By Christopher Wells
More than 40 people were killed on Thursday when Islamic militants attacked a displaced persons camp in Alindao, in the Central African Republic.
The refugee centre, operated by the Diocese of Alindao, has a capacity of 25,000, and welcomes displaced persons regardless of religion. It was established precisely in order to foster the civil harmony vigorously promoted by the Church, especially following the Pope Francis’ Apostolic Visit to the country in 2015.
"They told me they were surrounded"
News of the attack spread rapidly on Thursday morning by means of social media. Father Marcellin Kpeou, a Central African living in Rome, received a message from the Diocesan bursar asking for prayers. When he called Alindao, Fr Marcellin said he heard shots in the background. “They told me they were surrounded,” he explained, and asked him to alert the local authorities about what was happening.
The attack was reportedly carried out by UPC (Unité pour la Paix en Centrafrique) rebels, in retaliation for the killing of a Muslim man by Anti-balaka militia groups. Political tensions have led to ongoing fighting between rival factions, roughly divided along ethnic and religious lines. As a result of the violence, humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders estimates there are more than 690,000 internally displaced persons within the CAR, out of a total population of 4.5 million; as well as approximately 570,000 refugees in neighbouring countries.
More than 40 people killed
Sources in Alindao said many displaced persons were burned alive, and their tents set on fire during Thursday’s attack. Initial reports spoke of at least forty victims, although the final death toll may be much higher. At least one priest – Father Blaise Mada, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Alindao – was killed; while another priest, Fr Celestine Ngoumbango, who was wounded in the attack, is missing and feared dead.
Following the attack, Vatican News spoke with Father Mathieu Bondobo, the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Bangui. The attackers, he said “started burning tents, killing, looting people’s property.” Fr Mathieu said the attacks appeared to be premeditated, in view of threats received by the Bishop of Alindao, Cyr-Nestor Yapaupa, who has been unreachable since the attack.
The Church remains strong
The Bishop had notified UN peacekeepers of the threats, but at the time of the attack the Church’s facilities were undefended. When the famed “blue helmets” did arrive, they did not intervene. “Everyone was left to their own devices,” Fr Mathieu said, “and the rebels had time to do whatever they wanted. And they did.”
“This is [the reason] for our anger, this is what causes sadness in our hearts,” he continued. “Humanly, yes, we are sad, but this attack cannot be a threat to prevent the Church from fulfilling its mission. Indeed, the Church remains strong. And we, who are still alive, continue to carry on this work.”