Conditions Deteriorate in Central African Republic: As clashes continue, some seek partition

French soldiers patrol near St. Michael Catholic Church April 14 in the Central African Republic town of Boda. Thousands have died in ongoing violence between competing militias.

The news emerging from the Central African Republic remains deeply troubling. As the predominately Christian “anti-balaka” militias continue to harass Muslim communities around the country, there are signs that Seleka rebels, who are mostly Muslim, are attempting to regroup in the north. Some are calling for a partition of the nation, with a de facto Muslim north peeling away from the Christian south. 

On April 22 a revived Seleka (“Alliance”) rebel effort seized control of the northern community of Bouca, just 180 miles from the capital, Bangui. Shooting continued through the night and on Wednesday, April 23, residents didn't dare go into the streets, according to witnesses.

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Father Aubin Ndontibaye, a local priest, told the Associated Press that hundreds had fled or were sheltering at a Catholic mission. Meanwhile violence continued across the nation. Many Muslim families remained trapped at UN compounds or within their neighborhoods, unable to seek assistance or even find food as their communities or encampments remained encircled by anti-balaka (anti-machete) militia members who threatened to harm them as soon as they emerged from the protection of African Union or French troops. Conditions within such trapped communities worsen by the day.

But the violence is not limited to attacks on Muslims. On Good Friday Father Christ Forman Wilibona, a priest for the Diocese of Bossangoa, was driving to his parish, Saint Kisito Church in Paoua, when he was gunned down in the street, presumably by Seleka remnants. Father Wilibona’s murder came two days after the kidnapping of Archbishop Nestor-Désiré Nongo Aziagbya, bishop of Bossangoa, and three other priests of the diocese in Batangafo by former Seleka fighters. The predominately Muslim rebels had seized power in March 2013 but have since been driven out by the street militias. In the chaotic aftermath of their short reign the Central African Republic’s government has struggled to reassert itself.

"All the north of my diocese is occupied by the rebels of the coalition Seleka, which lay down the law in spite of the presence of international forces,” complained Archbishop Nongo Aziagbya.

The archbishop described his close call to Fides news service: “I was accompanying three priests of my diocese by car to their parish [Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Bantangafo] when around 5 p.m. we were intercepted by the rebels of the Seleka coalition under the command of a colonel who was in charge in Bossangoa when the rebels occupied the city.

"I was taken to this colonel who accused me for ruining his plan to regain Bossangoa, of having put defamatory statements against him on the Internet, of having gathered information in Bantangafo that I would have had to pass on to the international forces present in Central Africa, the Sangaris [French] and the MISCA [African Union troops].”

The archbishop said that "the rebels removed the pectoral cross and episcopal ring. Then my three priests and I were brought to Sidot to be killed. At the height of Kabo [in the far north of the country, on the border with Chad] our convoy was stopped thanks to the intervention of the international community and especially of the commander of the local military area of Seleka, a general, who did not agree with the order of execution. All this happened on Holy Thursday, on Good Friday we were brought back to Bantangafo where the commander of MISCA came to pick us up by helicopter in order to take us back home.”

“We denounce and condemn these barbaric acts from another age,” said Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, head of Caritas in the republic. “We invite the people of the Central African Republic as well as all men and women of good will to pray for the return of peace and security to our country and to open their hearts to dialogue and reconciliation.” Archbishop Nzapalainga called on the government to restore the rule of law, and for African Union and French and E.U. forces on the ground to disarm militias so people are free to move around the country.

For everyone else caught in the middle between the anti-balaka militias and rebel Muslim groups the struggle that has become daily life in the Central African Republic continues. More than 630,000 have been driven from their homes and 2.2 million, almost half the population, now rely on humanitarian assistance for survival.

Unfortunately "aid does not reach those who need it,” according to Father Aurelio Gazzera, a Carmelite missionary who has been working in Bozoum. Most of the funds allocated to help the people devastated by the civil war ends up, according to the missionary, "in the pockets of people who have absolutely no right.”

Father Aurelio also complained that international forces deployed in Central Africa to put an end to the violence do not have a common strategy and synergies have not been created between its various components. The Central Africans suspect that the troops present in Central Africa do not defend the local population, but are only interested in protecting the economic interests of their respective countries. Central Africa is rich in mineral resources which remain largely unexploited.

Editor’s Note: America's Chief Correspondent Kevin Clarke will be traveling to the Central African Republic next week with Catholic Relief Services to find out more about conditions among the nation’s internally displaced people and efforts to restore order and protect the vulnerable from attack. Visit americamagazine.org for his dispatches from the troubled region and look for a comprehensive report in an upcoming issue of America.

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