Sister Maria Concetta walks out of the labour room with a newborn baby in her arms and rushes through the corridors in search of a bed. The child is one of over 20,000 she has helped to deliver since she started working at the Zongo hospital near the Oubangui River, which flows between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR).
Sister Maria is an 80-year-old Italian nun who arrived in the DRC in 1959, one year before its independence. Since 1984, she has worked as a midwife in Zongo at the hospital, which is run by the Congregation of the daughters of Saint-Joseph of Genoni from Italy.
Sister Maria moves around the hospital as if she were 30 years younger, and always with a smile and a joke. She sometimes works around the clock to help women give birth, including refugees from CAR, and tells me that she has witnessed several wars.
“It is now the third time we assist refugees here because of political complications in Bangui,” she says. “We have always helped sick refugees at our hospital, but also welcomed them in our kindergarten, primary, secondary and technical schools.”
During our conversation, Sister Maria admits that she nearly gave up once.
“My worst memory is the war because of destruction. I stayed locked into my room for three hours with a three-month-old orphan in my arms. A soldier threatened me. He pointed the gun at me and asked me to put the baby on the floor. Then they left. They looted everything.”
After that, she fled to Bangui, but was unable to forget the mothers she had left behind in Zongo. “The authorities begged us to come back. So we spent two months sleeping on the floor and, slowly, we started the work again [at the hospital]. We were eating what the mothers could give us. We spent a week with only one pineapple. I said that the devil had passed by and it was a moment of darkness. But I started again my work with joy and forgiveness.”
“Being a refugee is painful,” Sister Maria tells me. “When something is missing and you are in exile, it is an even bigger suffering.”
Zongo is the referral hospital for nearly 15,000 people who live in Mole refugee camp. When they can’t be treated at the health centre there and require surgery or long-term treatment, UNHCR transfers them to Zongo. Refugee women are also transferred to the hospital if there are complications when they give birth. The nuns accept everyone – to them, there is no difference between patients, even those who can’t pay.
“Being a refugee is painful,” Sister Maria tells me. “They are not at home. We have to understand them. When something is missing but you are at home, it’s fine, but when something is missing and you are in exile, it is an even bigger suffering.”
Like Sister Maria, Moussa Bawa, the 72-year-old Imam of Zongo, also helps refugees who arrive from CAR. He was born in Libenge in DRC’s Equateur Province and has lived in Zongo for 34 years. I meet him in his house where he is assembling CAR refugees to discuss reconciliation.While Sister Maria focuses on helping sick refugees gain access to treatment and sending refugee children to school, the Imam focuses on teaching them forgiveness and reconciliation. He welcomes refugees who fled CAR to his home, listens to their problems and offers advice.
“If someone has killed your son, your father, it is impossible to forget until you die,” the Imam says. “But it is possible to forgive.”
“We have to talk to one side and the other side and then create an opportunity to bring both sides together,” he tells me, as we sit together in his courtyard. “I give messages of reconciliation during the prayer on Friday. Sometimes, I preach only about patience. I tell people to be patient and to forget the past. I know that if someone has killed your son, your father, it is impossible to forget until you die, but it is possible to forgive. God also forgives.”
Both Sister Maria and the Imam have never witnessed any religious tension between Christians and Muslims before, and believe the problem in CAR is political.
“In 34 years here [in Zongo], there has never been any problem between Christians and Muslims,” the Imam says. “It hurts me. God said, ‘assemble, all of you’. There was no mention of Christians or Muslims. He said: ‘Unite’.”
Both the nun and the Imam remain hopeful for the future and believe peace will return to CAR.
“There will be reconciliation with time, but not for the moment,” the Imam concludes. “We have to start step by step. This Friday again, I will talk about patience [at the Friday Prayer]. I say that if someone has hurt, do not hurt him, you have to forgive him. They listen to me sometimes. I remain hopeful that things will get better, ‘Inshallah’.”
Since end of 2012, nearly 67,000 refugees from the Central African Republic have arrived in the DRC. Half of them live in four refugee camps and the others live with host families. Despite the heartache and fear, Sister Maria and the Imam are determined to cultivate the seeds of forgiveness and peace. Hopefully one day, their vision will prevail.
By Céline Schmitt