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Central African Republic: Surrounded By Violence – The Arduous Pursuit of Peace

Two years ago, Pope Francis visited the country. The papal visit has had a before and an after. The situation improved particularly in the capital, Bangui. The sad thing is that the rest of the country continues to sink more deeply into chaos.

In the history of the Central African Republic there is a “before” and an “after” visit, to that country by Pope Francis. The Central African Republic (CAR) was the centre of attention for world media in November 2015 due to the Holy Father’s visit and opening there of the very first Holy Door of that special Jubilee of Mercy. All of a sudden Bangui, the capital, became “the spiritual capital of the world”.

The Papal visit began on the eve of a constitutional referendum and presidential elections which it was hoped would be a move towards the stabilisation of the Central African Republic. The ‘Francis effect’ was felt above all in the capital of Bangui, but however undeniably many parts of the country still remain in the hands of armed Seleka militia, with massacres, violence and all kinds of injustices. How and why this dramatic situation arose? A historical reconstruction helps us understand.

The Central African Republic, as the name implies, is situated in the heart of Africa, set between the Democratic Republic of the Congo , Sudan, South Sudan, Chad and Cameroon. With a population of circa 5 million, a country with no access to the sea, but rich in land, water, pastures, agricultural products, forests, oil and diamonds.

A wealth almost “theoretical”, since it is neither exploited nor valorised. And this explains why the every development classification puts CAR at the bottom. However it also explains why so many find the country tempting for its riches or for geopolitical strategies decided by others.

Established in 1960 with independence from France, the CAR has lived though one regime after the other, almost all with coup d’état, which put into the hands of the leader political or military of the moment power, in theory to end the injustices of the previous regime, but in actual fact to portion out relief-aid, influence and wealth. Moreover, the past 15 years have seen a proliferation of armed groups with the openly declared intention to rebel against the central government.

In December 2012, armed groups merge into an alliance, ‘Seleka’, meaning in Sango the national language, Alliance. Formed on a regional basis, in the northeast region on the border with Sudan and Chad, of mainly Muslim elements, in a few months Seleka sweeps across most of the country reaching Bangui in March 2013. It takes power, ousting President François Bozizé. Behind this umpteenth coup, there lies also foreign influence, from France, Chad, Sudan, Arab Gulf States.

There follows nine terrible months of sacking, robbery, violence and splitting up of the country – the local Muslims – about 10% of the population – are involved. Some collaborate, to their advantage, but many others instead are victims, like everyone else and all are swept away when in December 2013, when a real civil war breaks out.

The Antibalaka phenomenon is born. Many non Muslims take up arms, some for defence and others for revenge, against the Seleka and against the Muslims, and the result is chaos. Hundreds of thousands in flight, thousands of casualties. For several months, the only safe places are parishes which offer shelter to thousands. Christians threatened by Seleka, Muslims threatened by Antibalaka.

The local Church stands in front line. Earlier, December 2012 (long before war broke out) religious leaders had formed a special platform: Catholics, Protestants and Muslims together to ward off the threat of war between religions.

The Bishop of Bangui, Mons. Dieudonné Nzapalainga, unexpectedly made a cardinal in November 2016, became a very important point of reference. He never failed, even under gunfire, to carry to the people the consolation of God.

At the beginning of 2013 president Michel Djiotodjia (of Seleka), is ousted and replaced by Catherine Samba Panza. Notwithstanding good intentions, chaos persists in the country, despite a military intervention by France and more importantly by the United Nations Organization, which establishes an ad hoc Central African multidimensional mission, with 12 thousand Blue Helmet Peace Keepers.

Thanks to strong pressure from France, between the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, at last, elections are held. Few are the voters, few are the programmes but, quite unexpectedly, Archange Faustin Touadera, professor of Mathematics at the University of Bangui is elected President, a candidate little considered in the forecasts, but probably seen by young voters as an element of hope.

In the meantime, just as unexpectedly comes Pope Francis’ surprise visit to Bangui, at the end of November 2015. Advised not to go by France and by the UN, the Pope insists in his intent and succeeds even though the Central African Republic is a country at war. For 2 months it had been impossible to travel the roads such was the tension and the danger of attacks by militia groups.

The arrival of Pope Francis changes everything. At last people are celebrating, running alongside the roads to greet the Pope who leads prayers, visits camps of displaced persons, and visits the country’s Mosque and Muslim community.

Pope Francis travels through the city on a small jeep, no bullet proof windows, no protection. There where the Blue Helmets do not go, or if they do, they ride in tanks or armoured cars, he goes armed with simplicity and a smile, winning the hearts of the people.

The papal visit has a before and an after. The situation improved particularly in the capital, Bangui. The sad thing is that the rest of the country continues to sink more deeply into chaos. Now, 14 of the country’s 16 prefectures – 88% of the national territory – are in the hands of Seleka rebels, the people suffer massacres, violence and all kinds of injustices.

Except for the capital, government is practically absent, the official UN Peace keepers cannot, or will not, react and their presence is increasingly criticised.

Attempts to restore peace are not lacking, but very often these attempts are out of touch with reality envisaging major ‘prizes’ instead of sanctions for the armed groups, while showing no concern for the victims.

The Church continues her valuable work of providing protection and shelter for those in difficulty regardless of religion or ethnic origin, reporting what is happening and striving to form consciences to find some escape from the chaos.