish their livelihoods as well as offer basic health services in nine dioceses.Fr Gazzera’s eye-witness accounts have spoken of villages being abandoned as people flee the violence.

By Fr Aurélio Gazzera

There are makeshift road blocks around Bohong, manned by Seleka fighters. The armed men charge you 1000 CAR francs to enter or leave the town if you’re on a bike, while its 200 CAR francs if you’re on foot. If you don’t have the money, then you’ll have to drink dirty water or roll around in the mud as punishment.

In the market, Seleka men carryout unannounced raids looking for people with prohibited alcohol, which is sold and drunk from small sachets. But they take everything from people’s pockets, phones, money and anything else.

Relations between the local population in Bohong and Seleka has never been good, since the rebel fighters arrived here 27 April 2013. And now it risks spiraling into violence.

Local young men called ‘Young Archers’ or ‘Anti-Zaraguina’ (zaraguina are criminal gangs) had helped eradicate criminality in the area. They have reacted to the actions of Seleka. But they’ve met continued opposition within the town’s ad hoc local government.

Then three weeks ago, the leader of the Young Archers was arrested without any reason, beaten and humiliated. The local youth wanted to retaliate, but dialogue prevailed.

Caritas are delivering aid items like soap, kitchen utensils, covers, tarpaulins, hygiene kits, mosquito nets in the area. It's been hampered after a military truck overturned, preventing passage across a bridge.

Caritas are delivering aid items like soap, kitchen utensils, covers, tarpaulins, hygiene kits, mosquito nets in the area. It’s been hampered after a military truck overturned, preventing passage across a bridge.

But the situation deteriorated further. On Friday 16 August, a youth who makes a living repairing bicycles and selling tobacco was arrested. He was being taken to the local Seleka base when a group of Young Archers appeared. They asked the local people to go into the bush while they settled their dispute “man to man” with Seleka. Four Seleka men were killed and many wounded. It marked the beginning of major hostilities.

In the evening, reinforcements arrived from Bocaranga Ngaoundaye and Paoua. Continuous gunfire was heard into the evening. People fled the town. It is difficult to get an accurate idea of the number of injuries and deaths on the side of Seleka and of the local people of Bohong.

The next day at around 10.00, a group of Seleka men went to the church refectory and broke down the door of the parish priest, Fr. Célestin Doyari Dongombe. They then continued to the convent, where they smashed the doors down.

On Sunday morning, the looting and shooting continued. At 11, the Vicar General of the diocese of Bouar, Fr Abbot Mireck Gucwa, sent a car to Bouar, with the driver and Sister Bliss of the Sisters of Charity, in order to rescue the priest and Sisters.

The mission arrived around 11:30. With the help of the ad hoc local authorities, they were able to take the Church staff out of the town to Bouar and saftey.

We learned the next day that on the evening of their departure, Seleka men returned to sack the rectory and the convent, they burned the huts and straw houses which are used for catechism and they plundered and desecrated the church sacristy. They took the car belonging to Father Michael.

This may only be the beginning of tit-for-tat violence.

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Killings reported in Central Africa Republic

People who have fled violence in Bouar. Credit: Fr Aurelio

People who have fled violence in Bouar. Credit: Fr Aurelio

By Clotaire Mbao Ben-Seb, Communications Officer Caritas Central Africa

The people of Central African Republic continue to live through a terrifying ordeal.

Calm has returned to the capital Bangui, but in the interior of the country, human rights abuses are continuing according to local staff.

Fr Aurélio Gazzera is the local diocesan Caritas director in Bouar in northern CAR.

He says that there has been violence, robbery and killings against the local people from 25 July. People are experiencing the worst conditions of their lives.

Fr Gazzera was part of a fact finding mission to Ouhman-Bac on Sunday 27 July. He says there are reports of between 30 to 50 bodies thrown into the river Ouham. This has caused people to flee from the area. Caritas is seeking to find out further confirmation around the incident.

Fr Gazzera says that there is a lack of food, medicine, sleeping mats and tarpaulins for people as the rainy season hits.

A fact finding mission found villages empty. Credit: Fr Aurelio

A fact finding mission found villages empty. Credit: Fr Aurelio

He says that in the regional capital Bouar, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic leaders have met to discuss the issue and produced a message to be read in various churches and mosques.

The message condemns the violence and calls on all believers to come together for peace (see link to press release).

They have dedicated 12 August, the day before independence for Central African Republic, as a day of prayer at the local stadium.

 

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Central Africa Republic slides into chaos

Armed men patrol the streets of Bangui. Credit: Caritas

Read in French

Cases of arbitrary killings, robberies, looting and abductions have been reported throughout Central African Republic since Seleka rebel forces seized power in March.

“I saw a man walking down the street. Armed men called out to him. Then he was shot and killed for no reason,” said Solange. “I have been living in fear for the past three months. I just stay at home all day. The school is closed any way.”

As well as widespread criminality and human rights abuses, concerns have been raised over the forced recruitment of teenagers by armed groups.

Meanwhile, basic services have ground to a halt. A Caritas aid worker said that without the rule of law, many schools have not reopened and even where they have, only few students are attending. Continue reading

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