The Bangui City. Photo by Afrika Force via Wikimedia Commons

Alain's Peace

"We are still alive. And then He gives us a great gift: we can live and suffer with them." A look into the capital in Bangui, where the convent of Discalced Carmelites has been turned into a refugee camp.
Alessandra Stoppa

Father Federico arrived in Carmel on the outskirts of the capital in Bangui only three months ago. From the courtyard of the convent, which was supposed to have been an oil mill, he gazes out at the palm plantation and thinks about Father Anastasio and his love for teak trees. It was he who purchased this piece of forest in the ’90s and transformed it into a garden and nursery. He would plant and say, “They will be useful in 40 years’ time.” Even sooner.

The story about the convent of Discalced Carmelites that has been turned into a refugee camp begins on the morning of December 5th, when they hear the sound of shooting and shouting in the distance. Father Federico abandons his breakfast and rushes to open the doors of Carmel. They have not been closed since. He lets in men, women, children, many young people, and entire families who are fleeing their villages. At the time, he did not know what was happening. He only understood afterwards that tensions which had been growing for months had suddenly caused the situation to degenerate. Since that morning, Central African Republic has been in the throes of one of the three greatest ongoing humanitarian crises, together with Syria and South Sudan, and of these three it is the most forgotten. There are more than 600,000 internally displaced people, 2,000 official victims, and more than one and a half million people without food.

THE FACTS. The crisis in the country began on March 24, 2013, when the coup by Michel Djotodia, which forced the president, François Bozizé, to flee, destroyed the administrative and economic system and left the people in the hands of an armed coalition of Séléka: rebel groups of mercenaries from Chad and South Sudan. Violence, lootings, killings, entire villages burned to the ground… “In a word, they have destroyed the life of a nation,” wrote the bishops of the country, who also denounce the popular reaction from the people: the anger of the self-defence “anti-balaka” squads (balaka means machete), who are armed for revenge. Western media quickly labelled it “a conflict between Muslim and majority Christian rebels.” But life at Carmel in these months helps us understand what is happening more than any of our erroneous assumptions.

On the evening of that first day, in the courtyard between the church and the refectory, 600 people found refuge and the twelve brothers, some priests and some aspirants, attempted to provide a hot meal to everyone. “I think it might be more prudent not to go to school for a few days,” wrote Father Federico the next day. He could not have imagined then that by Christmas there would be 10,000 refugees and, only a short while later, that the figure would rise to 15,000–all still with them today. But one thing was clear to him from the very beginning: “These guests are a gift that we want to embrace.”

You can understand Father Federico Trinchero from a detail. At the end of the first week, he had to submit the number of refugees as part of a request for food assistance. He started to count them. But he didn’t want to be noticed: he didn’t want anyone to think that there wasn’t room for him or her. From the Italian region of Piedmont, he was appointed,at the age of 35, prior and teacher to prepare novices. He dreamed of doing a doctorate in Patrology but found himself with an honorary degree in Management …of a refugee camp conferred on him by the UN High Commissioner. “Life always provides some beautiful surprises,” he says with conviction. He has not lost his simplicity of heart in this ongoing war. He talks about the shock of the attacks, the lack of food, the mothers intent on comforting their children, and the men intent on building huts with Father Anastasio’s teak trees and palm branches. When he called the Nunciature to ask for help, he discovered that the other religious communities were experiencing the same situation. Then cames the sound of the first fighter planes crossing the sky, at which the people applauded and cried. But it won’t be the arrival of the French, or the new woman president, Catherine Samba-Panza, elected on January 20th, who will give hope to live. It is something else that brought Alain, a 19-year-old refugee, to Father Federico after living among them for months: “I have to speak to you, my Father: I want to be like you.” The possibility of a vocation was born like the gift of a flower in wartime. “Could I have your book also?” That is, the breviary. “When you pray, I can only say dans les siècles des siècles…” After Alain, another came, John. “It is a miracle when a young person manifests a desire to consecrate himself to God,” says Father Federico. “But discernment is a difficult thing in most cases, even more so in these parts.” He breaks off: “Their vocation is in God’s hands now and in your prayers.” But what have these boys seen? “In the middle of hell, Carmel is a place of beauty, of rationality, because it is a sign of the divine. Here, the one who is poorest, weakest, smallest, is the most important. Only Jesus saves man, and these people need the Gospel. Even though we are poor sinners, we are a presence of peace. Without Christ, they would have eaten one another here.”

"The crisis began on March 24th, when the coup by Michel Djotodia destroyed the life of the nation."

REMAINING IS EVERYTHING. The Church did not rush in faster than the other aid associations; it’s just that it was already there and has not left. “We almost didn’t realize we had ‘remained.’” This “remaining” is everything, and it is “the only thing we have done,” says Sister Letizia, a Clarissan nun in Bouar. “This is what the Lord does: He remains with us. This is what makes it possible to live in peace in a situation that in and of itself makes one want to cry.”Other than the non-governmental organizations, almost only the Catholic religious have remained. Parishes, convents, and missions have become refugee camps just like Carmel. During the day, the men try to re-enter the districts and villages, but flee back to the camp. Today, the threat of the antibalaka continues to be responsible for more deaths and has also catalyzed the exodus of Muslims, who have left for the border in packed coaches. “Even our dearest friends have fled,” says Father Federico. “It consoles me to know that thousands of Muslims have found refuge in the presence of the Church spread throughout the country, saving their lives.” In Carmel, the number of “guests” has grown in line with the intensity of the conflict. The hours of the day are filled by faces, plants, bags of maize, mud, and pain relievers. Every day, no matter what happens, there is Mass, “in the cathedral of palm trees and sky.” The Blessed Sacrament makes its way through the refugee camp. “It is a surreal procession. But I walk on and in my heart I thank this people which forces us to live the Gospel.”

One day, the shooting is closer than usual and Father Federico wonders whether he should continue the celebration. Then he looks at the composed assembly. At every gun shot there is a collective gasp, but no one moves. “I think: the Eucharist is our only salvation. Meanwhile, I see crowds of terrified people arriving with bags on their heads. What a challenge the defenseless Eucharist is in the midst of war!” At the end of Mass, we look around us: the number of people has tripled. “Initially, we were at a loss about what to do. But then we thought back to what we have lived up until now and the miracle of the multiplication of bread. And we began again.”

The courtyard, houses, and church are no longer enough. The brothers open another wing of the convent, the workshop, and garage, moving tractors and trailers out of the way. The refectory is turned into a dormitory, a parlor is turned into a surgery, and another room is used for food storage, while the chapter room is used for the sick being kept under observation. The dining room is moved to the corridor of the cells, and the brothers meet when and where they can, “even just to ask one another forgiveness as, with the tension, there can be misunderstandings.” For Father Trinchero, the certainty of these months comes above all through the hearts of his brothers, who have given themselves with patience and without any hesitation. “Every day, I am moved by their docility”– he says this for all of the work that he sees and for that which he doesn’t see (but that he finds already done by unknown helpers). He is also moved by the constant presence of Father Matteo and Father Mesmin and by the dedication of the novices and aspirants: Felix, who is by now an excellent nurse; Jeannot, Martial, and Salvador, who work with the refugees; Rodrigue, Christo, and Michael, who look after the water, electricity, and food; Benjamin, who busies himself with the collection of rubbish; and Léonce, the youngest, who doesn’t even remove his boots to eat. Léonce cleans and disinfects the facility; he is a Rwandan, born in a refugee camp in Congo when his family fled the genocide.

The team from the Dutch organization Médecins sans Frontières that pays a visit to Carmel is shocked: “We cannot do anything more than what you are already doing.” About 30 babies have been born in the courtyards, where today there are around 7,500 guests. Forty percent of them are under 15 years of age. The brothers have started a temporary school, because the official ones are almost all still closed. “To prevent education is to truly kill,” says Father Federico.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council has decided to send a new peace-keeping envoy of 12,000 men.

"About 30 babies have been born in the courtyards, where today there are around 7,500 guests."

“The French have been here for months but we don’t know what they are doing. When something happens, they intervene, but always too late.” They had promised disarmament, yet, in the hot spot, “the 5 km,” no one enters and no one exits. Everyone says it is full of weapons. In many districts, there is still shooting, and on Holy Thursday a Catholic priest was killed.
Not knowing how long the conflict will last put the brothers in front of a choice. “There were four possibilities: 1) send everyone home; 2) depart and leave the convent to the refugees; 3) wait until it all ends; 4) be brothers in a convent with a refugee camp beside it.” The first two options were never really taken into consideration, and only contemplated in moments of fatigue. The third was rejected, because “you cannot put off the crazy desire of our vocation.” The fourth was voted unanimously. They returned to pray the Hours as foreseen in the Rule: “Our guests understand that this is the heart of our life and do not disturb us.” They have rediscovered their own space by building a new one outside; they don’t go to sleep fully dressed anymore, although they are always ready to get up. And the six students have returned to their Philosophy and Theology lessons without taking any time from the work, the tractor plowing, and the distribution of rice and beans.
Now that the rainy season is about to begin, it will make everything more difficult. “But the Lord will save us. We experience Him continuously.” Silence. “We are still alive. And then He gives us a great gift: we can live and suffer with them.”