YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga of Bangui has called on the international community to investigate the recent killings in the Central African Republic town of Alindao, about 185 miles from the capital, Bangui.
Two Catholic priests were among the over 60 people killed when former Séléka rebels attacked the Alindao cathedral and a nearby camp for displaced persons.
Nzapalainga visited the town from Nov. 20-23 and told Le Monde he “witnessed scenes of desolation.”
“The site for the displaced persons was completely wiped out from the map: It was burnt. It’s now a complete void. People fled into the bush. Over 60 were killed. But how many died in the bush?”
The Central African Republic has experienced instability since 2013, when Séléka, a Muslim-majority militia movement, overthrew the government. The Christian-dominated anti-Balaka militia then formed to fight the Séléka. French and African peacekeepers were deployed in January 2014 and drove the Séléka forces from the capital, Bangui.
With the government unable to exert authority beyond Bangui, armed groups and militias have taken control of more than 70 percent of the country.
The cardinal said the latest attack was fast and unpredictable, and the majority of those killed were children, the sick and the elderly.
“Within a week, people started dying of famine, children dying from diarrhea, vomiting for the simple reason that they had to drink dirty water,” he said.
The cardinal also said the attack was foreseeable. Even before the assailants struck, they had already engaged in killing people who left the camp to go in search of water, food or wood for fuel.
The attackers suspected anti-Balaka fighters were using the camp as a hideout to attack Séléka fighters.
Between the Nov. 13-14, two Muslims were killed, and Nzapalainga said that constituted the “drop of water that overflew the banks.”
The Séléka responded by burning the camp, killing over 60 people and ransacking homes and seizing whatever money the priests had.
As all this unfolded, the UN Peace keeping mission in the Central African Republic, known as MINUSCA, never fired a single bullet.
“When I met them, the Blue Helmets told me they were not in sufficient numbers to face the attackers. Yet, on the three areas where they were positioned, no member of the Séléka attempted to attack there. The peace keepers let them attack. They didn’t even shoot in the air to frighten away the attackers.”
Speaking over the radio of the platform of Religious Confessions in Central Africa, the cardinal criticized the international community, particularly MINUSCA, of standing by and watching as people were massacred, homes destroyed, and people forced to flee.
“You come in the name of the international community to offer us help, protection and safety,” he said.
“Now here we see that certain forces instead of protecting the people leave them to their plight. Civilians are being killed in Alindao and elsewhere. How else can what we have seen be explained, burned human remains, homes and churches?” Nzapalainga asked, adding MINUSCA “failed in their mission of protection.”
“I ask for an international inquiry to be opened to find the truth of the massacres and let justice be done,” the cardinal said.
Nzapalainga said he believes the uptick in violence is a result of the fight for political positioning within the country itself.
The government has engaged in dialogue with the various armed groups and within this framework, “he who has more people and controls more territory could demand more ministerial positions, money etc.”
The cardinal said the attack on Alindao – an area completely controlled by the Union for Peace in Central Africa (UPC), a Séléka splinter group – was “prepared, organized.”
“It was meant by the UPC to position itself within the framework of dialogue with the state and the international community. It is also a strong message to the population of the areas it (the UPC) controls…after destroying and pillaging the camp for the displaced, they went and attacked another camp to warn the people that if they ever accept the anti-Balaka, they too would be wiped out from the map. These are clearly pre-meditated crimes,” he explained.
The state is powerless, according to cardinal
Nzapalainga said the state had become powerless in the face of the crisis. The authorities complain that they cannot deploy Central Africa Republic military in the country, since they suffer an arms embargo. They also complain that they don’t have the vehicles to transport the military to various parts of the country.
“State authority is now limited to Bangui, the capital. The rest of the country is controlled by rebels,” the cardinal said.
The government has been calling on rebels to lay down their arms as a precondition for talks, but the various militias have set their own condition: A promise of amnesty, so they will never appear in a court to face justice for their crimes.
But Nzapalainga thinks otherwise. He says those who have killed, maimed, and destroyed property need to be brought to justice.
“The population is asking for justice,” he said. “Authors of the crimes should recognize that they committed them and ask for forgiveness. There should be a little bit of humility. People have carried out violence and there is need that one day, inquiries to those crimes be carried out. It is impunity that let us into this vicious cycle … People have counted their dead and are not more ready to allow those who killed them go free … I believe that the population wants justice for the victims.”
A way out of the crisis
Nzapalainga also has proposals on how to get out of the crisis. For him, it starts with Central Africans themselves. He says they need to sit down and assess the situation and take responsibility for their country.
“Even if others are pulling the strings, it is us, Central Africans, to find a solution,” Nzapalainga said, adding this solution must be political, not through arms.
“It will be done through dialogue and a willingness to make sacrifices,” he said.