SHAFAQNA -Â Father Bernard Kinvi is a 32-year-old priest from Togo who runs a mission in the Central African Republic. Â In early 2014, Father Kinvi singlehandedly saved the lives of more than 1,000 Muslims fleeing rampaging militias, gathering themÂ from their homes and sheltering them in the local church. He did soÂ at great risk to himself.
Christians and Muslims have generally coexisted in peace in the Central African Republic, but in late 2012, a largely Muslim rebel force known asÂ Seleka took control of a number of towns before moving south towards the capital, Bangui. CAR President FranÃ§ois BozizÃ© struck a deal with them, but the peace did not hold. By March last year the Seleka had overrun Bangui.
When violence reachedÂ BossemptÃ©lÃ©, about 186 miles northwest of Bangui, some injured Seleka fighters sought treatment at Father Kinviâ€™s mission hospital. â€œI had to forbid them to come to the hospital with weapons,â€ Father Kinvi, who is of the Camillian Order, told ShafaqnaÂ â€œLocal people were terrified of them and decided to rebel against them. Then they established the anti-balaka.â€
For his rescue work, Human Rights Watch honored Father Kinvi last fall with its Alison Des Forges Award.Â
Shafaqna interviewed Father Kinvi.
SHAFAQNA – Can you describe relations among the local community in BossemptÃ©lÃ© before the onset of the conflict?
Before the start of the military-political crisis, the population of BossemptÃ©lÃ© lived in a peaceful cohesion between Christians, Muslims and animists. Life was complementary. Muslims mostly worked in trade. The Fulani were cattle herders, while the majority of Christians and animists worked in agriculture. And it is they who provided food (cassava, maize and ground nuts) to Muslims and Fulani. Everyone needed his neighbor in order to live better. Of course, problems were not lacking, but they were not excessive.
SHAFAQNA – According to your experience, what fueled the conflict in the Central African Republic?
Above all, I sincerely believe that it is the corruption and bad governance that are the cause of this conflict. Also, the majority of people live without electricity, without access to clean water or healthcare or education, while others live in opulence, plundering gold, diamonds, wood, which should be for everyone. Endless abuse and corruption have engendered despair and anger. This accumulated anger generated a spiral of violence and revenge which unfortunately persists to this day.
SHAFAQNA – What is the current situation of the conflict in the Central African Republic?
To the west of the country there is an uneasy calm. Certainly theanti-balakas militias are still well armed, better than at the beginning of the war. But the violence has decreased significantly.
However, in the east of the country, especially in the Bambari area, violence is still very common because SelekasÂ and anti-Balakas are still present. It is very difficult for them to live together.
SHAFAQNA – How did your team manage to handle two conflicting groups without taking sides with any?
At the height of the conflict, I gathered the hospital staff and told them: “Here we are a Catholic hospital. We treat everyone equally, whether itâ€™s your friend or your enemy. He killed your brother or raped your sister? When he crossed the threshold of the hospital sick or injured, you take care of him. If you agree, then you can stay. If not, you still have a chance to leave the hospital.â€Â
So I gave the word to each member of my caregivers team, and I heard everyone say in turn, “I remain to care for everyone without exception.” It was a very emotional moment. They had not only spoken words, they were true to their commitment.Then each time we are threatened with death by one or the other groups of rebels because we were treating their enemies, I have always taken the lead, to negotiate with them and show them that the hospital is a public place for all.
But beyond that, I mostly felt the steadfast presence of the Lord who always inspires me to do good deeds and say good words at the right time.
SHAFAQNA – What is your evaluation of the roles the UN peacekeepers like the African Union and French forces played during the height of the conflict?
I think the French forces, the African Union and UN peacekeepers have avoided the worst, but have not managed to stop the conflict. I personally find that it’s deterrent forces securing the civilian population.
SHAFAQNA – What is your assessment of the general attitude of the local community (ordinary people) towards their Muslim brothers and sisters?
Attitudes are different. I met a lot of people who hate Muslims, especially the pure strain. But I also met so many people who are opposed to the killing of Muslims. They hid them in their home or in their fields, and we called to find them and bring them to our hospital. I even met a lot of anti-Balaka who protected Muslim civilians, and that allowed me to recover.
Today, the entire population of BossemptÃ©lÃ© is unanimous in the belief that the departure of Muslims considerably decreased the economy of the population. They have more people who sell rural products.
SHAFAQNA – What plans, if any, are in place to ensure that this conflict does not flare up again?
We do not have a national project. But in our small town of BossemptÃ©lÃ©, we have a small “Community Social Cohesion Committee” led by Camillien Father Patrick Brice NaÃ¯nangue, pastor of St. Teresa of EJ BossemptÃ©lÃ©. This committee is responsible for dialogue with the public to rethink the root causes of this crisis, to interact with village chiefs, religious leaders, and anti-balakas … to build bases of reconciliation, justice and peace. We also know that many of the militias are farmers and ranchers. We try to provide advanced training and seeds for the agricultural season. We reward the best productions of the season in order to promote competitiveness. All this allows us to build the workforce and boost the job market. This allows some to give up arms.
We also focus on education and, if possible, education through the media, especially radio. We hope these resources, along with our many prayers for peace will allow us to consider the wounds of war and restore peace.
SHAFAQNA – Some media reports indicate that Christians harbor resentments towards the Muslims. Do you have any idea what these resentments could be about?
I would not say that Christians had resentment against Muslims. I would rather speak of the resentment of non-Muslims (Christians and animists) to Muslims. This is mostly due in part to the fact that the major Seleka militia party was Muslim. And on the other hand, this is due to the complicity of some Muslims with the militia while committing very serious abuses among the non-Muslim civilians.
SHAFAQNA – How did you accommodate two conflicting groups in the mission without actual conflict erupting on the mission grounds?
In fact, the first militia that reigned among us was the Seleka. On January 17, 2014, they fled the city after stealing motorcycles and a car from the hospital. On January 18, the anti-Balaka established their reign after facing resistance from Muslim extremists after killing more than 100 people (mostly civilians). This is how the conflict has taken place in our region. We welcomed the injured, and I tried to hide and protect myself. But I knew it was the Heavenly army that protected us.
SHAFAQNA – How were you able to sustain those who took refuge in the mission in terms of feeding, treating and protecting them?
Before the war, I amassed a supply of rice and medicines. With these provisions we were able to feed and look after our refugees until the arrival of Doctor Without Borders and the World Food Program. The Carmelite nuns also emptied their food reserve for students in their primary school.
SHAFAQNA – How do you feel about the award Human Rights Watch gave you?
I thank God, who wanted to make the world know how he works through our modest commitment. I see myself called by the Lord, who still invites me, and always will invite me, to defend human rights, without consideration for the wounds of my body. It is beautiful to love and to give oneâ€™s life for oneâ€™s friends.