An Italian priest in northern Central African Republic (CAR) has helped restore order and mediate peace in the city of Bozoum as the country continues to crumble toward a brutal civil war.
CAR has been rocked by unrest since March 2013, when a largely Muslim alliance of rebel groups known as the Seleka overthrew President Francois Bozize. More than a million people—nearly a quarter of the population—fled the violence as Seleka rebels fought against the civilian anti-Balaka militia, which has been widely described as Christian. But Christian groups within CAR publicly condemned the anti-Balaka’s actions and atrocities.
Bozoum saw its share of violence as Seleka rebels burned down more than 1,500 homes in late 2013, leading to thousands of civilians fleeing or seeking shelter from the fighting, according to World Watch Monitor (WWM). Since December, Father Aurelio Gazzera has met with all parties—Islamist rebels, anti-Balaka militia groups, and civilians—to air grievances, hold people accountable, and try to restore calm, WWM said.
“It became clear that the tension between the Seleka rebels and anti-Balaka militias could be detrimental to everyone,” Gazzera told WWM. “Thus it’s become necessary to take action to stop the violence against civilians.”
A resident of CAR for 22 years, Gazzera said on his website there have been inter-religious efforts throughout CAR to report the violence, provide shelter to civilians, and seek peace. He and other leaders in Bozoum persuaded Seleka soldiers to leave the city in January 2014. But much of the Muslim population fled into nearby Chad out of fear of anti-Balaka militia.
“So slowly we built a mediation committee made of men and women of good will, trying to mediate with meetings with Selekas, anti-Balakas and populations,” Gazzera wrote. After the Selekas left, “every morning at 8 a.m. they get together along with [Military African Union] to analyze [the] situation and decide on security and other important matters.”
Through the committee’s efforts, Bozoum—which doesn’t even have a police force—has been able to reopen a hospital, about 50 schools, and numerous stores, WWM reported. Residents have also resumed farming.
“God has allowed us to engage in more acceptance of others,” Gazzera told WWM. “The crisis also opens the way to a life of faith, and has enabled some people to encounter the Gospel.” It’s also led to a greater appreciation for their former Muslim neighbors: “Many have already started to regret the departure of Muslims, who were the economic engine of the city.”
A report by the International Federation for Human Rights released July 2 warned the tit-for-tat attacks threatened to create conditions for a genocide reminiscent of Bosnia in the 1990s. The 88-page-report detailed atrocities committed by both sides in the impoverished country and urged the re-establishment of a legal and penal system to stop the wave of crime and violence and to bring to trial those behind the massacres.