Caritas Volunteers Discuss Challenges in War-Torn Regions

Despite the chaotic local circumstances, the international Catholic charity continues to deliver desperately needed aid to the Central African Republic, Venezuela and Somalia.

Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga (L), president of Caritas in the Central African Republic; Janeth Marquez (R), Caritas representative for Venezuela
Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga (L), president of Caritas in the Central African Republic; Janeth Marquez (R), Caritas representative for Venezuela (photo: Photos by Edward Pentin)

VATICAN CITY — A murdered missionary sister in the Central African Republic, which continues to be wracked by conflict, drought and Islamist terrorist attacks in Somalia, and shortages of food and human rights violations in Venezuela, are just some of the challenges currently facing Caritas volunteers.

To obtain a clearer idea of the challenging situations on the ground in these particularly troubled countries, the Register spoke to their Caritas representatives who were in Rome last week for Caritas Internationalis’ general assembly.

The event, held every four years, is an opportunity for the federation of Catholic humanitarian agencies to review its progress and policies, elect officials and take key decisions for its future.

Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, president of Caritas in the Central African Republic, told the Register that a peace agreement in February “brought a lot of hope” so he is “surprised” by the most recent violence.

An armed militia killed at least 49 civilians in an attack May 21, the most deadly since the Khartoum Peace Agreement, signed in Feb. 5, between 14 armed groups.

A day earlier, Spanish Daughter of Jesus missionary Sister Inés Nieves Sancho was found decapitated near her home in the CAR village of Nola. The brutal attack appears to have been unprovoked.

Pope Francis paid tribute to Sister Inés, 77, who was helping poor women to learn how to sew, describing her as “a woman who has given her life for Jesus in the service of the poor.”

“We were all very surprised by this most recent violence,” said Cardinal Nzapalainga, who is the archbishop of Bangui, CAR’s capital. “Violence is not the way,” he said, adding that the international community as well as the government must bring the perpetrators to justice.

“It’s a very fluid situation,” the cardinal continued. “People have fled, it’s difficult to monitor.” Caritas volunteers have been visiting those affected to help provide humanitarian aid, but Cardinal Nzapaliainga said the lack of security is a challenge. “We can’t sacrifice the lives of volunteers,” he said.

The country’s warlords, who claim to defend an ethnic or religious group, control about 80% of country and are mainly fighting over access to the country’s rich mineral wealth. The cardinal said they “manipulate” the situation in the country, mostly made up of Christians, animists and Muslims, to “make people believe it’s about religion, but it’s not.”

In 2015, the CAR’s Interfaith Peace Platform won the prestigious Sergio Vieira de Mello Award for its work in trying to reconcile religious groups divided by the current conflict.

Cardinal Nzapalainga, who was elevated to cardinal in 2016, said Pope Francis’ visit to the country that year was “really like a balm of mercy and love,” especially as “no one goes to a war zone, but he came to this war-torn country and we understood he was a pope for the poor.”

Asked whether the Vatican could mediate a lasting peace, as was attempted with South Sudan last month, the cardinal said the Sant’Egidio community is already “working with the Vatican on that.” He said peace negotiations are a “very delicate work,” looking at “imperfections” and “trying to correct them.” Such a process requires “discernment,” he said, “constant watching the signs, and then just building on what they’ve got.” 


Venezuela’s Crisis

As the Latin American nation’s economy continues to implode (its economy contracted 22.5% percent in the third quarter of 2018 and its April inflation rate soared to 33.8%), Venezuelans are suffering shortages of vital goods.

“There’s almost no food, eighty percent of the supermarkets are empty, and seven million Venezuelans rely on the help of others so they can buy food,” said Janeth Marquez, the country’s Caritas representative, explaining that many are forced to buy food in Colombia and other nearby places abroad.

Marquez added that the “public systems are broken and people are facing huge violations of their rights.”

In recent years, the socialist “Bolivarian” government of Nicolas Maduro has been caught in a downward spiral due to growing political discontent fueled by hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages of food and medicine. Since January, Maduro has faced moves to unseat him by rising challenger Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly.

Marquez told the Register Venezuela desperately needs a new government with new elections, she hopes in October, and international support. Marquez said Maduro’s support is low, she estimates around 13%, and most of his supporters are a “small group of friends” who have a financial stake in keeping the regime going.

She predicted the crisis would extend for more than a few weeks, especially because of external interference from foreign powers, but stressed the urgency of aid. Venezuela used to be a “very rich country” because of oil, she said, but for the past five years the situation has “collapsed,” leaving many “poor people starving and without help.” 

Marquez praised the Vatican for being a “good ally and friend,” and although differences have come to light in recent months between Pope Francis and the country’s bishops, she said they take “the same line” even if the “strategy is different.”

Asked what the faithful can to do to help, Marquez said it is “very important” to “show solidarity by sending medicines, food and aid” and to lobby politicians at home to take a united view about Maduro and his regime.


Somalia’s Emergency

The East African country is “still in an emergency” due to forced displacement caused by droughts and later flooding, but also because of “insecurity and violence” owing to a war between the Islamist al-Shabab terrorist group and the government, or armed clans.

This is according Maria Jose Alexander, Caritas’ Mexican-born representative to Somalia who told the Register that failed rains have led to 33,000 new displacements this year, in addition to 2.5 million people already on the move around the country.

“This has escalated the humanitarian situation in these past months, as host cities are reaching, or have reached, their capacity to hold more people,” Alexander said.

She added that “practically the whole city” of Baidoa in south central Somalia is comprised of internally displaced people. “People have little access to drinking water, food or methods of disease prevention,” she said.  

In early May, Bishop Giorgio Bertin of Djibouti, the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Mogadishu, called on the world to “pay attention to the plight of Somali people” as they face such a challenging situation.

Alexander said Caritas is responding to these emergencies by working with the internally displaced people, helping NGOs to build schools, supporting agricultural projects, and providing emergency humanitarian aid.

She also pointed out how severe migrant flows in and out of the country: many Ethiopians choose to pass through Somalia en route to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and many Somalis try to emigrate to Saudi Arabia but turn back after encountering the Yemen conflict on their way. On top of this, Yemeni refugees have fled that conflict and arrived at Somalia’s main port.

All these pressures have led to the Somali government creating a ministry for refugees which has welcomed those in need, despite the country’s own challenges. “This sets a great example, that even in the middle of a crisis, you can always do something for others in need,” Alexander said.

She said she had very little optimism the internal conflict might end soon. Strategies need to be rethought, Alexander said and for more efforts and “better collaboration and communication” in building peace in the country, so that the international community and the Somalis can “come together to a unified solution.”