How a Comboni parish in the Central African Republic became a haven for terrorized Christians
by: Kathleen M. Carroll
When Father Moses Otii Alir arrived at Our Lady of Fatima parish in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR), in 2012, the neighborhood was a tapestry of people, old and young, Christian and Muslim. Violence began in 2013 when predominately Muslim Seleka fighters seized power and deposed president Francois Bozize, and began a campaign of terror, looting, and murder, focused primarily on non-Muslims. In the absence of sufficient protection from law enforcement or the international community, Christian vigilante groups, calling themselves anti-Balaka, waged a series of reprisal killings. The fighting has been vicious, with multiple reports of grotesque mutilations, beheadings, and even cannibalism.
At Point Zero in the center of Bangui, the government has erected a monument to work: Unité, Dignité, Travail. At least the last part of the message had sunk in. During my visit in March 2017, the streets were jammed with people—carrying goods to market, pushing enormous carts, balancing baskets on their heads and infants tightly bound to their backs. Despite the heat, which hovered near 100 degrees for most of our visit, no one was still, no hands were idle.
Though the violence in the CAR was widespread, we wanted to learn more about one episode. We had received notes during the worst of the chaos, but wanted to witness for ourselves the struggles of the people and the inspiring way our Comboni Missionaries were working to keep hope alive. Here is the story.
Our Lady of Fatima was Father Moses’s first parish assignment. He had been a priest for just seven months when, on December 5, 2013, after a crowded 6 p.m. Mass, he heard the sound of gunshots and bombs. Some people hunkered down in the churchyard, afraid to venture outside the relative protection of the church’s stone walls and iron gates. The nearby Christian neighborhood was attacked, looted, and burned. The onslaught lasted ten hours, and other survivors joined those taking shelter at the church. They were chased by armed bands of Seleka rebels. “These were not soldiers,” says Father Moses, “but young men, Muslim boys, who were being manipulated by others.” A community where both Christians and Muslims had lived as neighbors suddenly became a flashpoint for religious division. In the public school just across the street from the church, Father Moses says, “one child killed his teacher for having a different faith.” At first dozens, then hundreds of refugees took shelter at Our Lady of Fatima. At length, more than six thousand men, women, and children crowded into the parish compound’s small enclosure, while heavily armed men gathered at the gate. “They were trying to get in,” Father Moses says. “They wanted to kill everyone, to butcher everyone.”
The immediate questions were urgent, says Father Moses. “How can we protect these people? How can we shelter them? How can we feed them? We thought maybe it would be a week or even two, and we had only the little bit of food that we keep for the few of us who staff the parish.” But the urgency of the need did not wane as the crowd stayed a second week, then a third. Their homes had been destroyed; violence still stalked the streets. There was nowhere for them to go and, even if there were, no way to get there.
“We had little water and less food. We made rice porridge for the children. The Comboni Sisters helped tend to the very young and the elderly. The Comboni Missionaries outside the CAR helped with funds. Dr. Patricia of the Benedictines helped with medicine.”
As the weeks dragged on, latrines were dug—about three hundred of them in one corner of the yard. Babies were born—three in one night alone, with Father Moses pressed into duty as midwife. Father Moses or one of the other staff would take a group of women out of the compound each day to get supplies—food from the remaining stalls and anything else still available. The runs were “dangerous, but necessary,” he says. “There was no other way to get food into the church. We were trapped and there were so many mouths to feed. We had to go out, even though it was not safe.”
On one trip, armed men seized one of the women just as the group neared the relative safety of the church gates. Father Moses doubled back to usher her safely inside and was himself stabbed in the leg for the effort. The wound narrowly missed an artery, but Father Moses dismisses the seriousness of the injury. “After seeing so many who are killed, who have lost limbs or who have lost mothers or children, how am I going to complain about a wound that will heal?” he says.
On May 28, 2014, the impossible situation got worse. “Armed people tried to force open the doors of the church,” Father Moses says. He was inside at 3 p.m. when the attack started, trying in vain to contact another priest via cell phone. The noise was so intense and lasted so long that he was sure no one outside could have survived. He shared with us an audio recording he made on his phone of the attack—an intense barrage of gunfire and rocket blasts.
“They threw grenades over the fence at the church itself and fired automatic weapons through the iron fence. They killed five young people who laid in front of the gate to prevent them from entering. They shot a priest out on the street who had been coming to visit family in the area. He laid in the street for many hours before we could get to him. We did not know if he was alive or dead.”
When they did reach him, it was too late. “We put him in a wheelbarrow to go to the hospital, but he died on the way.”
Eight people were killed inside the compound that afternoon; another seven died later from their injuries. One 26-year-old still has a bullet lodged in his body and a woman injured by a grenade still awaits surgery to repair the damage.
Despite the intensity of the attack, and the tragedy of the lives lost, it is stunning that more were not killed. Of the many miraculous stories that emerged after the attack, one is particularly poignant. As armed men shot their way through the churchyard, bullets struck the iron gate and the door jamb of the sacristy. Twelve people were huddled together inside, under a table. A bullet pierced the door and entered a cabinet, striking a chalice inside. The bullet tore a hole through one side of the cup, circled around the inside, and then came to rest within it. No one in the sacristy was injured.
“Even amid so much violence, we can still see how the Lord protects us,” Father Moses says.
After the May attack, many people left the area for good. The area around Our Lady of Fatima was ungovernable. Even UN troops were not allowed to patrol the area. Still, thousands of people remained, That attack ended, but the siege had not. The churchyard was still jammed with thousands needing medical care, food, and shelter.
“We began to have some small classes for the children,” says Father Moses, “so they would not be so far behind in school. Of course, we did not know whether the situation would ever change, whether there would be school again, but we wanted to keep things as normal as possible for them.”
We asked Father Moses why he did not take the opportunity, as so many other aid workers and even peacekeeping troops had done, to escape the city. We had to ask a few times—he did not seem to understand the question. Finally, he said, “I cannot leave. They are my family.”
The refugees stayed for three years. The last families moved out just two months before our visit, and the latrine pit was just being filled in. Bangui is calmer now, though the struggles of the CAR continue to rage in other parts of the country.
The parish had reason to celebrate in March, with two new ordinations taking place in the outdoor space once pressed into service as a refugee camp. And the example of the Comboni Missionaries is inspiring others. A new doctor at the nearby medical clinic has been practicing for two years, but has not yet had his first paycheck. “After seeing what the Comboni Fathers have done, how they stayed to help my people, how can I leave?” he told Comboni Missions.
“The people of Bangui have lost so much,” says Father Moses. “They have lost children, homes. Their faith helps them to heal, helps them reach a level of peace, helps them find joy. In spite of all the problems, today we have two new priests,” he says, smiling. This is reason to hope.”