A winsome face, a contagious smile, a leather cap, black jeans and sneakers. A red cross — the symbol of the Camillian Order — hangs from his neck. Bernard Kinvi is a young man who recently turned 34, but he’s saved a lot of lives already.
Father Kinvi was born in Togo. He belongs to the monastic Camillian Order established in the 16th century by Saint Camillus de Lellis. Along with the three traditional monastic vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, all Camillian monks take a fourth vow to serve the sick, even in deadly epidemics and at risk to their own lives. War began as soon as Father Kinvi took his vows, proving a true examination of the young priest’s faith.
Six years ago, after Bernard learned the ropes at his first station, he was moved to Bossemptele — a town in Central African backwaters 200 kilometers away from the capital. Bossemptele has no electricity and no paved roads, while the hospital Father Kinvi heads is the only one within a 150-kilometer radius. The hospital treats patients of any confession and suffering from any malady, from typhoid fever to malaria. Having settled in quickly, Father Kinvi befriended the residents and learned the local sango dialect. The community welcomed him warmly.
The Central African Republic, whose population is 80 percent Christian, is one of the world’s poorest countries, its prosperity undermined by corruption and inefficient management. The country has a wealth of natural resources such as diamond mines, timber and uranium deposits, but human greed and vice had thrown the country into turmoil. In April of 2013 the country’s capital Bangui was attacked and occupied by the Muslim Seleka rebels who came from the north, and the city fell prey to a reign of terror. After the armed insurgents seized power, a period of extortion, torture and killings began. The country plunged into chaos.
Members of the Seleka gangs (mostly natives of Chad and Sudan) were also among the patients at Bernard Kinvi’s hospital. “At first they stole the goats, then they began to seize and torture people, and later they started killing. After all that, they would end up in our hospital, and would threaten the personnel, claiming that they will kill all of us because we treated their enemies,” Father Kinvi remembers.
For several months the Central African Republic’s capital lived under the insurgents’ rule. They terrorized the residents. Anyone who dared to protest was threatened with guns. In response, groups of local militia began forming around the country, finally culminating in the Antibalaka movement. All kinds of people joined, but mostly the animists and Christians who had a deep-seated hatred of Muslims. Every day, Bernard Kinvi would help Seleka’s victims who sought refuge at the Catholic mission.
On December 5, 2013, French soldiers were brought in to the Central African Republic to carry out “Operation Sangaris,” dramatically shifting the power balance: members of Seleka were now on the run, their spree of crime and violence aborted.
Seleka fighters resting on a pickup in the city of Goya, CAR (June 11, 2014. REUTERS / Goran Tomasevic)
Bloodthirsty and longing for revenge, the Antibalaka militia launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the capital’s Muslims. In the course of several days, hundreds of people were killed and thousands were forced to flee for their lives. “For the whole of September, we saw more and more people gather in Bossemptele,” remembers Father Kinvi. In his sermons, he condemned Seleka’s crimes, but called on his congregation to avoid reciprocal violence, because “it cannot solve the problem.”
Bernard Kinvi sensed that Antibalaka was about to start retaliating, and at the same time realized that he won’t get any help from the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA), with which he pleaded to take security precautions in and around Bossemptele. The mission’s management suggested evacuation. The young priest refused and tried to mediate: he met with representatives of Antibalaka, pleading with them to leave Bossemptele alone. They refused to abandon their “eye for an eye” doctrine. Kinvi told them: “Protect your villages, but don’t attack us, because this will lead to persecution of your own brothers and sisters.” For some time, he was able to stave off a rebel attack.
On January 17, 2014, news swept through the country: a French military unit, part of “Operation Sangaris,” was coming to town to disarm Seleka rebels. Panic ensued among the rebels: they set fire to the hospital building and stole the Catholic mission’s car. Retaliatory bloodshed began the very next day, putting the Muslims of Bossemptele in great danger. Bernard Kinvi saw the terror of people who ended up in cruel killers’ hands. The victims of yesterday became the killers of today: dozens of Muslims were killed by the merciless Antibalaka militants. Bernard Kinvi and his brother in faith, Father Briese, went around the residential quarters, picking up the wounded and survivors and taking them to the mission. They organized hideaways wherever they could: in churches, chicken coops, operating rooms and wards. The two priests’ efforts saved the lives of 1,500 Muslims.
When asked about the reasons behind his will to help the Muslims, Father Kinvi replies:
“Human life is sacred for me. My job is to accept every person who comes to me for help. I don’t care who this person is, where he is from, what his religion is, and whether he’s a rebel or not. This is a human being created by God, which is why I help him. We make no distinctions.”
Having to overcome his fear every day, the young priest would accept Antibalaka rebels, who were often high on drugs, thus endangering his own life. When Father Kinvi took his vows he couldn’t imagine having to face barbaric cruelty and bloody folly so soon. But even trembling with fear, he wouldn’t budge: his faith is Kinvi’s principal solace. The priest received a great deal of help from the nuns of the Carmelite Order, who were working with the refugees.
“I believe in people, and have never doubted them,” claims Bernard, who cares both for the living and the dead.
Antibalaka rebels often asked the priest to help them bury their fighters. He agreed — not just so he could prevent outbreaks of violence, but to have the opportunity to lay these people to rest. At times he was even able to save people from execution, as in the case of a young blind mother who was wounded and left among the corpses. Kinvi saw her when the insurgents were planning to finish her off and stopped them.
Father Kinvi also helped some of the Muslims escape danger. For instance, he dressed a merchant in women’s clothes, allowing him to escape to Chad by car. In a matter of weeks, many other Muslims were evacuated from the country this way.
Father Kinvi has been threatened with guns and machetes on more than one occasion. The sectarian conflict in the Central African Republic was not only a physical and ethical trial for him, but also a spiritual experience that transformed his faith: the faith that didn’t weaken, but grew stronger instead. Bernard’s voice doesn’t waiver when he speaks of the horrors. “If there was less injustice in this world, if the riches were distributed in greater fairness, if people had universal access to healthcare and jobs, then, maybe, we could’ve avoided all these deaths,” he says pensively.
In 2014, Human Rights Watch gave Father Kinvi the Alison Des Forges Award, presented annually to four human rights activists who demonstrate unprecedented bravery. Bernard Kinvi plans to continue his work and believes that someday, Muslims will return to Bossemptele.
Father Bernard Kinvi was a finalist for the inaugural Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. On behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, the annual Aurora Prize aims to raise public consciousness about atrocities occurring around the world and reward those working to address these major issues in a real and substantial manner. The Prize is awarded annually on April 24 in Yerevan, Armenia.