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Friday, February 7, 2014

Figaro qua, Figaro là

These days I've been around and visited communities in two nearby villages
Bocaranga: 125 km from here. Here the Selekas attacked on Tuesday on the 21st of January. They shot some refugees at the catholic mission and they stole everything they could. Once they left the Antibalakas completed the opera and plundered shops and burned several Muslims houses.
Bossemptélé, 87 km on the south side has been taken by the Antibalakas. They killed several people, plundered all Muslims and Peuls' belongings. 
Here in Bozoum, comparing the rest of the country the situation is better: the Antibalakas do not enter the city armed and despite few shootings per day, it is quite calm. On Monday morning Public schools reopened and this is good news. On Wednesday we had some UN visitors and we tried to push things a bit for the reconstruction. Along came some journalists. Here is the article from "le figaro" written by Adrien Jaulmes

Bozoum, specialist reporter
In the sticks as in the small city of Bozoum, father Aurelio is a celebrity. They all wave hello when he's passing by, and his car gets immediately surrounded when he stops. In the whole region his silhouette is well known.
He's as thin as a rake, 52, although he looks ten years younger, wears a small Wooden cross, blue shirt, shorts, red laterite sandals, trimmed beard. The Italian missionary is everywhere welcomed as the man who brings hope, support and reassurance.
Isolated in this small city, 400 km far from Bangui, only weapons: one mobile, a rare energy and infallible courage and moral fiber. For months now,  Father Aurelio has led an almost impossible fight.
Refusing violence's inevitability, he's been trying to stop the terrible circle of abuses and reprisals here in the Car.
As he wrote, he tried to "bring some humanity and rationality in the folly of this civil war".
Father Aurelio however didn't manage to stop all violences and destruction. In several occasions he managed to bring reason and sometimes to avoid the worse. Since many months now he's been warning as for those growing dangers. Then once the infernal machine started, he tried to intervene and have both parties to lay down their weapons, often disarming people himself, talking directly to these assassins, trying his best to calm down spirits and avoid bloodshed.
Aurelio arrived here in Car beginning of the nineties and since 2003 has been responsible for the saint Michel parish in Bozoum. The arrival of the Selekas transformed his apostolic mission. They came on the 26th of March 2013, as modern medieval bandits and as in the rest of the country they have been fierce predators in the territory: they stole, extorted, robbed, raped, ransacked, tortured, killed. "They were on the loose" told Aurelio, always trying to stop them to abuse people. " I often went to see their colonel Yahya Massar, at least one could reason with him, however his authority wasn't  always followed by his men".
Father Aurelio himself  experienced their brutality. "Selekas had tortured a young man for ten days. They had him tied up for so long that he lost his hands. I went to see them and told them they had no right to torture people. They told me they were soldiers, they could do as they pleased. One of them stood up and slapped me. I left. Anyways they did seem to fear me a bit...perhaps it's because they are cowards and in the end they always took it on the weakest ones....if one stood against them one could bend them, at least in some ways."
On his blog, Father Aurelio often told tales of these horrible abuses and pointed out the problems occurring here, tried to alert the international public, media and governments of this drama which eats up This country. "We immediately realized that Selekas' brutality would have disastrous consequences and that created immediate hatred between communities" said Aurelio."since August, many exasperated people organized a local militias called Antibalaka" the end of the Selekas'regime began in December with groups of African and French forces. In Bozoum as in the rest of the country was a new wave of destruction and killings. This time the roles were swapped. The Antibalakas, militias of farmers armed of rifles and machetes were attacking. Muslims and Peuls, wether right or wrong associated to Selekas and hated for this, became victims of violence
They reached the  End of the line on the 10th of January when Djotodia was forced to resign and the face of the Selekas was removed out of Bangui. Then the Selekas'gangs  rampaged up as if they wanted to leave only ashes and destruction behind.
With their Peul and Muslim friends they destroyed villages around the city terrorizing the population.
"They acted out of stupidity and cruelty rather than a precise reason" says Father Aurelio. At least 1300 houses had been burned. The people were so scared they fled to the forest or to the saint Michel mission in Bozoum. Boyele, a village just on the Northside has been completely destroyed by fire.  People are sitting on the steps of their poor houses now just ruins and try to pick up any small objects that hasn't been burned.
Some try to place some form of roof onto the charred walls. Boyele's people are alive only because they run away. "The morning of the 10th of January we heard canon shots" said a villager "so we run into the forest. Selekas and Peuls arrived and set the houses on fire. We all saw smoke rising to the sky. Once we came back here in the afternoon, everything was destroyed. We lost it all: seeds, harvest, furniture, house."
So the Antibalakas play their vendetta on isolated Muslims, setting ambushes on the roads. Muslims all regroup in Bozoum, the last village remaining in the Selekas' power, although they are now surrounded.
"The situation was extremely delicate" says Aurelio "we had 3500 refugees at the mission, almost 1500 Peuls at the mosque and about 50 armed Selekas in town, potentially dangerous" 
So the Father tried to mediate."they called me from Chad asking to organize the Muslim civils' evacuation, I said I was ok to do it only if the whole Selekas would agree to leave with them. I spent two whole days trying to make them go. Up until the very last moment they tried to stay. I ended up threatening the MISCA (multinational African military force) saying I would leave my car on the Ouham bridge to obstaculate their passage and that they would have to shoot me to pass." That bridge was built back in 1943 by Italian was prisoners, at the time of the Equatorial French Africa and it is still the only crossing point towards north and the Chadian border, therefore their only escaping route. Selekas eventually agreed to leave the city. 
Only this made Aurelio the bull's eye of the whole Muslim community which was angry at him making their only protection reference going away.
"It was a moment of tension" he said "many Muslims surrounded my car and began to throw stones" he remarked with  nonchalance. His toyota's windscreen looks like a mosaic.
"Surprisingly a Muslim and a Seleka called 10/15 who was one of the nastiest ones protected me".
So everyone in Saint Michel believed I was killed. "Once I got back it was like an explosion of joy, people thought it was a sort of miracle, they placed robes in the street to greet me, it looked a bit as Palm Sunday"
As soon as the Selekas' danger was over, Father Aurelio faces the population's vendetta. They went crazy after so many months of terrors. Often victims become perfect executioners. It's time for the Muslims to pay off for the abuses. The Antibalakas are now the issue" says Aurelio "for many are just delinquents with no chief. They are just there to vandalize, steal and kill. Some kidnap Peul children and demand ransoms, the destroy their properties and scatter their herds. It's hard to convince people to tell Muslim, Peul and Selekas apart, because the Muslims didn't definitely break away from the Selekas and now they pay the price for it." Without justifying anyone it's clear that father Aurelio has no doubts on what's causing these violent attacks.
"For example, Peuls are victims of their own mistakes, they weren't able to see ahead on the future. They allied  with Selekas without thinking  of the consequences. I did try to advise them, that one day they would find themselves in an impossible situation. With no possibility for them to stay in the villages they would end up having to move into town with their herds....but they didn't listen..."
Under the MISCA protection, here with a small section from Camerun, 2500 Muslims are now forced to live and stay in a small area in Bozoum. They sit on their bags and the few things they were able to bring along after the ransacks, these people are waiting to be transferred out of the country. " our time in CAR is over" said Djodo Mahamatom, delegate of Bozoum's trades, collector of gold and diamonds. "We cannot remain here".
Whole Peul families, semi-nomad shepherds with pale skin are cooking on small fires. Women are wearing colorful robes, have braided hair, wear silver necklaces and some have beautiful tattoos on their face and arms
Everyday Father Aurelio brings them rice which has bought himself.
"Bad father brings good stuff" said the neighborhood's chief, Saleh Ibrahim 
"He's joking" said Aurelio "that's what they called me when they wanted to kill me. Among these people, there are those who tried to stone me few days ago" and waved hello to those sitting on their bags as if nothing had happened.
"He's our only help" said Ibrahim "we lost everything, our shops have been plundered, our live stocks stolen. We cannot leave this road. Only few meters past the Cameron soldiers and the Antibalakas want to kill us and kidnap our kids. We're ready to leave this country but we have no trucks to do it" said the old chief, 45 years lived in Bozoum, "I'm old but the young ones need a safer place to live their life"
Saleh Ibrahim is one of the victims rather than being an ally of the Selekas. "It was their arrival that torn Bozoum apart" he said "before them there was no violence between Muslims and Christians. They did us wrong"
In Father Aurelio's opinion, this civil war has nothing to do with religion. "I strongly believe we should all avoid this word: there are no Christian militias, nor Muslim militias. This is mainly a political, ethical and cultural problem. I don't believe Selekas had Islamization project in mind. They were Muslims, spoke Arab and relied upon the Arab community here, the traders and the   
Breeders. Now what's done is done, it will be very difficult to go back the way it was"

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