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1/6/2011 - RMG - Ivory Coast: the drama is not over yet
(ANS – Rome) – Now that Alassane Ouattara has been installed as president of Ivory Coast, a period of political instability has come to a close - officially. But there are any number of unsolved problems: the situation displaced persons find themselves in, widespread fear, lack of essential goods, and other problems besides. Fr Antonio César Fernández, a Spanish Salesian missionary for nearly 30 years in Africa, has spoken about these matters.

Fr Fernández is currently Secretary for the French-speaking West Africa Vice-province – which includes Ivory Coast – and Bursar of the Salesian House in Abidjan. He came to Rome some days ago and will remain until mid-June. He has spoken to ANS about the difficult months of civil war and how Salesians have been committed to remaining alongside the weak amongst the population.

Last December, tensions gradually worsened in the country. As well as the political fight between Gbagbo and Ouattara there were other latent disputes emerging, motivated by differences between people originally of Ivory Coast, who are in the majority in the southern part of the country, and descendants of migrants from Burkina Faso and other neighbouring countries, predominantly in the north.

As the battle between the militias belonging to the two contenders progressed a range of further problems developed: schools and banks closed, cocoa exports were blocked, curfew… in a situation like this lack of security becomes widespread amongst the people. In Duékoué, towards the western border, fear of ethnic attacks and vendettas, especially when Ouattara`s troops had entered the city at the end of March, led to tens of thousands of Ivorians fleeing to the only place they knew that could offer them refuge and safety, the “Saint Teresa of the Infant Jesus” Salesian mission.

There and even now the problems are far from resolved: of the 4 Salesians currently assigned to the mission only 2 are there at the moment; one is sick and therefore away, and another who was away at the time conflict broke out, has been thus far unable to return. The two remaining do their best to meet the serious needs of some 30,000 people, but the difficulties are enormous. A small refugee camp prepared just outside the mission is in practice not used by the people, because it lacks efficient services. A larger camp is now under construction, but while they wait, the people have settled around the Salesian buildings.

The House in Abidjan too, where Fr Fernández works with street children, was affected by the civil war. In the capital where the final battle took place between Ouattara and Gbagbo, the Salesians were however able to protect the work and the youngsters thanks to their well-recognised commitment to peace and to the weak.

In March, along with other Catholic, Protestant and Muslim authorities, Salesians took part in a meeting to foster inter-religious fellowship and avoid religious motives being added to the conflict. And while armed militias were roaming the streets, raiding and looting, the Salesian community was looking after and sheltering wounded youngsters and those abandoned to the streets, avoiding a situation for many of them being attracted by thought of easy money, and joining the increasing ranks of predator troops.

Fr Fernández` greatest satisfaction as for other Salesians in the country, has been the success in offering hope to so many abandoned children, like little Kader, an autistic and epileptic 10 year old, abandoned by his family. He came to the Salesians about a year ago, and with the help of social workers and other children at the centre, has almost overcome his epilepsy and is learning to communicate with those around him. For him and others like him, despite the difficulties, Don Bosco`s sons are at work today.

Published 01/06/2011

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