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Central African Republic: Card. Nzapalainga (Bangui), “everyone speaks about peace, but nobody says how to achieve it”

"The State has ceased to exist”, radical groups are “warlords” that “rule through terror” and who “have the power of life and death over people.” There is no peace for the Central African Republic, according to Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, archbishop of Bangui, despite the signing of the agreements in Rome past June 19. But in his opinion solutions are possible: "Going to villages, identifying those in leadership roles, dialoguing with them, asking them to lay down their arms and establish State authority”

Despite the signing of a new peace agreement between the Government and the various political-military groups past June 19, the Central African Republic is still governed by chaos. The central Government struggles to maintain control while several radical armed groups that thrive on the trafficking of weapons, diamonds, timber, gold and mineral resources, and have control of the territory, impose their authority with the use of force. “They are ‘warlords’ who have the power of life or death over the people”: Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, archbishop of Bangui, described the situation in the Country with a set of proposals that would ensure the implementation of the agreements and the establishment of peace.

How is the situation of the Central African Republic today? The State is absent, governmental authority in cities and villages is limited. There are only groups of rebel militia that don’t recognize the provincial or municipal authorities. This is the reality of the Central African Republic:

The State has ceased to exist, while armed groups have become “warlords” holding power of life and death over the people.

A few days ago a group of youths kidnapped a Muslim pregnant woman in Bangassou. In response, members of her community plundered and set homes to fire, and seized Caritas humanitarian workers. But it was a group of extremists. The Muslim community is welcomed and protected by the mission. The last time that a truck of humanitarian aids and foodstuffs for the displaced population arrived in Bangui it was looted. The population was left empty-handed.

Are the clashes still ongoing in Bangassou?
I was there over a month ago for a pastoral visit, and already then, the community was being attacked. I returned with the bishop and we spoke with the youths, asking them to lay down their arms. Our intervention calmed down the situation, but we lack the force to disarm them. They are members of small anti-balaka – organized militia for whom the Muslim population is the main target Ed.’s note – radical groups. But all of this

Has nothing to do with a war between religions.

An example that helps understand: during the clashes a Muslim man crossed a river to enter Congo’s Democratic Republic. His wife and his five children were sheltered in a Catholic mission. A priest tried to help them reach their father and husband. While they were about to take the dugout the rebels arrived and surrounded them determined to kill them. Some tried to convince them to not to. The rebels then turned to their leader, who was wounded and being treated in hospital, and asked him what they should do. They thought the woman was dead, but she was only wounded. A Christian woman came to her rescue and brought her to the hospital. This episode shows that the anti-balaka groups don’t obey religious authorities. They didn’t listen to the priest but turned for advice to a military leader instead. When people say that they kill on religious grounds it doesn’t correspond to the truth. The situation is much more complex.

What pushes these radical groups to commit acts of violence? 
These groups have taken over the role of the Government and they exert the rule of terror. People aren’t free to go to work in the fields, access healthcare or go to school.

All these extremist groups are concerned about is money, diamonds, timber, gold, and mineral resources.

All of this money ends up in the hands of the groups instead of being used to build schools or hospitals. They afflicted an entire population, jeopardizing their very survival. Municipal and village authorities have lost their power. In a large city like Bangassou there are only 7 law-enforcement officers with 2 weapons and 4 policemen with just one weapon. In the provinces there are rebels that seize people asking for money. What can be done before these armed youths? Nothing.

This is reality in our cities, left without recognized authority and overcome by chaos.

Don’t MINUSCA UN forces intervene? Sometimes MINUSCA is present as a form of support, but they don’t want clashes and their action can’t extend 10km beyond city borders. If an armed conflict breaks out 11-12 km away, they can’t intervene. Rebel groups are aware of it and they wait for people there. When they see a MINUSCA soldier (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) they hide, but they are the ones with ruling power. It’s a subtle game,

That is bound to continue until national armed forces are able to prevent these groups from holding hostage the entire civilian population.

But a peace agreement has recently been signed in Rome… A document was signed, but the facts on the ground are different. These groups are divided into smaller groups and nobody can do anything about it. They were given free rein and they seized the power to exert their force. Without limits the area is permeable and they control the entire territory. As I said on several occasions, the signatories of the agreements are not the leaders who exert authority in the areas under their control. The leaders remained and delegated others with scarce influence. How can a leader be contacted – in a region with no telephone connection – to validate the signature? Moreover, how can the commitments be enforced if the agreement is signed by the representative of a large group that is internally divided?

It would be best to go to the villages, identify the actual leaders and engage in dialogue, asking them to lay down their arms and reassert Government authority. If that were done the agreement would gain effectiveness.

Is there a serene situation in the capital city of Bangui now? 
In Bangui the situation is calm, but weapons continue to circulate. People wish to return to the provinces but they don’t budge.

It’s as if we were sitting on embers, a gush of wind could rekindle the flame.

It’s a convalescent society that has yet to recover, a minor ailment sparks off the disease. Indeed, we have a President and members of Parliament. But it’s only on paper. They still lack the authority to rule a region.

The International community considers the agreement a success. On paper the agreements are a success, since all the involved parties have signed. But there is no repercussion at concrete level. This is my concern. If the people listened to the signatories they would follow through and lay down their arms.

The problem is that many people make a living from arms.

They stopped growing the crops, they no longer go to school, they are no longer involved in the trade sector. If they have arms, they stop the cars and ask for money. With arms they impose and collect tax money. They took over State authority. We’re in the centre of Africa, our neighbour is the Democratic Republic of Congo, a Country in difficulty. That’s where the weapons come from. They are sold to the rebels that buy them for 100EUR and sell them at 2-300EUR 150 km’s further away. They engage in the sale of weapons to make ends meet. Then there is Sudan and South Sudan with a plethora of weapons. The border with Chad is officially closed but we know that people come and go as they wish. Those living in villages lack the courage to say that they saw rebels enter the Country carrying weapons. They bring in arms, they sell them, they do their business, and they attack humanitarian aid convoys.

According to a report by Doctors Without Borders, in May 2017 there were still 425 thousand internally displaced persons, but humanitarian aid is hard to deliver. What is Caritas doing in this respect? Many NGOs have moved their offices to Bangui. Only Caritas remained. In Bangassou – where we house 2-3000 displaced members of the Muslim community – and in other provinces, the local population lacks the basic necessities. There are several groups of refugees sheltered in the missions of Bria and Rafai, or near the MINUSCA headquarters. There are no more refugees in Bangui. It should be said that families were given 50 EURO each for accommodation, but it’s not enough, misery is still widespread. Caritas has managed to give families up to 300 EUR each. We started awareness-raising and refugee-census programs, to learn where they come from, where they wish to live, and what their plans are. Many of them found rental accommodation. Caritas workers verified the situation and helped them develop small businesses to become independent. We seek to develop customised projects that will last in time. After a certain amount of time we verify how many managed to achieve economic independence and how many are still living in conditions of severe poverty.

The Pope’s presence in Bangui has been extremely important: is he informed about the developments? We had the great honour of welcoming the Pope; his presence had a great impact. In fact there were no clashes in the Country for five months: many people were deeply touched by his words. Also the Muslim population said that the Pope had come to free us. Now we keep him informed through the Nunciature and the Sant’Egidio Community. I firmly believe that obtaining concrete results requires

Having the courage to work at grassroots level, discuss with the leaders that have the weapons to mitigate the hatred and the anger that inhabit their hearts, spirits and minds, and propose alternatives.

They need to be told that earning little and having a long life is a far better option than making easy money with the risk of dying. That’s the prospect that must be proposed. If we don’t meet the key actors of the conflict they will feel omnipotent, or, conversely, they could feel excluded. We can’t deny reality and fail to see that these people are there with their weapons. We must listen to them, show them the limits of their proposals and engage in dialogue with them to find a long-lasting solution. Whenever we meet one of these groups they say: “We want peace, but we have to defend ourselves when the other group attack us.” Everyone speaks about peace but not how to achieve it.

There is hope in Central Africa in spite of everything…. As believers, we always have hope. Many people in Central Africa gather in prayer inside the churches or in the Mosque. Our motto is: morning will come, no matter how long is the night.

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