Catholic Priest Risks His Life to Save Hundreds of Refugees in Central African Republic
‘Only love can destroy the walls of hatred,’ Camillian Father Bernard Kinvi says amid the deadly conflict in the Central African Republic, which Pope Francis will visit next month.
Camillian Father Bernard Kinvi, a 32-year-old missionary from Togo, runs the John Paul II Hospital and mission in Central African Republic. In early 2014, Father Kinvi saved the lives of more than 1,500 people who were in danger of being killed either by the Seleka or the anti-Balaka after the three-year conflict between the two militant groups degenerated to near genocide.
He collected them from their villages and brought them to the mission, where he nursed the wounded and sheltered and fed them. The Camillian priest did this at the risk of his life and those of the people who worked with him at the mission hospital that the priests ran in Bossemptélé, a town 186 miles northwest of the capital of Bangui.
Father Kinvi recently returned from Rome, where he gave a presentation at the Vatican on the Central African Republic conflict.
What is the current situation of the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) after the signing of the peace agreement between the Seleka forces and the anti-Balaka militants?
After the peace agreement between Seleka and anti-Balaka, we live in an uneasy calm. Ten out of 16 provinces are still under the control of these two groups. We note at times hotbeds of tension that arise in the northeast, especially in areas of Bambarie, Ndele, Bria, Birao, etc. In the northwest, convoys of trucks leaving Douala for Bangui are often attacked by rebel groups whose identity is not known. And in Bossemptélé, we see scenes of looting of trucks or road ambushes.
Also, some people accused of witchcraft are tortured and buried alive. Our job now is to go and negotiate the lives of people at risk of death due to witchcraft and bring them back to the mission under our protection. Since the beginning of the year, we were able to save at least 49 people. Unfortunately, there are seven people who were killed — among them a pregnant woman.
In the whole territory there is an extended reign of unrivalled impunity. Killings and serious crimes are committed every day, in the full knowledge of the authorities. But criminals and offenders, especially in the provinces, still move freely without fear. This gives them more strength and ability to continue to do evil.
In addition, there is no real disarmament of rebel groups in the country. On the contrary, anti-Balaka rebels today are armed with Kalashnikovs and grenades, contrary to the past, when they were using shotguns and cuffs. When will this war end if weapons are still circulating freely in the country?
In July, the U.N. announced it was increasing its peacekeeping forces to 13,000 soldiers. How effective have the U.N. forces been in averting the conflict in CAR?
With my little experience in Bossemptélé, I realized that the U.N. forces are merely a deterrent force, rather than a peacekeeping force. They helped us and still continue to help us to avoid the worst. But they do not actually take the safety of the population seriously.
In Bossemptélé, I saw the anti-Balaka attack the Fulani, kill and steal their cattle before the very eyes of peacekeepers, but they did nothing. The police station in Bossemptélé was looted in broad daylight by armed men without them acting. At times, I felt let down whenever I needed their help to protect people who are tortured and threatened with death because of witchcraft; their inaction always shocked me.
And when they reached Bossemptélé, I welcomed them at the parish, so that they were comfortable and able to do their job well. But they turned the parish into a place of prostitution; they spoilt the unique generator of the parish, and to date, the parish has no access to electricity. I had to ask them to leave the parish, which they did.
Their budget is huge, but in the provinces, we do not notice the effectiveness of their actions. Today, we wonder if, really, the U.N. forces can restore peace in conflict countries.
Who are some of the most vulnerable in the community amidst the fighting in CAR?
In the midst of the conflict, the most vulnerable were primarily the disabled. They were among the most abandoned. Apart from them, there are also older people and children. If rebels spared some of them, others were not immune against the massacres.
Among the victims that I buried were, obviously, these three categories of people. That is why, during the conflict, I went into the neighborhoods and homes to retrieve and keep them at our mission.
Today, four disabled Fulani recovered during the war are with us in the mission, where the Carmelite sisters take good care of them. The rest are in internally displaced people’s camps and in neighboring Cameroon.
Many commentators view the CAR conflict as a war of religious fanaticism. What is your understanding of the conflict in the country?
The media has caricatured the CAR conflict as a religious conflict. This absolves the authors of this conflict. One cannot speak of a religious conflict because none of the actors in this conflict ever says he is fighting in the name of God or to defend a religious ideology. Some fought to gain power, while others to chase their oppressors.
According to your experience, what fueled the conflict in the Central African Republic?
Central African Republic is a country immensely rich in diamonds, gold, timber, oil and many other resources. Unfortunately, almost all the governments that have ruled have misused these resources. The population does not benefit at all. The country, despite all this wealth, remains very poor, with no signs of development.
In addition, the northeast of the country remains completely abandoned: no development initiative; no paved roads that can connect the capital, Bangui, to the provinces of the northeast; no education, no access to clean water, health care or electricity.
This created an angry population that began organizing themselves into groups in order to fight for the autonomy of this resource-rich region. These rebel groups took control of the trade in diamonds, gold and timber in this region. Their ambition is to one day overthrow the political power and lead the country to develop their region; these rebel groups have merged into a single group called Seleka, meaning “Alliance.” They are mainly Muslims, but among them I met animists and Christians.
The latter are not fighting in the name of God or defending any religious ideology either. They took up arms because they were tired of the Seleka. Unfortunately, they were worse than the Seleka, killing civilians as well.
Although most of the actions of the Seleka were directed against non-Muslims and those of anti-Balaka against Muslims, I’ve realized that both Seleka and anti-Balaka looted churches, stole properties of Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, killed both Muslims and non-Muslims.
On the whole, I sincerely believe that this conflict is political.
If the assets of the country were equitably distributed for the benefit of all, coupled with good governance — and if people’s rights were respected — I think this war would never have occurred.
How were you able to handle two conflicting groups without taking sides?
Being neutral, for me, was the easiest thing to do because I had before me two groups that acted badly on all levels. They committed the same violence. So, for me, the decision not to take sides with a group of evildoers came naturally.
Also, reflecting on Jesus’ earthy life, he neither sided with the Romans nor with the zealots. It was the neutral ground that transmitted love. He has called us to love our enemies: to offer the left cheek to him who slaps us on the right cheek. We must follow the footsteps of our Master.
What other efforts, if any, are in place to end the sectarian violence in CAR?
Besides the Social Cohesion Committee, a Catholic Church initiative which works in the area of reconciliation, I also see many NGOs [non-government organizations] working in the areas of education, health, nutrition and development. These are the four pillars essential to any action of reconciliation and lasting peace.
What impact has this conflict had on your pastoral ministry?
When I was joining the order of the Servants of the Sick (Camillians), I never imagined that one day I would find myself in a situation of war. But I was always fascinated by the lives of martyrs and people who spend all their energy to take care of the sick.
While this conflict has truly tested my faith, and it did grow, I exceptionally experience that our God is always with us in all our trials. I performed some exceptional acts that made me believe that it is the Lord who works in me. This shows God is in control.
I discovered that only love can destroy the walls of hatred. I thank God that I showed love to all who came to our hospital; I met rebels who once threatened me with death, and I was able to offer my hand to greet them, thanks to this love. Only love can overcome the hatred of the world. And this love we can live through prayer. And each time one asks me where I find the strength to do all that I do, I simply say, “Jesus Christ.” The Eucharist, adoration, daily prayer of the Rosary: These are my weapons of victory.
My ministry bears fruit every time I heal more life through faith, prayer and love.
What have been some of your guiding principles when it came to protecting, serving and saving people in this situation of conflict?
In this conflict, two essential principles have guided me: Just like Christ my Lord, I should love [fully] to give my life for those I love. This could take me to my death, as it was in the case of Jesus. But I believe he will raise me up. This Christian hope was a force for me.
Then, secondly, Jesus said: “Whatsoever you do to the least of these my brethren, you did it unto me.” I was convinced that by protecting, healing and nourishing those 1,500 refugees with us, it was Jesus that I was serving. I saw the face of Jesus in all these people as I gazed on the Eucharist.