Accustomed to the rhythm of life provoked by the crisis, Wednesday, 28 May, seemed like any other day of crisis with gunshots here and there. In the morning hours, sporadic gunshots could be heard around PK5 (name of one of the quarters, which is predominantly Muslim) and we all thought that it was the daily music that we are already used to. This was, however, not the case. It turned out to be the worst day in the history of the parish.
I was still in for my routine one hour of Siesta when it all started. The shots were intensifying but I remained all the same convinced that all was going to stop sooner or later. I went to the toilet and came back to the room to take a shower. No sooner had I finished than the people started running up and down looking for shelter. I put on my clothes hurriedly in order not to be surprised naked in my room (at least to die dressed).
There was a temporally break and I thought it was cooling down. I, therefore, went to my sitting room, which is separated from my bedroom by a curtain. I started to prepare the comments for the mass of The Ascension of the Lord. The gunshots re-started and this time rather close to the parish. While still in my sitting room, Fr. Samuel Langena (Ethiopian confrere), phoned me from his room, which is about 8 meters from mine. He was jokingly telling me that today they are playing the “final” and the winner will take the cup. Moments later, things became rather serious. The sound of the grenades was making the ground to shake. I was feeling already the vibrations in my feet. The scouts and some of the anti-balakas came forcing the people to get out of the verandah and seek refuge elsewhere.
Minutes later, the anti-balakas ran short of ammunitions and had to flee for their lives leaving the parish gate ajar without security. The attackers walked in without any resistance and started shouting at people indiscriminately. Many of the young energetic men managed to jump over the wall, although in some corners they were repelled by the attackers who were already well-positioned. In front of death, one becomes instinctively creative than usual. People found even places for refuge in their luggage. Most of the rooms around the fathers’ residence were filled with people even the small-walled corridor leading to our toilets accommodated more than 70 people. The seven halls for the catechesis were also filled to the brim. We were really lucky that the attackers did not suspect that people where in the halls. They were more interested in throwing grenades in the Church, which was surprisingly empty.
I was in my room not knowing what to do. I tried to contact some people to come to our rescue. I was hearing the voice of Fr. Jonas Bekas also trying to call the Sangaris as well as passing information to his uncle General Yangongo Xavier Sylvestre, who was minister in the previous government. When things were getting unbearable, I phoned the Provincial Superior Fr. Giorgio telling him what we were going through. At a certain moment, I was just lost and even incapable to phone. I heard somebody behind the Church asking God to send his power to protect us from the power of Satan and also asking our Lady of Fatima not to abandon us. Suddenly, I found myself enveloped within clouds of smoke. I dashed to hide myself in my shower room. There were heavy gunshots within our courtyard for almost 25 minutes. Till now I do not know how I got out leaving my door wide open. All over the parish compound people shouting and crying. There were seven lifeless bodies in front of the Church and many people carrying their injured trying to look for ways to get them to the hospital.
The experience of Fr. Samuel Langena
According to Fr. Samuel, he was also for his Siesta and thought the gunshots might be shot-lived and was using his telephone to record the gunshots as he usually does. But as the gunshots intensified he started getting worried and he called me to know what was happening. He further asked if it was a Cup- final. Taken up by the anxiety, he remained helpless. He was debating whether to open the door and go out or to remain inside. He said he called me a second time asking me to pray for the people but I do not remember him calling a second time.
When things worsened, he moved from his bedroom to his sitting room, while praying God not to abandon us. At a certain moment, the attackers knocked at his door, telling him in English “open the door”. This gave him the impression that all the priests were already killed and probably he was the only one left. This intensified his fear and he felt that his death was eminent.
He miraculously picked the rosary (about 3meters long) and started praying. There was a big silence and only shootings and bombings were being heard. He does not know how he rolled on the ground. He felt incapable of any movement. He did not hide himself in the shower room like me because he thought it would be undignified to die there. He, therefore, preferred to remain on the ground in the sitting room with his rosary.
When people started talking, he opened the door and came out barefooted with this long rosary on his neck trying to see if the confreres were still alive. When he saw that we were all alive, he was somehow relieved from the shock. Then he received the call from the Provincial Fr. Giorgio trying to encourage him. This remains the most terrifying experience he has ever had. He was touched by the way he saw people getting out of the parish shouting and crying. The normal noise of the 6.000 displaced people turned into the silence of the cemetery. After the incidence, he spent a sleepless night and feels still tormented by occasional nightmares.
Walking in the compound a day after, it was terrifying for me to see places touched by the gunshots and the grenades. Most of the stained glasses of the main Church were destroyed; two grenades were thrown in front of the doors of the Church, fortunately, it did not have much impact on the doors. The attackers thought people were hiding in the Church, which surely could have turned out to be carnage had we allowed people to take refuge in the Church. Other material destructions are: motorcycles burnt, walls and roofs destroyed by bullets.
The worst was the human destruction. People are talking of over 50 injured persons, 15 already dead among them an ex-diocesan priest, who was passing by. Eye witnesses say that the attackers took with them some youth in two white pick-ups vehicles. Till now nothing is known about them. In spite of the gravity of the attack, the people were happy to see us alive.
This incidence leaves us with serious questions: How is it possible that after six months of the presence of the MISCA and Sangaris even Bangui remains still insecure to this extent?
Furthermore, it is almost sure that the attackers passed by the main market called KM5 and this market is not far from where some of the international troops are based. How is it that they could not notice their coming and going? The parish is between two posts of the Burundians troops and both of the posts are not more than a kilometer from the parish. How is it that they could not come to our rescue in time taking into account the attackers took almost two hours in and around the parish? How is it that after six months of the presence of international forces, even Bangui is still very insecure? We do not really know where we are heading. We are at crisis at all levels!!!
We keep praying for this country.
Confreres in the Community:
Fr. Gabriele Perobelli (Superior)
Fr. Jonas Bekas
Fr. Samuel Langena
Fr. Moses Otii (Narrator of the incidence)
Fatima – Bangui 31st May 2014