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Monday, November 21, 2011

Today is Feast of Christ The King day!

 Today is Feast of Christ The King day!

Here in Bozoum we traditionally celebrate mass on Mount Binon, an overlooking hill of the city. On the top there is a shaft with a statue of Jesus, which was built by P.Vittorino on 1984
For those who cannot make it  there's an earlier mass in the local parish church and around 8 pm we leave along with the altar boys.

Then we park the car near the tank water supply, and set off on foot towards the top. It takes about twenty minutes walk on a path of turf and stones, and we finally get to the top
(well, so to speak … it's only 200 meters high!)
From here there is a beautiful view of Bozoum and its surroundings. I always like to come here: Jesus who blesses and protects everyone in the city, all those living in here and those just passing by maybe without even realizing that He's here and He doesn't forget anyone!

The Gospel brings us back to the Judgement, when we'll be judged not based on what we wrote, thought, prayed or celebrated, but based on Charity we gave.  Sometimes to strangers, other times given  subconsciously…it is nice to believe that God takes into account everything, even what we do without realizing, without thinking that He was in that poor we helped, in that child,  in whom who suffers, in whom who is in need!
Today there's one further reason to rejoice: the Pope is in Africa, in the State of Benin, where he just delivered an important document summarizing the Synod of Bishops of Africa.
The title of this letter is called "Africae minus" :  Africa's commitment. It's good to see how seriously the Pope considers Africa 

The letter begins with these words:

Africa's commitment to Lord Jesus Christ is a precious treasure, which I commend, for this beginning of the third millennium, to bishops, priests, permanent deacons, consecrated people, catechists and lay people  of this dear continent and nearby islands. This mission brings Africa to delve into our Christian vocation. This mission invites us to live, in the name of Jesus, the reconciliation between the people and communities, and to promote for all peace and justice in  His Truth 
Happy Feast of Christ The King day!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

bandits in Bangkok...

Do not get to laugh ... but this week in Thailand ...... I do not believe it myself!
I was invited to attend a conference on education in emergencies, which began Tuesday, November 8, and ending Friday at 13h.
We are about seventy people from 15 different countries
Congo (DRC)
Cote d'Ivoire
South Soudan
Sri Lanka
The Conference is organized by a body, GCPEA (Global Coalition to Prevent Attack Education), which coordinates all that are attacks on schools, teachers and pupils.
is interesting to see and meet people from different countries, and study how it compares with tragedies and problems, and how everyone tries to invent solutions ...
I was invited to present the work of mediation with the bandits. An interesting story, I present to you!

Receiving an invitation from the bandits does not happen every day.
It is not without concern that I read the letter that the Mayor had sent me from Toumi, discussing road bandits, in July 2007, with the request that they wanted to meet.

The BANDITS: for over four years we lived in fear because of them.
Only in our region, Ouham Pende, in 2006 a survey of nine months on a small number of villages (29), showed 192 attacks in the villages, 143 wounded, 30 dead and 27 rapes and 206 abductions.

The bandits kidnapped people, especially children and young people, and demanded a ransom. This caused a large number of displacement of families leaving their villages (the city of Bozoum increased from 16,000 to 28,000 inhabitants).  Most schools were closed because the parents did not want to take the risk that a child could be kidnapped. In 2007 and 2008 we helped parents to enroll displaced children in the school in Bozoum, and we had opened another school in town for the displaced children from closed schools.
It is in this context, I received this request from the bandits. They wanted to find a way out of their lives, and they asked me to act as an intermediary between them and the Government. They knew very well what we were doing in relation to the displaced families. And I never stopped encouraging people to react, not to be discouraged. In all the villages I invited the adults not to let that 3 or 4 armed men came to kill, injure, remove their children ...We also made an effort not to give up on these villages attacked by the bandits, and we had constructed wells, latrines and so on to try to encourage communities.

Contacting the Parties
After receiving this letter, we reflected on what could be done. I also contacted the authorities in the capital to keep them informed and got a very positive response from the Presidency.
So on July 31, 2007, a Political Advisor of the President, the Military Councilor and the Chief of Staff of the President left to go to Bozoum to attend this meeting. We, the 4 of us in my car, unescorted and unarmed but with a great desire to seek a solution to this problem, but also with a lot of fear ... There was no agreement before on this, but  we thought it was better to go unarmed and unescorted, to show our confidence and willingness to seek a peaceful solution.
First Negotiation between Bandits and Authorities
This first meeting was held in Toumi, a small village 75 km from Bozoum (475 km from the capital Bangui). Fortunately we were a good team with very good understanding and agreement on the situation: two Central Africans, one French, one Italian ... each one with its experience and strengths.

The purpose of the meeting was the first to understand what drove the road bandits to live that way and why they had contacted us to change their lives. Most of them were young people of Tchad, but also from Niger, Cameroon and Sudan.  Each of them with its history, and all with several years of violence, theft and different crimes, with stories of drugs and alcohol, but also with families ... We could see they were tired, ill, nostalgic for their  family and normal life, also some moral reasons, or religious beliefs (they were almost all Muslims).
For me, being a priest, without political or military biais, I could speak more freely than others, and tell them what they did was not acceptable, and that any response to their requests (from the Government as from NGOs) could not be granted if their actions and crime would not stopped.

I thought I was a little hard, but I saw, it was what they wanted from me.  And indeed, after this meeting, the bandits stopped the attacks although it took a while because they were divided into several groups, and not all agreed.

On our way back, we were still alive and happier that on our way there! Especially pleased to have been quietly talking with these men, and also with the village community. Their requests? It was mainly the opportunity to return home, their families, without the risk of being arrested or hurt. They also had strange requests (money or otherwise), which we said there was no question. The Government has not given money. But he gave some food to sustain them during the time that the bandits did not steal and kidnap.

Subsequent Meetings
We returned several times for further discussion. Meanwhile we looked at all levels (EU, Embassies, UN, NGOs) to obtain aid or advice, but nobody was willing or able to respond. And the Government's ideas were not clear. We consider consolidating bandits groups, identifying them and make them return to their country, but we wanted clear conditions for their governments and for the bandits:
-          For the bandits: to stay calm in their family, not to move or reenter into banditry in other areas.

During the month of October, we could not make the meeting in the school of Toumi ... because the school was finally occupied by students ... it was a great step forward: see students (over 300) in school, to see people mix with the bandits without fear ... even in other villages in the same area, the situation was calmer.

This conflict negotiation approach has often lead to a good improvement of the situation in several villages.
  • The return of IDPs and the reconstruction of their villages.
  • School and work in schools had a double impact:
-          In one hand the students were back to school (which brought return to normalcy in their lives)
-          Secondly, an open school engages parents, government and rebels in a certain respect and discussion, which also supports the peace process. Rebels or road bandit  would usually let the headmaster to return in the village or reopen the schools, which allowed students to return or go to school

New Attacks
In February 2008, a new event caused a sudden setback: another group of bandits attacked a convoy of cars, and kidnapped two doctors from CAR on mission.  The Government could not do as usual (that is to say or ‘do nothing’), it intervened with the military for a sweep of the area. The government was not united, and that's a problem ... Some were not aware; some were...Which complicated things...

At this point, the bandits preferred to avoid risks, and they departed. In the meanwhile, the villages have formed security groups, which prevented the return of the bandits. Generally, the groups were not violent. In Bozoum at least, they were well organized, with an official, a small committee who will also monitor the village committees. They have been trained on what they could do as citizens, and what was forbidden by law. The President of the Tribunal provided the training. They even intervened to punish certain elements who did not respected these commitments.

For the rebels, the approach was somewhat similar. But also a bit more complicated, because they had political interests  ... This is the fight against a central government. It is a struggle between power and opposition, but often they become part of the political game: a point of strength, a resource to play in the table to get the power, (to get civil servant position, ministerial posts ...). Some requests were reasonable (school, health, economic recovery, and fight against corruption ...), but others were impossible (power-sharing, new government, new elections ...). Some rebels come from the Community attacked: they are often more difficult elements, who have problems with the rest of the population, and youth who have very few prospects, and where the rebellion may be an element of social promotion.

In 2005-2006 began the other problem of the country: armed rebellion. These are gangs of youths, adults and some ex-military, with some political agenda, that arise as liberators, and began to occupy some part of the territory, not only because of the weakness of the state, but also of the Army.

Talks with Rebels
Among the rebels there are young idealists, but also people without principles.
With the rebels, the approach was similar, although with some differences, mainly due to the political element, which is more complicated. In addition ... the population was often between the rock and a hard place: a victim of both the rebels and the army.
The goal for us was to create opportunities for the civilian population, the state authorities and the rebels to meet and talk. So they could find a solution.

Lessons Learned
I know every country has a different situation.  What I can say about what we experienced in CAR (and we still live in many of these areas) is that first you must believe in peace. It's hard, but without hope and faith in man, it will not come out. There are aspects which worked for us:

  • Role of priest. An important aspect is the fact that being a priest, and thus enjoy a fairly neutral position, while very committed to the people which made things easier, compared to armed men with local communities and civil authorities.

  • Clarity and honesty of approach. BE CLEAR and straightforward. Do not promise what you can reasonably get or give. Do not be afraid to comment and get people to change.

Good faith effort of the parties to negotiate. Have serious players, especially from the Government. I was very lucky to work with people with a genuine concern for the population. But this is not always possible.