Bishop Juan José Aguirre asks for prayers to bring peace to his country and to his people
Happy New Year! These are words we commonly hear at this time of year. And they were also the first words addressed by Bishop Juan José Aguirre of Bangassou to all at the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). They would be nothing exceptional, were it not for the fact that he is uttering them just one day after his city was overrun by armed rebel groups and at a time when the fighting is continuing in various parts of the city. (Interview on January 4, 2021)
He is wishing for others what he and his people have been unable to enjoy themselves, given that a rebel coalition accusing the government of having manipulated the recent elections of December 27, has attacked a number of towns and cities in the last few weeks and currently controls not only Bangassou, but a large swathe of the national territory as well.
God: silent, but present.
On Sunday, January 3, government soldiers managed to hold off a succession of attacks in the Bishop’s city until they finally ran out of ammunition and fled. “Leaving us to ourselves, me and my people, but God stayed by our side.” That’s how it felt to this missionary bishop who tells us how, despite everything, he did not feel alone, even though many of the people fled to the neighbouring Republic of Congo, separated from them only by a river. “You were there in the darkest night, although you were sleeping,” is how Bishop Aguirre expresses his thoughts to this God, who was silent but nonetheless present.
“We spent a quiet night here in the mission, in a tense sort of calm, but then an army tank manned by Moroccan soldiers of the MINUSCA peacekeeping forces (the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic, or in French: Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique) was stationed in the neighbourhood,” adds the bishop, himself a Combonian religious of Spanish origin. The MINUSCA are attempting to bring calm to the situation by moving governmental armed forces, police and security forces to MINUSCA bases until they can be evacuated.
Concern for the Children and the Elderly
The principal concern of Bishop Aguirre is for the children and the elderly. “There have been children wounded by stray bullets,” he says. “Children who were fleeing to the Congo. A bullet fell on one of them, like a sword of Damocles, and no one could tell where it had come from. So even while they were fleeing, the violence of the attackers was still terrorizing them,” he adds.
Bishop Aguirre is hoping that there will be no bloodshed of ordinary people given the new “lords and rulers” of the place. So many years of violence, death and destruction, changes in power and plots in an attempt to dominate have plagued this country that is rich in minerals and other resources, and yet, whose people are totally steeped in poverty.
The new “rulers” of Bangassou mentioned by Bishop Aguirre are a rebel coalition of anti-government forces, calling themselves the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), comprised of five different warlords who have ransacked the country for years. Many are foreigners from Niger, Chad and Sudan.
As for the bishop, faithful to his mission, he is not concerned with politics but only wishes to be able to continue fulfilling his task. “How is one to show a face of loving tenderness in the midst of so much violence?” he asks.
“Our priests and religious continue to work here … giving all they have.”
Inside the Catholic mission, one of the few enclaves that has managed to hold out despite the violence and fighting of recent days, they have taken in many orphaned children. “They are innocent,” says the bishop. “When you look into their eyes, they know nothing of rebels, mercenaries, power struggles… They simply hear the gunshots and the noise of the fighting and are very frightened.” The mission also runs a centre for the elderly in another part of the city. Bishop Aguirre is very concerned for the situation of these 50 elderly, many of whom are already suffering dementia. “It is always the most vulnerable who pay the price,” he says. “Our priests and religious continue to work here, each in his or her own place, giving all they have, living among the people and sharing in these moments of adversity. There are many traumatized people who need to be helped, and behind each one Christ himself suffers. Please pray for peace and for my people!”
After so much terrible warfare and fighting between the government and numerous militia and mercenary groups between 2013 and 2019 and many massacres, abuses and looting inflicted on the civilian population, the Central African Republic seemed finally to have begun moving into calmer waters in 2020. But now, the short peace is over: “We were working on so many beautiful reconstruction projects in the country… Now we’re going to have to start all over again on many of them.” But Bishop Aguirre is not one to simply sit and cry, for he adds, “But our measure of time is not God’s measure of time!”