ROSARIO, Argentina — Bishop Juan José Aguirre of Bangassou, Central African Republic, says the city “is paralyzed” by post-election violence.
“People have fled, they’re in hiding,” he told Crux via WhatsApp.
On Jan. 6, Pope Francis expressed his concern for this war-torn country and invited “all of the parties to a fraternal, respectful dialogue, to reject any form of hatred and to avoid any form of violence.”
The Spanish-born Aguirre is already in conversation with a local Evangelical leader to figure out who is “the brains” behind the military operation so they can begin a dialogue effort to kick-start the city.
“We won’t lose anything by trying,” Aguirre said. “Dialogue can help restore some activities, so that people can go to the market and children can attend school.”
Government troops tried to hold the rebels off after an insurrection following the Dec. 27 elections. The armed gangs today are a combination of foreign mercenaries and former members of two guerrilla groups that fought each other during a civil war between 2013 and 2019.
Recently, Central African Republic seemed to be on the track towards peace – which encouraged Aguirre to start many projects in the mission he leads, but most of them are back to square one.
The Catholic mission is like a beacon of hope these days, still standing despite the bombs and other attacks in the past few weeks. Aguirre and those who help him took in dozens of orphans.
“They’re innocent… You look them in the eyes, and they know nothing about rebels, mercenaries, power struggles. All they know is the sounds of the machine guns are scary,” he said.
The mission also has a home for some 50 elderly, leaving little room for much else in the mission.
Bangassou is a “border town,” separated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo by a river. Yet it’s also a mining city in a country that has incredible mineral wealth.
“Central African Republic is a strategic country in the very heart of Africa,” Aguirre said. “And it is a country that many countries would like to see as Muslim. In the world there are many Muslims who are very good people and fearful of God. But there are also those who want Central African Republic to be Muslim in order to control its enormous mineral wealth.”
The bishop is not the only one who thinks there’s an extremist ideology behind the violence.
Maria Lozano, a Spanish lay woman who heads the international communications office of papal charity Aid to the Church in Need, told Crux that “jihadist want to ransack the country to have resources the need to deploy elsewhere. Many of the rebels are foreign from Niger, Chad or Sudan, who’re fighting in a war that is not theirs for money.”
“When I started working at the foundation more than ten years ago, I didn’t even know that Central Africa was a country, the world has ignored it for decades. However, sadly, it did not take long to get to know it. It’s been too many years of violence, death and destruction, of power changing hands, and intrigues to dominate a country rich in wealth, but with people living in extreme misery,” Lozano said.
The new “kings” of Bangassou are the rebel anti-government Coalition of Patriots for Change, made of up five war lords who have been ransacking the country for years. They contested the result of the elections even before polls ended.
In a joint statement released Jan. 4, officials from the United Nations, the African Union and the European Union cautioned against disinformation and incitement to violence and hatred, including against international personnel, aimed at compromising the electoral process.
The officials also denounced election-related violence and called on national authorities to investigate and bring to justice those responsible, while reminding all stakeholders of their commitments under the 2019 Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation. They urged the signatory parties to fully honour their pledges, in particular the cessation of hostilities.
The officials invited them to “re-launch the peace process, in particular by emphasizing consultation, strict compliance with commitments and accountability.”
Beyond the efforts from the international community, Aguire said individual Catholics can help the situation in Central African Republic in three ways: By familiarizing themselves with the situation, “without having their heads in the sand; by praying the rosary “for missionaries, the mission, and the people we help;” and by donating to organizations such as Aid to the Church in Need that have an active presence in countries in conflict and support the local religious people in their effort to strengthen and sustain the people.
“We’re nothing without the Lord,” he said. “It’s very important to be close to the grapevine to be fruitful. Without the grace from God, we’d be nothing. Everything we are, we are because of him.”
“When we set our eyes in the Lord, present for us in the tabernacle, we find the strength and the energy,” Aguirre continued. “In living like he lived, in feeling what he felt, experiencing what he experienced, treating poor people like he did.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma