Just recently Pope Francis said that the Church should be a “field hospital”. In the Central African Republic this is now everyday routine. Thousands of people have sought shelter in the mission stations and monasteries. The Carmelite monastery in the capital Bangui has also turned into a refugee camp. Normally the monastery is a place of silence. Now the cries of hundreds of children can be heard both day and night.
By Eva-Maria Kolmann, ACN International
Adapted by AB Griffin, ACN Canada
“The French are here! At last!” Fighter jets break through the clouds in the sky above the Carmelite monastery. The people applaud spontaneously. Father Federico Trinchero, the 35-year-old Prior, is close to tears. Perhaps help is on the way … A few hours earlier panic had broken out in the district where the monastery is located. Shots were heard, and women grabbed their children and ran. More than two thousand people sought refuge in the monastery.
“On Friday morning we had celebrated Holy Mass for the many people who had been killed in the recent days. Just as I was preparing breakfast I was called to the gate. Standing there were masses of people who had fled to us. We took them in with open arms,” the Italian Prior said.
The monks were suddenly faced with an enormous challenge: “I counted the people discreetly so that no-one would think we wouldn’t be able to find room for them. But it was clear to us that we could provide for the people at the most for one day. We weren’t able to leave the monastery to buy food since it was too dangerous out there. We called everyone possible: the Archbishop, the nunciature and the French embassy to get help, but the situation was no different anywhere else.”
“I smile to stop me from weeping too much”
Yousuf, a Muslim friend of the monastery who ran a chicken farm nearby gave the Fathers 2000 eggs he was unable to sell at the market. “We used these to make pancakes for the smallest children,” Father Federico explained with evident pleasure. Later Yousuf brought a sack of rice, a sack of sugar and a vat of oil. “We got the children to stand in rows to wash their hands before each of them was given a pancake. We have 800 children under twelve here and many pregnant women.”
The young Prior had not dared ask the people who had fled in panic about their histories. “I smile to stop me from weeping too much,” he confessed.
Only a few days before the Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonné Nzapalainga, had used his Advent message as an opportunity to speak directly to the atrocities committed by the Séléka rebels, who had been instilling fear and terror in the country for a year.
He denounced the abductions, mass executions and looting. Weapons had even been fired in residential areas. He described the decaying and decayed corpses in many places which lay on the ground feeding vultures and wild animals. He spoke of people being tortured and “bound in a bestial fashion” only to be thrown into the river to “die there in agony, with no chance of fleeing their inescapable death.”Hundreds of thousands of people are on the run.
Since the UN Security Council agreed last week to reinforce the presence of French troops in the country, people dare to hope that this nightmare will soon come to an end.
Monastery life in Bangui is anything but normal now. “We celebrated morning Mass outside so as not to awaken the 350 children sleeping in the chapel. Two of them were even lying under the altar,” a visibly moved Father Federico reported. The monks are on their feet day and night. “I met Brother Léonce, who comes from Rwanda, sweeping the corridor at five in the morning. I told him he should rest, but he told me that he himself had been born in a refugee camp in the Congo, since his family had fled from the genocide in Rwanda. I am so proud of our Brothers. Brother Cedric is a doctor and cares for the sick. Brother Mathieu runs the kitchen in a way that not even a mother could. The others help distribute the foods, bring water, take care of the hygiene, register the refugees and look after them in every respect. They all work so hard!”
For many refugees there is a happy ending: “A father came to us with a small baby. By the evening we had eventually managed to find his wife. And little Fatou finally found her parents again on Sunday,” Father Federico recounted, clearly gratified.
The Fathers sing the words of the psalm: “He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy.” The cries of the little children blend into the singing. In the sky the French aircraft drone. “God Saves” is the name of a little boy who has only known fear.
Will peace soon come?