Apostolic Administrator speaks on violence in Lofa County, Liberia

Below is a report recevied from the Apostolic Administrator of Gbarnga diocese, Liberia following the imposition of a curfew in Lofa County. Read the first report we received here.

This is the most recent report we have received, given by Fr C Brennan SMA

Early on the morning of Friday, 26th February 2010, reports of social unrest in Voinjama, Lofa County, started to circulate around Liberia. Upon hearing this I made contact with the Catholic Priest resident in Voinjama and with the Holy Rosary Sisters also resident in Voinjama.

 

The priest informed me that a group of young men entered the Saint Joseph’s Catholic Campus and started to vandalise the church building and make aggressive comments. He departed from the Campus following these events. Eventually he found refuge with UNMIL and later that day made his way to Gbarnga where he remains. The Sisters compound was inundated with women and children seeking refuge. The Sisters decided to stay in Voinjama and regular contact is maintained with them.

Last Sunday, 7th March, I made a pastoral visit to Voinjama with Father Kabba, Secretary General of the Liberian Catholic Bishops Conference accompanied by the Diocesan Justice and Peace Co-ordinator, the Diocesan Pastoral Co-ordinator and the Diocesan Health Co-ordinator. We arrived in Voinjama shortly after 9am.

The four hour journey was uneventful and all seemed as normal. Upon arrival in Voinjama evidence of structural damage, recently burnt buildings and signs of looting were evident along the streets. The UN troops are now strategically placed at various points along the main streets and around the city.

Upon arrival at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Campus the evidence of the damage was all too obvious. The Sacristy and the back of the church had been set on fire. Tyres had been used to start the fire, but the height of the building made it difficult for the fire to take hold. When the UN troops arrived they used their water cannons to extinguish the fire which had already caused substantial damage.

By that time the parish office block was burnt down. The Parish office block housed the Parish office, the school principles office, the Justice and Peace office, as well as providing storage for different items.

The priests residence was also put on fire and destroyed. The UN troops told me that the fire in both of these building was so intense that they were not able to control it. And there was nothing they could do to save the buildings or the contents. All of these buildings had been renovated and furnished in 2004 / 5.

From eye witness reports made to me it appears that a group of young people received some incorrect information and they started to go on the rampage. Churches were targeted. As the UN troops responded to the violence and moved into the centre of the city the rioters were pushed out of the city centre and ran in the direction of the Catholic Compound. Gas and tyres were used to set the buildings on fire.

Fortunately the quick action of the Saint Joseph’s School Principal meant that the students and staff of the school had evacuated the campus before the rioting mob arrived.

This is a difficult situation to really say what happened and what caused the riots. Many people are talking about what happened but the real facts have been distorted by fear, hysteria and and tribalism.

The city appears some what deserted, schools remain closed, and some places of business and to some extent the market are open. Four people were reported to have been killed and eighteen were treated at the local hospital.

Some twenty homes including the City Mayors Resident were burnt down. Widespread looting was reported. Some churches were looted and damaged.

Many people were quick to label these events as inter religious conflict. However I think that an inter tribal conflict is a better description of the situation. There are some long standing issues which are a source of conflict between some of the tribes resident in the region. The Mandingo people are for the most part Muslim while the other tribes are a mixture of Christian, Muslim, and Animists. Land and property rights are at the heart of the problem, not religion.

We were able to celebrate Mass with some of the people of the parish. Approximately two hundred people came for the liturgy. People are angry and at the same time worried about the future. We experienced no hostility from any side during our visit. The church building can be repaired, however the priests house as well as the parish office block will have to be demolished and rebuilt.

Reverend Chris Brennan SMA, Apostolic Administrator, Diocese of Gbarnga, Liberia