OXFORD, England –– A Catholic aid representative praised local peace and reconciliation initiatives in the Central African Republic but warned that the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers could be planned too late to prevent disaster.
An African Union soldier patrols as people prepare to be evacuated with the help of an armed convoy escorted by African Union peacekeepers, near Bangui, Central African Republic. (CNS photo/Siegfried Modola, Reuters)“What religious leaders are doing is commendable and honorable, but it’s even more impressive to see the grass-roots efforts now underway,” said Kim Pozniak, communications officer for Catholic Relief Services in sub-Saharan Africa.
“When the leaders came together to mobilize for peace, local people did the same, forming groups and taking their own initiatives. Such work from the ground up is what’s really needed here,” she told Catholic News Service May 2 during a break while visiting the Baltimore-based agency’s programs offering assistance to people displace by the 17-month conflict in Bangui, the country’s capital, and elsewhere.
Pozniak said some areas of Bangui were relatively safe, with vendors on the streets and construction underway, but that other regions were witnessing regular violence.
Thousands of people have died and up to 1.5 million people have been displaced by violence since December 2012 when Arab-speaking Islamists, known as Seleka, began an offensive that resulted in the toppling of the government of President Francois Bozize. The Seleka coalition was declared dissolved in September and a new president was inaugurated in January, but clashes have continued with groups from a mostly Christian militia, known as Anti-Balaka, despite the deployment of 2,000 French and 5,000 African peacekeepers.
Pozniak described grim conditions in a Bangui displacement camp run by the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission. She said she met a Christian woman with seven children who fled to the compound Christmas Day to escape violence in their neighborhood.
She described how the mother and her children, along with others, were sleeping on the floor and eating once daily. She said one young boy tugged her sleeve and “begged for something to eat” as she spoke with the woman.
“We’re providing financial, technical and logistical support to our partners at the Commission and Caritas. But the situation is dire, and the local priest simply can’t find resources for so many people,” Pozniak said.
“The rainy season is now starting, and huge downpours are leaving camps and compounds inches deep in mud.”
News reports said most of Bangui’s 80,000 Muslim residents had fled attacks by Anti-Balaka groups seeking revenge for Seleka excesses, despite joint peace appeals by the Bangui Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga and Imam Omar Kobine Layama.
However, Pozniak met a 24-year-old Muslim youth who remained in the community to help run a series of radio broadcasts and interreligious workshops, backed by CRS, that were aimed at promoting “social cohesion and reconciliation.”
The young man and other peace workers had gained a “good reception” from Bangui’s local communities but also risked attack by those seeking to stoke interfaith conflict, she said.
In addition, she explained, several Muslim women had been threatened with stoning if they did not abandon the work.
She said many factors are fueling the violence and that “some people are being manipulated into doing terrible things, especially young men with no economic prospects.”
“Despite what’s been reported in the Western media, this isn’t a religious conflict. Christians and Muslims have been victims of both sides, and most people, whatever their faith, just want to live in peace,” Pozniak said.
“It’s true that those responsible for the violence have tried to steer it in a religious direction, and it looks this way from the outside. But most people here tolerate and respect religious differences.”
Despite the religious tolerance, violence against religious leaders continued in Bossangoa in April. Father Christ Forman Wilibona was shot dead by remnants of the Seleka rebels on Good Friday and Bishop Nestor Nongo-Aziagbia of Bossangoa and three parish priests were abducted April 16 while on a parish visit.
“I was taken to the colonel, who accused me of ruining his plan to regain Bossangoa and putting defamatory statements against him on the internet,” Bishop Nongo-Aziagbia told the Vatican’s Fides news agency April 24.
“The rebels removed my pectoral cross and episcopal ring. Then my three priests and I were brought to Sidot to be killed. … But our convoy was stopped thanks to intervention by the international community and the commander of the local military area of Seleka, a general, who did not agree with the execution order,” the bishop said.
Pozniak said she planned to visit a program in Bossangoa that distributes seeds and tools in local villages. Despite the program, she said she feared the planned deployment of 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers in September would be too late to safeguard the Central African Republic’s crucial planting and harvest seasons.
“Many people are too afraid to work in their fields. If they don’t plant now, there won’t be a harvest and things will get much worse,” the CRS officer said.
“This makes it paramount to scale up security efforts at an international level, so economic activity can resume.”