Despite the launch of the United Peacekeeping Operation in mid-September, violence between Seleka and anti-Balaka 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, the group continues to be described as ‘Christian’, causing great damage to the testimony of the church. But despite this continuing narrative, Open Doors has been encouraged by the testimony and example of church leaders who act as agents of peace and reconciliation in Central African communities, even in the face of extreme danger. Journalist Jon Lee Anderson, in an article he wrote for The New Yorker titled The Mission – The Last Defense Against the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation., 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.
Last week, we left the narrative following a violent anti-Balaka rampage of revenge. More than a thousand Muslim refugees, mostly women and children, had come to the mission to live under Bernard’s protection. They were joined by a group of Peul Muslim cattle herders who for centuries have moved with their livestock throughout the region.
Bernard realized that his mission retained a special status, even for the anti-Balaka. As the killers went from house to house, a kind of unspoken game began to play outif Bernard made it past their guards, they would allow him to take wounded victims back to his mission. Bernard recalled carrying a disabled teen-age girl on his back. “As the anti-Balaka saw me struggling to carry her, they laughed, because I was sweating and struggling so much,” he said.
The bodies that had been left around Bossemptele began decomposing in the heat. “Nobody wanted to touch them, because in this country, there is a superstition that if you touch a dead body, you will die in the same way,” Bernard said. Together with a local Red Cross worker, he took the mission’s pushcart and went out to pick up the bodies.
“The first day, we got twenty-one,” he recalled. “We took the bodies to the cemetery, but the people who came to help us began to vanish. There was nobody willing to help dig graves.” Then, Bernard remembered a place where there was a big hole in the ground, and he and his priests took the bodies there for burial. “It was not very dignified, but it was the only solution,” he explained.
Bernard spent fifteen days retrieving bodies and burying them. “The anti-Balaka were very proud of what they were doing. They would call me on their cell phones and say, ‘Father, come, we’ve killed one. Come and bury him.’ Another told me, ‘Yes, Father, you are doing your work and we’re doing ours.’ “
The siege in Bossemptele continued for a month. About a hundred Muslims were murdered, and hundreds of houses were burned. Finally, the anti-Balaka leaders summoned Bernard to inform him of a change of policy. “They said they had instructions in a letter from a leader in Bangui not to kill anymore,” he told me. Instead, they began taking hostages. Many of the Muslims who had been left behind were elderly or crippled by polio. They were easy targets. “The anti-Balaka made a little business out of it,” Bernard said, disgustedly. “They would call me and say, ‘Father, we have four Peul,’ and then ask for money in exchange for them. And so then we would go and get them. The prices depended on who they had. Throughout all of this, no government presence ever showed up here. Helicopters came overhead, but they didn’t land.”
By the time the peacekeeping troops established a presence around the country, most of the Muslims had fled, but a few pockets of survivors remained, in a tense standoff with the anti-Balaka.
At the mission, weeks went by with no official help, even as hundreds of Muslims clustered inside the compound for protection. “The anti-Balaka leaders were constantly coming to say the Muslims needed to leave,” he said. Whenever he was away, fighters appeared and threatened the refugees. Once, the anti-Balaka abducted three refugees. One of the nuns, Sister Josephine, told their leader that the camp was under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and that if anything happened to his prisoners, he could end up in The Hague. “It was a lie,” Father Bernard said, and smiled. “But when the anti-Balaka leader heard that, he agreed to let them go.” The situation was similar in many places across the CARa handful of priests and nuns in Catholic missions were all that stood between tens of thousands of trapped Muslim civilians and their would-be killers.
For a time, Bernard had no food to give his Muslim wards except rice from his own stores, but eventually two international non-government organizations sent him supplies.
In April, the French began coming to Bossemptele more frequently, and the anti-Balaka dismantled their roadblocks and returned to their villages. Some of the local leaders told Bernard that Muslims could come home. None did, of course, and Bernard told the few who remained not to leave the mission grounds. Bernard describes a precarious calm, interrupted occasionally by violence in Bossemptele, but his persistent efforts have created a small area of safety. “At the hospital, we don’t get bothered by the anti-Balaka anymore, because they realize we also treat them,” Bernard said. A few Muslims remain in his care.
Father, we thank You for this small oasis of safety for both Muslims and Christians. We pray for peace to return to CAR. We thank You for the compassion shown by Bernard and other Christians at the mission, and we pray that not only the compassion of Christ, but also the truth of the gospel would shine forth in this place. All around CAR, we pray that Your Spirit would guide Christians as they seek to respond to the violence against them in godly ways, with wisdom, discernment and courage balanced against compassion, love and forgiveness. Protect them, Father, and be their strong presence. In the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, Amen.