Priest saved over 1,000 Muslims in Central African Republic
Fr Bernard Kinvi risked life confronting Seleka rebels in bush
Fr Bernard Kinvi: running a mission in Bossemptele, in the Central African Republic, that includes a hospital, school and church.
Outside the doors of the historic Courtroom 600 in Nuremberg, where Germany’s Nazis were tried for carrying out humanity’s worst crimes almost 70 years ago, Fr Bernard Kinvi surveys the atrocities of the past.
The 32-year-old Catholic priest from Togo, who is of slight build, wears a red cross across his chest. He is a man of few words. Over the past 12 months in Central African Republic, Fr Bernard, who is of the Camillian Order, has experienced first-hand a new episode of horror.
He runs a mission that includes a hospital, school and church in Bossemptele, deep in the Central African Republic bush. Earlier this year Fr Bernard singlehandedly saved the lives of more than 1,000 Muslims fleeing rampaging militias, repeatedly facing down death himself.
The unrest in the Central African Republic was sparked in late 2012 when Seleka rebels from the northeast took control of a number of towns before moving south towards the capital, Bangui. A deal between this largely Muslim rebel force and CAR president François Bozizé was done and then quickly torn up. By March last year the Seleka had overrun Bangui.
Late last year the violence reached Bossemptele, 300km northwest of Bangui.
“Some [Seleka] fighters had been injured in road accidents and so they came to the mission to be treated. That was my first contact with them. They came looking for help,” says Fr Bernard. “I had to forbid them to come to the hospital with weapons. Finally they understood. But local people were terrified of them and decided to rebel against them. Then they established the anti-balaka.”
The anti-balaka, a loose coalition of Christian and animist men who took up arms against the Seleka fighters, regularly carried out atrocities against Muslim civilians, who make up 15 per cent of CAR’s 4.7 million population.
“People fled to the bush, some came to the mission. I hid the IT equipment, computers and dug a hole in the garden and buried our money in it,” says Fr Bernard. “We started meeting with all religious leaders in the area. We invited shamans, imams; we decided on what we would tell the people in the churches and the mosques. It worked for a time.”
But the Seleka continued to threaten civilians. Fr Bernard asked forces attached to the African Union (AU) mission to come to Bossemptele.
“I had the phone number of a military leader in the AU who said after I spoke with him he would do something about what was happening. But they never came.”
By January, the violence in CAR had made headlines around the world. Children were seen standing alone in barns and warehouses. Bangui airport had turned into a camp for more than 100,000 displaced civilians. Lynch mobs killed Muslims in the streets in plain view of international media and peacekeepers.
French soldiers were due to go to the countryside and disarm the Seleka rebels. According to Fr Bernard, the French reached within 100km of Bossemptele but the Seleka fled to the priests’ mission, stole their cars and drove away.
“They threatened to kill me with a shotgun. I had to ask them not to,” he says. “When they left, the anti-balaka then came looking to kill Muslims. There were no French or AU soldiers in the region at that time. And then there was the massacre.”
About 80 people were killed. The mission opened its doors to hundreds of displaced people as Fr Bernard and his colleagues went out to gather women and children in the bush.
“I wasn’t strong enough to carry all the bodies. My biggest concern was to protect and feed 1,500 people at the mission. We hid then in our own rooms. We heard that soldiers were coming from the north to help and we told the refugees that they were saved.”
He then spoke to an officer who said an evacuation would be organised for the next day: the refugees were to be saved. But the soldiers didn’t come. “It was very difficult to tell people in the mission that the hope was gone,” he says.
Fr Bernard and others then took the women and children to the nearest road – they were the only people allowed out of the compound by the anti-balaka.
“We started throwing them on to passing lorries [travelling to Cameroon] for them to get to safety,” he said. Later, reports emerged that people who fell from the trucks had their bodily parts hacked off.
Fr Bernard is saddened by the international response to what has happened in CAR where the violence rumbles on today. “Sometimes people came to take notes about refugees,” he said, “but they never came back.”