The Courage of Simplicity
Sr. Elena poses for a picture with children from the Catholic School in Bocaranga that the nuns run,
the school has 1,300 students.
By Anna Pozzi
Despite the area having been nearly torn to shreds by conflicts, Sister Maria Elena Berini decided to remain in Central Africa at risk of her own life. The United States has taken notice of her courage and awarded her recognition as a “ woman of courage”.
“One of them turned around and he told me: ‘I am going to kill you. ‘” I responded: “Go ahead, kill me, I’m here, I’m not afraid”. He stared at me with a devilish look, slammed the door and left.” Sr. Maria Elena Berini tells it without any emphasis, with a disarming simplicity that leaves no doubt about her veracity: on the exchange of glances, on those words of death, on her firm reaction, none of it. Sr. Elena certainly does not look like a hero, but she has that solidity and that authenticity which indicates fidelity and generates trust.
Who knows if even Melania Trump had even perceived the limitlessness of Sr. Elena’s bravery when she gave her the prestigious recognition of “Woman of Courage” (International Women of Courage Award) last March in Washington. Sr. Elena received the recognition along with other women who fight all over the world for civil rights, justice, dignity, and the promotion of peace. This is just what Sr. Elena does in her imperturbable genuineness: “In Washington, I said simply to stop producing and selling weapons. We put the instruments of death in the hands of young people instead of giving them opportunities for the future. To talk about peace we must not export arms, but education, culture and justice “.
Originally from Sondrio, Italy, a religious of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Jeanne Antide Thouret, Sr. Elena has been a missionary for many of her 73 years. She spent 35 years as a missionary in Chad and for the past 11 years she has been living in the Central African Republic, a place where, she says, “in the last years we have not known peace”.
Bocaranga, the town where she lives, has 15,000 inhabitants and is located on the northwestern border with Cameroon and Chad. Bocaranga has repeatedly been the target of various rebels. Her house, like that of the Capuchins and most other houses, has been attacked and robbed several times, but it has also become a haven for thousands of displaced people. She has always remained there, with her five sisters of four nationalities (Italy, Cameroon, Chad and Central Africa), to testify that a form of non-violent resistance is always possible; and that hope has will remain.
It was not easy. The repeated attacks on Bocaranga are parts in a series of war, crisis and chaos that have crossed Central Africa since 2013.
Not even the capital of Bangui seems so safe: new violence broke out last April in the PK5 district, one with a Muslim majority. It was here, on May 1, that the church of Our Lady of Fatima was attacked once again, this time Fr. Albert Tougoumalet was killed along with 24 of his flock. This neighborhood, one visited by Pope Francis, has become the symbolic place of clashes between various interests that, over time, have also assumed a dangerous religious connotation. A microcosm of what happens even more dramatically in the rest of the country, where no one today seems capable of controlling the territory: neither the government, nor the police, nor the UN forces.
So, no one can tell who fights against whom: ex Seleka (the coalition that briefly took power in 2013), anti-Balaka self-defense militias, and gangs of criminals or groups of armed herdsmen…
The school that the women religious run focuses on educating girls first, as they are the first to be neglected and excluded from the school system in the country.
“One of these, called 3Rs (“Retour, Réclamation et Réhabilitation” or “Return, Claim and Rehabilitation”- editor’s note), attacked Bocaranga on February 2, 2017. The militia killed about 30 people and injured many others, forcing a large part of the population to flee. They are mostly Peul nomads who have avenged the theft of their livestock committed by anti-Balakas.”
The nomads had, in turn, approached the city to take possession of the surrounding lands that offer excellent pastures. To complicate matters and to make the path of reconciliation even more difficult: the herdsmen are Muslim while the anti-Balaka militias call themselves Christian, overlaying an ethnic-religious element to a conflict that essentially concerns access to the land and to the water. Overall, it deals with the great wealth of one of the poorest countries in the world.
“Diamonds, gold, oil, uranium, timber… Central Africa” says Sr. Elena, “has a very rich underground, not to mention land and plenty of water. The real stakes of this conflict are the resources of the country.”
Who controls them today? The ongoing attacks that occur in every part of the country and which have also seriously damaged the structures of the Church, especially the ones in the remotest regions, speak of a country in disarray. Sr. Elena testifies to this: “When the militia arrived in Bocaranga, the city was not defended by anyone. The authorities were the first ones to flee.”
“And so the whole population has fled again. They all left. The city has remained virtually empty. We decided to stay, as did the Capuchins. And more than 250 people came to take shelter with us. They trust us. They feel protected. And if we stay we think that everything is not lost.”
When the situation seemed back to normal and many had returned to their homes, the militia attacked again on September 23rd. “They arrived in the morning,” recalls the nun, “they killed several people and took control of the city. People have fled again and have taken refuge in the nearest towns, which are anywhere from 60 to 90 miles on foot. Many have come to our facilities. We did not know how the militia would react…”
This time, however, it was the government that took the initiative and gave the rebels a three-day ultimatum. The UN forces were ready to intervene. “The commander came to tell us that we had to leave the mission. All the people ran away and poured into the UN base where there were at least 2,000 people. We also walked the five miles that separate us from the base. They made us sleep out on the ground in a rickety tent.” Sr. Elena recalls.
“The next day, the UN soldiers began to bomb the rebel positions with a helicopter and went from house to house to flush them out. In the evening they told us that we could return to the mission because Bocaranga had been freed. I went home with a young man, I took the car that I had hidden and I went back to get the other nuns and the priest. When we returned, we saw that the United Nations military had broken through the gate of the Capuchin mission and rammed open the doors of the house, looking for rebel weapons.”
Sr. Elena rewards a class with candy in the village of Bocaranga in the Central African Republic.
“At the moment there is a relative calm even if,” says Sister Elena, “one can never be certain.” In 2014, Seleka militias that had been previously forced to flee after seizing power had attacked both the Religious and the Capuchins. “They came north, to the border of Chad. The militia entered the house, fired on the walls and at our feet, broke into the rooms, throwing everything into the air and taking away what they could. In those days we had more than 1,000 refugees in our schools.”
Just like in 2014, Sr. Elena returned to work along with her fellow sisters filled with tenacity and dedication; determined, first of all, to offer education to the local children. “We immediately reopened the school to give an example and say that we could go on with life. Education is our priority. This is why we are here and we will stay. But,” she adds, “what really strikes me is the courage of the people who start each time from scratch. They flee and come back and, even if they have lost everything, they find a way to go on.”
It’s what they’ve always done too. The women religious run a large school with 1,300 students. They started with elementary school, over a decade later saw the addition of a middle school and then a high school. “We try to give priority to girls, even if the school is mixed,” says the nun, “because obviously they are the first to be excluded from the school system. This is why we have also created a small internship that welcomes 26 girls who come from the most distant villages “.
Many others are housed with relatives who are in town, but the continuous instability has made it difficult for everyone to be guaranteed regular schooling in recent years.
However, the nuns did not give up; they even continued to follow in the method of the many schools scattered around the savannah: to guarantee, above all, a minimum of training for their teachers. The Capuchins, in addition to pastoral care, created a large carpentry shop and a catechetical center, which has been closed for four years and has become a place of refuge for displaced persons.
“The Church in Central Africa is generally very well [regarded],” says Sr. Elena, “because it has done a great deal to help people, often without showing biases, but helping those who are worse off regardless of their ethnicity or creed.”
The sisters, for example, are also welcoming two Muslim families that they have rescued: “They cannot stay in the village; they do not feel safe and do not want to go to Chad because they say their land is here. But it is not easy to remain due to the spiral of grievances and revenge that has triggered and that will take a long time to settle. This is another reason why we had to help our Muslim driver to flee to Chad with his family. People are not ready to welcome Muslims. There were too many massacres, on one side as on the other.”
Also, it is for this reason that the Church is trying to carry on a tiring journey of pacification. But it’s not easy, it takes time. Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, together with Imam Kobine Layama and the Protestant pastor Philippe Sing-Na, created an “Interfaith platform” to promote dialogue and reconciliation. It is an important sign that shows how religions can work primarily for good and must not set people against each other.
As for Sr. Elena, she is absolutely convinced that “we must start again from the children and we must start again from school, instruction and education to promote a true reconciliation, which touches the hearts of the people and cares for the wounds of the soul. Only in this way will lasting peace and justice for all be built. Mandela always said that the most powerful weapon that can change the world is education. “