Critical days in Africa

Lying in the darkness on my simple cot, sweating beneath my mosquito net, I listen to the sound of families outside my door. They are preparing what little food they have over a small fire and getting ready to spend another night on thin, frayed straw mats spread out on the dirt.

The families at the Catholic Mission in the town of Bossangoa, Central African Republic (CAR), are some of the thousands of people who sought refuge here when armed rebels ­— made up of mostly Muslims and called Seleka — came through in late 2013, burning and looting homes and killing innocent civilians as they advanced toward Bangui, the country’s capital. After they violently overturned the government, their atrocities were met with equal violence by mostly non-Muslim militia, called anti-Balaka. The conflict spiraled out of control and, although rooted in political and economic disparities, divided communities along religious lines.

Newly arrived displaced citizens build a makeshift hut at the airport camp outside Bangui, Central African Republic. CNS photo/Emmanuel Braun Reuters

At the height of the violence, the Catholic Mission in Bossangoa housed more than 40,000 people, who lived in cramped conditions with nothing more than what they escaped with the day of the attack. They, along with thousands of others in the surrounding villages, now face a critical time. If they don’t plant their crops in the next few weeks, they will miss this year’s harvest, putting them at great risk for starvation.

Catholic Relief Services, along with its local Caritas partner, is distributing seeds and tools to 10,000 families in the villages surrounding Bossangoa. CRS staff and Caritas volunteers are working 24/7 to get seeds to these families, overcoming tremendous logistical challenges. With the rainy season starting, dirt roads are often impassable, bridges washed out and fuel for trucks is in short supply. But with the clock ticking, these dedicated people do whatever it takes to reach these families and ensure their survival.

With so much need and hardship all around me as I walk through the church compound in Bossangoa and pass by the tiny villages along dirt roads, I can’t help but notice the tremendous courage and resilience of Central Africans. Similarly, the Catholic Church is playing a courageous and prophetic role here. It is welcoming those made homeless and reaching out to people who have suffered horrible acts of violence and loss. At the same time, religious leaders of all faiths have come together to promote peace and stand with all those who have suffered, no matter their faith.

I consider them, as well as my dedicated CRS colleagues in CAR, true heroes. They literally “live with the poor” as the Holy Father would ask us to. They risk their own lives to protect others, and they provide the respect, dignity and humanitarian support to those who had nothing even before the conflict. It is a dangerous calling, but one that beckons all of us.

As I think about the future of the children gathering around me wherever I go, I know there is hope. So many of the people I’ve talked to want peace. They are ready for it, and they want things to be the way they were. But they need security. They want support for the disarmament process, the cessation of violence and the increase and speedy deployment of peacekeeping troops so they can resume their lives and livelihoods.

CRS, along with the local Catholic Church and others in CAR, plays a critical role in reconciling communities and supporting them as they seek to repair the social fabric that existed before the conflict. It will certainly be a long and often dangerous journey, but this is a country where the local Church and CRS can “shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Lk 1:79).

Sean Callahan is chief operating officer of CRS.