Part 1 - A spark of hope: ACN's Child's Bible in the crisis regions of Africa
By Kira von Bock-Iwaniuk
The news from Africa that reaches us here at ACN often leaves one aghast in the face of all the misery it reveals. A Sister writes to us and asks for Child's Bibles for the handicapped children she is caring for in Monrovia in Liberia. Instead of her postal address the envelope is stamped "no mail established since war".
A missionary, who lives and works among the refugees and the uprooted in Uganda, writes: "Life in the camp is very difficult. In every hut one enters one finds lepers, Aids victims, the blind, those maimed by land mines or otherwise crippled." Photos are sent us from Angola; they show children behind iron bars - former soldiers. They too are victims of war.
Angola, Uganda, Liberia - three very different countries, but a very similar situation. Everywhere violence and abuse of power seem to prevail. And everywhere the familiar trail of devastation - 27 years of civil war between the Marxist regime of President Dos Santos and the rebel Unita movement have left half a million dead in Angola. In a country of 490,000 square miles, still littered with unexploded land mines, there are four million refugees in a population of 10.6 million people, among them some 85,000 former Unita soldiers with their families in 35 demobilisation camps, waiting to be reintegrated into society. Theoretically the war ended with the murder of the rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, in February 2002 and with the peace accord of 4 April 2002. Yet in reality the crisis continues today in the shape of widespread famine - and this in a country that is rich in diamonds and the second largest oil producer in Africa! Countless numbers of land mines still wait to be defused and this alone represents a heavy financial burden. For it costs just three dollars to lay a land mine, but around $1,000 to remove one!
In northwest Uganda a gruesome civil war has been raging for 17 years now between various rebel movements, such as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) of the religious fanatic, Joseph Kony, on the one side and the central government in Kampala on the other. The target of the attacks is the Acholi, a Nilotic people who live in a region similar in area to Mark Brandenburg, Germany (29.500 sqkm) in the region around Gulu, Kitgum, Pader and Lira. The guerrillas, supported from Sudan, have again and again committed brutal massacres among the civilian population. However, the army is no less brutal in its methods. In hunting down the rebels, entire villages have been looted and burned down and countless civilians killed in the process. Many are fleeing for their own protection, to internment camps and to the Church mission stations. According to a report by the World Food Programme (WFP) dated 15 September 2003, in northern Uganda alone some 800,000 people have been driven from their homes - around 80% of the Acholi people. An added heavy burden on the northwest of the country is the vast flood of refugees from Sudan who have fled from civil war in their own country. Around 400,000 of these are currently living in indescribable conditions in the numerous refugees camps. In August 2001 Christian and Muslim leaders of the Acholi together demanded that the camps of the internal refugees be broken up, since the living conditions inside these camps are quite inhumane.
Liberia too has made for dismal headlines as recently as this summer, when in August the regime of Charles Taylor finally collapsed, and he was stripped of power in bloody fighting. Just as he himself had seized power, 14 years earlier, in a civil war that - according to conservative estimates - cost over 200,000 human lives between 1989 and 1997. That is about one tenth of the Liberian population. During this time, Charles Taylor, with the help of like-minded friends, lost no opportunity in exploiting his own country and, in addition to this, stirred up the conflict in neighbouring Sierra Leone (from the 1990s until this war too finally ended in 2002) by ensuring a continuous supply of weapons which he paid for in diamonds. Now Liberia lies in ruins, its infrastructure practically destroyed. And once again around a million people are homeless. The better educated are leaving the country in droves and applying for asylum, above all in the United States. Liberia has yet to find any inner peace and stability. The future of the country is more uncertain than ever today.
In all these three countries the Catholic Church is striving for tolerance and reconciliation. In Uganda the Catholic Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu drew attention in a pastoral letter at the end of June last year to the catastrophic situation of the people in northern Uganda, who have been suffering since 1990 from the civil war between the rebels of the LRA and the government army. The archbishop appealed to those responsible to finally put an end to this war. A week earlier, together with other members of the "Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative" (ARLPI), he had made a resounding gesture of solidarity with these suffering people, and especially with the refugees and the children who have been traumatised by the rebels. "As Archbishop of the Church in Gulu, I cannot simply sit in my residence while every night the city centre fills up with children who, for fear of being abducted by the rebels, prefer to sleep on the streets in the most miserable conditions." He himself spent several nights among these children, in pouring rain, close to the taxi rank in Gulu, under a blanket and a piece of plastic sheeting. It was impossible to sleep, as the archbishop himself reported. Not because of the rain, but because of the coughing fits and the hoarse and plaintive voices of thousands of small children all around him. "If the rebels don't murder them first, then pneumonia will finish the job instead", the archbishop remarked bitterly.
In a similar way Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis, who has been archbishop of Monrovia since 1996, has for many years been criticising the abuses in Liberia and tirelessly preaching justice, peace and reconciliation. He has appealed to the consciences of government and rebels alike, and as a result he has often been the target of public attacks. People in Liberia compare him with Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador - a comparison Archbishop Francis does not particularly like to hear, since Romero paid for his commitment with his life.
As recently as 20 November 2003 the leader of the LRA rebels sent out a radio message to his militias, ordering them to kill all religious leaders, whether Catholic, Protestant or Muslim. This was because they had addressed a joint appeal to President Bush.
In the midst of all this chaos children are growing up. Children who have known nothing but suffering and misery; children who will grow to adulthood in a situation that is bordering on the apocalyptic; children who will one day have to take responsibility for the fate of the African continent. The school and educational systems have long since fallen into utter chaos. In angola the schools have been bombed and abandoned, and almost 60% of all Angolans are illiterate. And while Uganda has drawn up a new primary school programme, it cannot manage to fund this. Some 76% of the children do at least receive some kind of schooling, but this does not mean that they do not also suffer from poverty and all kinds of deprivation. Everywhere the schools lack basic teaching materials and in many places children in the primary schools are learning without benches, without desks and without school books of any kind.
In all three countries the Church is very much involved in education. It is fortunate that the missionaries have not all abandoned these crisis areas but are determined to persevere and soldier on, despite the ever-present danger to their own life and limb.
One such man is Father Italo Piffer, the parish priest of Anaka, a small town in the archdiocese of Gulu, around 200 miles from the capital Kampala, in the impoverished north of Uganda. In the immediate area around Anaka there are 75,000 civilians crammed together in eight refugee camps. In one camp alone 35,000 people are interned in an area of a square kilometre. The conditions are indescribable. This year again the mission station there was looted and 400 houses burnt down in a rebel raid. One girl died in the flames. Around 150 people were abducted and forced to carry away the booty plundered by a the rebels. Fifty of them came back the next day and reported that ten others had been shot dead when they could no longer walk any further. 100 boys and girls were abducted by the rebels and will undoubtedly be recruited by them as child soldiers and turned into brutal killers.
Photo: Angola - Young offenders receiving copies of the ACN Child's Bible.