Appalling violence between Muslims and Christians is front and center in this New Yorker article from Jon Lee Anderson, who reports from Bossemptele in the Central African Republic (CAR). According to Anderson, the factions long lived together in relative peace, but in 2012 things began to go very wrong. A Muslim rebel group called the Seleka began an incursion into Christian areas, and the Christians in turn started their own armed group, the Antibalaka, which quickly went from a defensive civilian army to a genocidal organization hellbent on eliminating Muslims from the country of 4.5 million people.
The Seleka kept up their atrocities: burning people alive, killing hospital patients, throwing bound prisoners off bridges to drown. Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, who spent months investigating the conflict, said, “Just think the four horsemen of the apocalypse and you’ll have the picture. People really hated them. That’s what got the Antibalaka going.” …
The [Antibalaka] fighters were emboldened by the belief, inspired by animist traditions, that they were protected by magic. They festooned themselves with wigs, costumes, and amulets to ward off attacks, and assembled an arsenal of bows with poison-tipped arrows, machetes, and a few hunting rifles. Dieudonné [“God-given,” one of the founders of the Antibalaka movement] proudly recounted their exploits in early battles, seizing weapons and killing Seleka. When I pointed out that his men had killed entire families, he put on an obstinate look. “Yes, but the Seleka killed entire families,” he said. “They killed our people and left our parents to be eaten by dogs. We balanced things out. That’s vengeance, isn’t it?”
Half a year ago,
At a reconciliation soccer game between young Muslims and Christians, Antibalaka gruesomely murdered three Muslim players. In retribution, armed Muslims attacked a church in a Christian neighborhood. Rumors spread that they decapitated the priest, jihadi style.
Tit for tat. On and on it goes.
The hero of Anderson’s piece is a priest, Father Bernard Kinvi, who helps run the Catholic mission in Bossemptele, and who is also in charge of the town’s hospital. He shelters and treats victims from both sides (at one point, more than a thousand Muslim refugees lived under his protection). Kinvi learned to advocate successfully for those who were on the verge of being killed by the opposing faction, saving countless lives.
“It’s not that we made a specific decision to help the Muslims,” Bernard explained. “It’s that our mission is to protect the weakest and most vulnerable.”
The Antibalaka have tried to take advantage of his caring and kindness.
Many of the Muslims who had been left behind were elderly or crippled by polio. They were easy targets. “The Antibalaka made a little business out it,” Father Bernard said, disgustedly. “They would call me and say, ‘Father, we have four …,’ and then ask for money for them. And so then we would go and get them. The prices depended on who they had.”
Nonetheless, the aggressors hold a grudging respect for him.
Bernard realized that his mission retained a special status, even for the Antibalaka. As the killers went from house to house, a kind of unspoken game began to play out: if Father Bernard made it past their guards, they would allow him to take wounded victims back to his mission. Bernard recalled carrying a disabled teen-age girl on his back. “As the Antibalaka saw me struggling to carry her, they laughed, because I was sweating and struggling so much,” he said.
Some days, all he can do is tend to the dead.
The bodies that had been left around Bossemptele began decomposing in the heat. “Nobody wanted to touch them, because in this country there is a superstition that if you touch a dead body you will die in the same way,” Bernard said. Together with a local Red Cross worker, he took the mission’s pushcart [the mission’s four cars had been stolen by Muslim fighters] and went out to pick up the bodies. Some had been partly eaten by pigs. “The first day, we got twenty-one,” he recalled. “We took the bodies to the cemetery, but the people who came to help us began to vanish. There was nobody willing to help dig graves.”
Then Father Bernard remembered a place where there was a big hole in the ground, and he and his priests took the bodies there for burial. “It was not very dignified, but it was the only solution,” he explained. Father Bernard spent fifteen days retrieving bodies and burying them.
This, in fairness, is the other side of what (some) Catholics do, the side that usually — not always — gets short shrift on this blog. My hat’s off to Father Bernard, and others like him, times ten. Based on what Anderson tells us about him, he is one helluva brave and standup guy — a real Mensch.
At the same time, let’s not lose sight of the fact that ethnic differences, exacerbated by superstition and fueled by religion, make this kind of work necessary in the first place.
(Image via Shutterstock)