CRF Blog

The Mission

by Bill Hayes

In The Mission for the New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson reports on the horrible civil war in the Central African Republic.

When the killing reached Bossemptele, a small town deep in the isolated interior of the Central African Republic, Father Bernard Kinvi, who helps run the Catholic mission there, tried to save everyone he could. A handsome man of thirty-two, Father Bernard wears a black cassock with a large red cross imprinted on the chest. He was born in West Africa, in Togo, and when he left the seminary and came to the Central African Republic, four years ago, he knew little of his adopted country except that “it was a place of military crises.” Bossemptele, with its mission compound — a pretty little church, a modest school, and a rudimentary hospital — seemed like a peaceful place. Old shade trees lined the road, and wildflowers grew in the fields.

Until 1960, the Central African Republic was a French colony, known as Oubangui-Chari. It is rich in resources, with endless forests, gold, uranium, and oil, but it is among the world’s poorest countries. It is landlocked, largely undeveloped, and surrounded by other troubled nations: Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the two Congos, and Cameroon. Air France flies in once a week; few other airlines go there at all.

One of the country’s meagre blessings in the past several decades has been a relative lack of religious conflict. Of four and a half million citizens, fifteen per cent are Muslims; nearly all the rest profess some form of Christianity, often infused with animist beliefs. When Father Bernard arrived in Bossemptele, he detected no tensions between the Christians and the Muslims. “There were perfect community relations,” he told me, when I visited a few months ago. “Most of our hospital patients were Muslims, in fact.” Then, in 2012, he and the mission’s two other priests and four nuns began hearing reports about the Seleka, or “Alliance,” a Muslim rebel group in the east of the country. They were marching toward Bangui, the capital, a hundred and ninety miles away. “We weren’t affected,” Bernard said, speaking as someone in Tennessee might speak of a tornado in Oklahoma — a concern, but not a threat. “Then they started coming this way.”

The Seleka, young men armed with AK-47s and rocket launchers, swept down from the north, and in March, 2013, they overran Bangui, where they established a despotic rule. Their ranks, which included hundreds of veterans of past rebellions, as well as mercenaries from Sudan and Chad, swelled with conscripts, and with inmates freed from Bangui’s main prison. The fighters collected taxes and tributes by force and brutally beat and killed people who disobeyed them. As the Seleka abuses grew, a second militia — the antibalaka, organized by former members of the security forces and consisting largely of Christians — rose up to retaliate, and, as it advanced, the country slid into a murderous sectarian war. In Bossemptele, there was little that Father Bernard could do. When fighters, both Christian and Muslim, arrived at the mission hospital, he treated their wounds without prejudice, even as leaders on both sides threatened him for aiding the enemy.

There were two thousand African Union peacekeeping troops in the country, and as the killing intensified four thousand more were sent. The French President, François Hollande, sent twelve hundred soldiers, in addition to the four hundred already stationed there, and set up a base of operations at Bangui’s airport. But the Central African Republic is the size of France and Austria combined, and in so much territory the peacekeepers could have little more than a symbolic effect. By Christmas, more than a hundred thousand refugees were living in a tent city near the runway of the Bangui airport. Soon, nearly a million people were homeless, and more than a quarter of the population required food aid.

The antibalaka’s goal grew from simple reprisal to ridding the country of Muslims entirely. Human-rights observers and U.N. officials spoke fearfully of the “seeds of genocide” being planted. As the antibalaka attacked Muslim neighborhoods — looting and burning homes, slaughtering people — the intervention settled into a strategy of separating the partisans. By April, at least a quarter of a million Muslims had fled the country, most of them in convoys of trucks loosely guarded by the French or African Union troops. When a truck broke down or when someone fell off, antibalaka on the roadside sometimes tore the refugees to pieces. Before the war, there were nearly seven hundred thousand Muslims in the country. Fewer than ninety thousand remain. [more]