Armed rebel groups have overrun the city of Bangassou in Central African Republic and the local bishop has called for help from the international community. Bishop Juan José Aguirre spoke with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) about the situation.
A rebel coalition, accusing the government of having manipulated the recent elections, has attacked a number of towns and cities in the last few weeks and currently controls not only Bangassou—where fighting is continuing—but a large part of the country as well.
On Jan. 3, government soldiers managed to hold off a succession of attacks on the bishop’s city, until they finally ran out of ammunition and fled. “Leaving us to ourselves, my people and me, but God stayed by our side,” the bishop said.
Many of the people fled to the neighboring Republic of Congo, separated from them only by a river. He tells God; “You were there in the darkest night, although you were sleeping.”
“We spent a quiet night here in the mission, in a tense sort of calm, but then an army tank manned by Moroccan soldiers of the MINUSCA (the United Nations’ Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic) peacekeeping forces was stationed in the neighborhood,” adds the bishop, himself a Combonian religious of Spanish origin.
The MINUSCA are attempting to bring calm to the situation by moving governmental armed forces, police and other security personnel to MINUSCA bases, until they can be evacuated.
The principal concern of Bishop Aguirre is for the children and the elderly. “There have been children wounded by stray bullets,” he says. “Children who were fleeing to the Congo. A bullet hit one of them, like the sword of Damocles, and no one could tell where it had come from. So even while they were fleeing, the violence of the attackers was still terrorizing them.”
Bishop Aguirre is hoping that the new “lords and rulers” of the place don’t shed any blood of the ordinary people. There have already been so many years of violence, death and destruction, changes of power and intrigues in the attempt to dominate a country that is rich in minerals and other resources, yet whose people are steeped in poverty.
The new “rulers” of Bangassou are calling themselves the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) and comprise five different warlords who have been ransacking the country for years. Many of them are foreigners from Niger, Chad, and Sudan.
As for the bishop, he is not concerned with politics but only wishes to be able to continue fulfilling his task. “How is one to show a face of loving tenderness in the midst of so much violence?”
The Catholic mission, one of the few enclaves that has managed to stay secure despite the violence and fighting of recent days, has taken in many orphaned children.
“They are innocent,” the bishop says. “When you look into their eyes, they know nothing of rebels, mercenaries, power struggles… They simply hear the gunshots and the noise of the fighting and are very frightened.”
The mission also runs a center for the elderly in another part of the city.
Bishop Aguirre is very concerned about some 50 elderly, many of whom are suffering dementia. “It is always the most vulnerable who pay the price.” he says. “Our priests and religious continue to work here, each in his or her own place, giving all they have, living among the people and sharing in these moments of adversity.”
“There are many traumatized people who need to be helped, and behind each one Christ himself suffers. Please pray for peace and for my people!”
After so much fighting between the government and numerous militia and mercenary groups between 2013 and 2019, the many massacres, abuses and looting inflicted on the civilian, population, the Central African Republic seemed to be starting to move into calmer waters in 2020.
Now the short peace is over: “We were working on so many beautiful reconstruction projects in the country. Now we’re going to have to start all over again on many of them—but our measure of time is not God’s measure of time!”
Last year, ACN supported 22 different projects in the six dioceses of the Central African Republic, above all in the form of basic support for the ministry of priests and religious and help for the training of seminarians.
With picture of Bishop Juan Aguirre (Fundacion Bangassou)
This article was first published by Aid to the Church in Need and is republished here with kind permission. To learn more about ACN’s mission to help the suffering Church visit www.churchinneed.org