Sam Phelps is a freelance photographer and videographer, currently in Central African Republic on assignment for Catholic Relief Services. He was travelling in the south west of the country when the latest escalation of violence broke out in the capital Bangui and other areas. Here’s his dispatch from a country in turmoil.
“A week in the Central African Republic makes clear the chaos and fear that months of escalating violence have brought to even the remote corners of this country.
That’s where I was headed when I drove five hours southwest of Bangui over pretty bumpy roads to the village of Boda in the Lobaye Prefecture. I was staying at the Catholic mission there, taking pictures and video of the projects CRS is running to help desperately poor people in the region.
A leafy compound next to the church houses the priests and nuns who have dedicated their lives to the service of this country. Father Berty and Father Adelino, from the Italian Comboniani Mission, have been in CAR for decades. We shared our meals together and kept each other company in these nervous times. To meet people with so much commitment to a cause struck me deeply.
In the mornings, after the 6 a.m. mass, parishioners – mostly women wearing brightly colored printed fabrics wrapped around their waists – line up to await confession with one of the Fathers.
This part of the country is safer than some, but I could still feel the tension. The violence that’s plagued many parts of CAR for months now has meant that diamond and gold mining in the region has stopped, and with it many families’ incomes. Other families are too scared to go out and work in the fields.
When we went to meet villagers taking part in CRS’ food voucher distributions, the serious need in this community was obvious. I saw numerous cases of malnutrition. CRS was giving out vouchers to buy food. Both hungry people and the local economy were fed – villagers with food, local vendors with a much-needed injection of cash.
One of the women I met at the voucher fair was Yazam Lionee, a widow with five children and nine grandchildren. Yazam told me that her children used to work in the mines, but now the family doesn’t have enough to get by. They usually eat just twice a day – manioc and with a sauce called gombo that’s made from a local vegetable. Sometimes they’ll eat fruit or meat, if they can afford it; maybe twice a month. This stunned me. With the CRS vouchers though, Yazam was going to be able to feed her family for about two weeks – even putting some luxuries — meat and smoked fish – into their diet.
“My husband was a pastor,” she said, “so I have a strong Christian faith which helps me get through the crisis. I also have my family to thank for helping me get by. I ask that God protects us and all that happens in the future in CAR.”
The Muslim women I spoke with in Boda echoed Yazam’s prayer that God will bring peace back to their country.
Religion is so important to people in Boda, where the church and the mosque are not only gateways to pray to God, they are also the core of many social and cultural activities.
It was clear that in difficult times like this, people look to their religion for solace, for salvation, for help. And not only spiritually; the Catholic Church plays a vital role in supporting the health care system, with sisters volunteering in hospitals and running dispensaries and clinics.
For a few hours last weekend, in Boda it was possible to forget the conflict that has the country in its vice-like grip as villagers gathered at the church to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception with impassioned singing, dancing and speeches. Some even spoke in tongues. A statue of the Virgin Mary was processed up the hill. People were utterly swept up in the celebrations – a much needed escape.
Boda seemed tranquil and calm, but the fragility of the country’s security intruded. As the days went on, we were told it would be too dangerous to return to Bangui by road. We waited and considered, then decided: a bag was hastily packed bag for a tense journey to the airstrip where a six-seater plane flew us away.
The Bangui airport was an astonishing sight with hundreds of displaced people camped out on its grounds. Despite the constant threat of violence, I do feel quite safe here in Bangui living alongside CRS staffers. It’s good to be together. The new UN-mandated military presence gives us hope that various factions of fighters who have been terrorizing the country will be disarmed soon.
For the sake of Father Berty and Father Adolinio, for the sake of Yazam, for the sake
of so many people I met in Boda, Christian and Muslim, I can only hope that tolerance and reconciliation will win out in CAR and that some semblance of national unity can be allowed to return.”
Read more about how CRS is helping in CAR.