“Courage” is a book on Central Africa Republic authored by Fr. Aurelio Gazzera, an Italian missionary priest who shares the “beauty” of his 25-year experience in this troubled country as collected on a daily basis in the blog “News from Bozoum” published in seven languages. Bozoum is 400 km north of the capital Bangui, and Fr. Gazzera has been actively engaged in advancing education, development, and human rights in support of the local population. Moreover, he played a major role in putting an end to the hostilities broke out in the city during the civil war started in 2012. The following reading is an excerpt from the book telling about his involvement in direct talks with armed groups, and the assistance his mission provided to the population from both the Christian and Muslim communities.
Central Africa is a very poor country, but it has plenty of opportunities as well: water, land, and a very rich subsoil. It is among the last countries in the world in terms of development, wealth, social and living conditions for a number of reasons: its central location, far from the sea; the proximity to troublesome countries such as Chad, Sudan, etc.; a poor administration; a wrecked education system; economic interests of other countries in its oil, uranium, gold, diamonds, and pastures.
At the beginning of 2012, the country was first attacked by Chadian, Sudanese, and Central African rebels, which teamed up in a movement called Seleka (Alliance) at the end of the same year. A reaction broke out in December 2013, almost a year after the first clashes, and after 9 months of tyrannical and violent rule, whose only purpose was theft and contempt for human dignity. The so-called anti-Balakas began to launch attacks against the Seleka rebels. The confrontation also involved the members of the Muslim community, which had to flee their homes and shops along with the Selekas.
It was December 2013 when the anti-Balaka groups in Bozoum started to attack the Seleka rebels. Some Muslims felt threatened, and took up arms to defend themselves and help the Selekas, thus worsening the situation. In a few hours, on December 6, 2013, 5-6 thousand refugees sought refuge at the Mission. And they remained there until January 18. While taking care of the refugees in the Mission (providing food, water, basic healthcare conditions, and some security), we tried to find a permanent solution to the problem, going personally to discuss and dialogue with the Seleka rebels, the anti-Balakas, and the Muslims.
This long and patient work was also risky (some slaps, threats, machine-gun shots, and stone throwing), but it contributed to a peaceful settlement of the conflict. On January 13, 2014, after long negotiations and much tension (the news of my killing was already circulating), the Seleka rebels left Bozoum. Unfortunately, a part of the Muslim population also left with them, and the remaining 2,500 Muslims quickly became victims of attacks and looting.
Then, after the refugees had left the Mission on January 18, we began to take care of the Muslim population and to protect them: crammed into a neighborhood, terrified by the anti-Balaka’s threats, they spent 3 weeks in terrible conditions, with little water, little food, little space, and very much fear. The months were passing by, but the situation did not seem to be improving. There were 12 thousand UN Blue Helmets in the country, but they intervened quite rarely (to use an euphemism). The government was absent in almost every city, and this situation was dragging on for too long.
The only development worthy of note was the visit of Pope Francis in November 2015. The event marked a turning point, and tensions slightly de-escalated since then. Now (at the end of 2017, ed.), the country is still divided into two parts. One part (70 percent) is under Seleka’s rule, while the rest is under… none. The government is non-existent, and the Blue Helmets do not seem willing to do anything to restore a minimum of order. Many Missions, episcopates, and parishes have become shelters for all those who fled, no matter if Christians and Muslims. It often happened that both Christians and Muslims were welcomed in the same parish (like in Baoro), and lived together for weeks.