A Jesuit-led team of young people at the University of Bangui that usually focuses on HIV prevention has kept its doors open despite the extreme violence and political upheaval that have rocked the Central African Republic (CAR) for the past several months.
Since March 2013, when the Seleka rebel alliance marched on Bangui and ousted President François Bozize, spiralling violence has uprooted more than 935,000 people across the country, with nearly half a million internally displaced people in the capital.
Tit-for-tat fighting has been raging between the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian self-defence militias. The past days have seen killings, the burning of mosques, churches and bodies on the streets of Bangui.
Due to the rapidly worsening security situation, there are no students on the university campus in Bangui, and the Information, Education and Listening Centre (CIEE), which is run by the Jesuits as part of the Catholic University Centre, is unable to organise any activities.
But the team has stayed put: “We are already starting again. The core team is always present at the centre so we are working even if not as usual,” said CIEE coordinator Pierre Yèra Boubane SJ.
Throughout 2013, the CIEE continued to offer at least a minimum of services, persevering with seminars for students and training in peer education and counselling for its core team and volunteers, who belong to 14 ‘info-health clubs’ in different faculties and educational institutions.
Now, surrounded by chaos, the CIEE is getting ready to launch a mass voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) campaign as soon as the situation improves in Bangui and expects to reach 3,000 students.
“The CIEE team thought that a way to help in this situation would be to offer wider access to VCT to youth at Bangui University and high schools as well as the larger population,” said Fr Paterne Mombé SJ, director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN), who is himself from CAR.
Since 2006, the CIEE has organised several VCT campaigns and awareness-raising drives for students and staff of tertiary education institutions. Fr Mombé said: “The CIEE has worked to enhance its ability to expand its annual VCT campaign to reach the largest possible number of people, with the help of the Jesuit mission offices of Germany, Australia and Switzerland, and two local institutions, Assomesca, an ecumenical association, and the national program for HIV and AIDS.”
But the VCT campaign, scheduled to take place in November and December 2013, around World AIDS Day, had to be cancelled due to a spike in violence that forced the students to flee the campus.
Even with the campus devoid of students, the CIEE team is looking to see how it can serve in the context of the crisis, and is particularly concerned about victims of sexual assault perpetrated when the Seleka alliance entered Bangui and indulged in widespread looting, destruction and violence.
“Many of the victims were taken care of by NGOs but some did not receive any support and went into hiding, fearing for their lives and the stigma related to sexual violence,” said Fr Mombé.
“In the hope of reaching some of the victims, the CIEE remains mobilised to offer any services to assist students who may be in need of somebody to hear their stories and provide support through counselling.”
These concerns are far from unfounded. Sexual violence has always been rife in conflict areas in CAR, and a senior UN official said in January that he feared the number of victims of sexual violence in the country was “astronomical”, with 1186 confirmed cases in the past month alone.
The CIEE is also intending to move beyond its usual remit to partake in reconciliation efforts. It is working on a big seminar at the Catholic University Centre for all students and people of goodwill, scheduled for 28 March. The theme is: How to restore the principles of living together in a secular republic when citizens seem to identify more with their religion or community (Muslim or Christian). An anthropologist, psychologist and Jesuit priest will address the gathering.