Father Bernard Kinvi was gathering injured Muslim women and children when gunmen from a largely Christian militia singled out the 14-year-old boy clinging to his robes to be shot. The priest’s response was unyielding: “If you have to kill him, then you will have to kill me first.”
Ever since the religious bloodletting which has riven the Central African Republic arrived in Bossemptele, the small town in the rural north west where Father Bernard presides over a Catholic church and modest hospital, the cleric acted with one aim: to save anyone – regardless of creed – that he could.
When a Muslim-led rebel movement, known as the Seleka, reached the town two years ago, the 32-year-old priest treated not only those who survived their murderous raids in the surrounding countryside but also injured fighters themselves.
Then, when the Christian backlash known as the “antibalaka” reached Bossemptele this January with the aim of removing all Muslims – whether by intimidation or murder, Father Bernard set himself to helping those who evaded their AK-47s and machetes by offering shelter in the church compound.
For more than a month, the priest ran the gauntlet of antibalaka fighters, many of them drunk or drugged and all emboldened by the belief that magic charms made them invulnerable to bullets, collecting casualties and corpses. Dressed in a cassock emblazoned with the red cross of his order, he negotiated daily with the militiamen to spare as many lives as possible, including his own.
As he put it: “I had moments of great fear. But I had taken a vow and that was to help the sick even if my own life was at risk. That vow was not meant lightly and when the moment arrived I had to keep it. I had no choice other than to stay and help.”
It is thanks to him and his fellow members of the Camillien order, named after St Camille who attended the ill, that some 1,000 Muslims from Bossemptele and its environs were treated, safeguarded and eventually escorted to the relative safety of neighbouring Cameroon.
His heroism has come to light after he was found by officials from the humanitarian group Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigating the conflict. The priest this week travelled to London to receive an award from the organisation for “unwavering courage and dedication” to protecting civilians in an easily-forgotten conflict.
A smiling, slight 32-year-old, Father Bernard recounted to The Independent how the peaceable community where he arrived from his native Togo as a newly ordained priest in 2010 slowly but irredeemably slid into violence and ethnic division as conflict spread across CAR.
Awash with natural resources from diamonds to uranium, the former French colony is nonetheless one of the world’s poorest countries. The chaos into which it sank when the Seleka seized power in the majority Christian state in March 2013 – and then subsequently lost it to the antibalaka – has cost at least 3,000 lives and left 2.5 million, more than half the population, in need of emergency assistance to survive.
Women prepare a meal in the camp for Central African refugees in Garoua Boulai, on the Cameroonian side of the border with the Central African Republic (Getty Images)
Despite a precarious truce and the presence of United Nations peacekeepers, sporadic outbreaks of violence occur regularly. Seleka gunmen in the capital Bangui blocked roads and exchanged gunfire with UN troops today in protest at plans to move them from the city.
But such skirmishing is minor compared to the bestial violence which radiated out from Bangui to places such as Bossemptele this January as the antibalaka, in effect a popular uprising aided by Christian elements of the CAR security forces, threatened genocide against the Muslim minority.
In a measure of the visceral and untamed nature of the fighting, pictures of the mobs hunting down Muslim civilians at one point showed a man taking bites from a cooked human leg. In Bossemptele, where the Seleka had carried out “exactions” – or reprisal attacks – killing hundreds in surrounding villages as well as meting out arbitrary fines and punishments in the town before fleeing, the main antibalaka attack took place on 18 January.
After five hours of shooting, Father Bernard emerged with a handcart to collect the survivors, many of them Muslim women and handicapped children.
He said: “I had with me a 14-year-old boy, who was holding my robes. The antibalaka saw him and said to me ‘we must kill him, otherwise he will grow up and one day fight us’.
“I said no, it is unthinkable, he is a human being. I told them that in order to kill him they would first have to kill me. In the end, they allowed the child to come with me.”
The encounter was one of many where the priest, who spoke of a town where previously Christians, Muslims and traditional animist faiths had freely intermarried, used his fragile status as an impartial figure to seek to mitigate the bloodshed.
Youths are angered by an attack on a church in central Bangui, Central African Republic erect a barricade of burning tyres in the Bea-Rex district of Bangui in May this year (Getty Images)
At points he shuttled between both sides by motorbike or 4×4, on one occasion seeking to rescue a Muslim in what he feared was an antibalaka trap, on another driving deep into the bush to treat antibalaka injured.
At other times, all he could do was provide some dignity to the dead.
He spoke of how he would receive regular phone calls from the Christian and animist militiamen informing him that another Muslim had been murdered and asking him to collect the body. Father Bernard said: “They would tell me, ‘it’s our job to kill and your job to bury them’. At one point we put 28 bodies in a burial pit. The corpses would be left for two weeks to rot in the street.”
In a conflict where magic potions were considered as potent as a Kalashnikov, the priest said a critical weapon in his armoury had been his clothing. Even within the anarchic ranks of the antibalaka, its members sporting machetes and “gris-gris” voodoo amulets, Father Bernard said the symbols of the church carried enough authority to give pause for thought.
He said: “They were scared of my clothing. I think it impressed them – the long robe with a large red cross. When I understood this, I made sure I always wore it.”
In scenes reminiscent of the Hotel des Mille Collines that was used to protect Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, Father Bernard and his colleagues eventually helped to arrange the evacuation of town’s remaining Muslims by lorry to Cameroon.
A convoy of vehicles carrying Muslims from the PK12 district, outside of Bangui, Central African Republic leaves the city in April (Getty Images)
Now the only Muslims left in Bossemptele are the 12 handicapped orphans who are looked after by the priests and the town’s remaining imam, a former tailor who mends their school uniforms. It is a story repeated across the CAR – of the country’s near 700,000 Muslims, it is estimated less than 100,000 remain, while the faiths effectively live partitioned from one another.
Father Bernard, who will return to Bossemptele in January, freely admits that he regularly broke down in tears in the privacy of his room during the darkest days of a conflict which he is anxious to underline is by no means over.
In recent weeks, the remaining antibalaka forces in the town took a man who was suspected of sorcery and buried him alive.
But the priest is resolute he will remain. He said: “At one point during the fighting I phoned my elder brother and told him things were bad. But I said if I died then he should tell my mother that I had died happy.”