Mission of Hope in Central African Republic – Part One
Despite the launch of the United Peacekeeping Operation in mid-September, violence between Seleka and anti-Balaka forces continued to flare up in the capital, Bangui, and in other areas of the country. Although the church has spoken out strongly against anti-Balaka, media sources continue to describe the group as Christian, causing great damage to the testimony of the church. Despite the continuing narrative of violence, Open Doors has been encouraged by the testimony and example of church leaders who act as agents of peace and reconciliation in their war-torn Central African communities. Journalist Jon Lee Anderson, in an article he wrote for The New Yorker titled The Mission – The Last Defense Against Genocide, tells the story of Bernard Kinvi.
Bernard Kinvi (32) directs the Catholic mission in Bossemptele, a small town about 150km northwest of the capital Bangui. The mission consists of a church, a school and a rudimentary hospital. Bernard was born in Togo, West Africa, and came to the CAR four years ago. When he came to Bossemptele, there was little that tied him to Togo. His father and four of his sisters had died from illness, accident, and violencea series of tragedies that Bernard described to Jon Lee Anderson merely as a “hardship.”
He knew little of his adopted country except that “it was a place of military crises.” Upon his arrival, he detected no tension between Christians and the Muslims. “There were perfect community relations. Most of our hospital patients were Muslims, in fact.”
The conflict in CAR started when the majority Muslim Seleka rebellion, including large contingents of Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, seized political control of the country and its resources (gold, diamond and petrol) as part of a campaign to Islamize it. From November 2012 to September 2013, they committed gross human right abuses throughout the country.
At first Bossemptele was not affected, but then Seleka troops started approaching, sending a detachment of fighters. These rough, turbaned men soon assumed control of the area. There was little Bernard could do other than establish a working rapport with their commander, whom he referred to as the Colonel.
“Things were very tense at the beginning,” he said. However, when the Colonel realized that his men were going to the hospital for medical care he relaxed. “We reached an understanding,” Bernard said. “He told his men not to come into the grounds of the mission with their weapons, and he gave me his number to call in case there was any trouble.”
Even so, things were not easy. The Colonel quickly became everything in the town, “judge, police chief, everything,” Bernard said. His men stole goats and chickens, and posted an ostentatious armed guard around the town’s mosque during Friday prayers. As the community divided along sectarian lines, the Colonel gave the Muslims guns in exchange for cows.
In September 2013 anti-Balaka self-defense groups emerged from among the Central African population to challenge Seleka. When soldiers of the defeated CAR Army (FACA) and partisans of the ousted president Bozizé joined them, anti-Balaka forces started to outnumber Seleka. In Bossemptele, Bernard sensed the rising panic among the Seleka fighters. Anti-Balaka fighters were massing in nearby villages, and there were reports that the newly arrived French troops were making their way toward the town.
At first, the Seleka fighters flooded into the mission grounds for protection. Then a more aggressive contingent broke into the mission to steal the three or four vehicles it owned. Frightened for his safety after being threatened at gunpoint by a Seleka fighter, Bernard joined many other locals in the bush. From the tall grass surrounding the mission, they watched the Seleka evacuate the town. “As they left, they shouted war cries’God is great!’––at their victory for having gotten the cars,” Bernard said. With the Seleka gone, the anti- Balaka marched into Bossemptele, where hundreds of Muslims were still stranded. “With that, the reign of the Seleka ended, and the reign of the anti-Balaka began.”
The anti-Balaka were vicious and Bernard begged them for leniency. But he explains, “There wasn’t clear leadership, so it was difficult to convince them.” On the morning of January 18, 2014, the town’s imam suggested making a tribute of money and livestock in exchange for a promise not to attack. Bernard sent a message to an anti-Balaka commander he knew on the eastern front. A heartening reply came back: “We don’t want a fight.”
But a second, more aggressive anti-Balaka force was approaching from the north, warning Christians to leave their houses to avoid the conflict. “I tried to talk to them, but they were strangers and wouldn’t listen,” Bernard said. Youths from the town began shouting, “Kill the Muslims!” As frightened Muslims filled the mission compound, the anti-Balaka swept in, and the town erupted into violence.
After five hours, the shooting subsided, and Bernard went out to see the damage. “There were wounded people everywhere,” he said. “Because the Seleka had taken our vehicles, we had only a pushcart to use, and one stretcher.” The priests began collecting the injured. “The anti-Balaka wanted to kill the wounded, and we had to say, ‘No, you will have to kill us first.’ “
That night, the priests and doctors treated the wounded and tried to rescue the survivors from the Muslim quarter, three hundred yards from the mission. “We sent word to all the Muslim women to come to our school, but the anti-Balaka were killing all the men and boys,” Bernard recalled. “We had one thirteen-year-old boy we were taking back with us, and the anti-Balaka said, ‘We need to kill him, because he will grow up to be a Seleka.’ We argued with them, and in the end they let us go. But then, the next group we came across said to me, ‘We have to kill him, because he’s from the people that stole your cars.’ I said, ‘They were my cars, and if I want to take revenge it’s my decision.'”
Next week we will continue sharing Jon Lee Anderson’s article, The Mission – The Last Defense Against Genocide, which tells the story of Bernard Kinvi.
Thank You, Father, for Bernard and the mission in Bossemptele as they strive to reach out with Your love in the midst of conflict. We grieve over the anti-Balaka forces who commit acts of violence in the name of Christ. We pray for the mission as they care for so many refugees, and for both Seleka and anti-Balaka forces who have been wounded. We call on You to provide resources, energy and longsuffering. We pray for Muslims under the mission’s care that they might come to know Christ through the compassion of Your servants. We pray for true justice to rule in the CAR, acknowledging Christ as Lord of lords. In the name of Jesus, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, Amen.