Trauma counselling, training in non-violence and inter-religious encounter in the Central African Republic.

May 2021: For six years, Maria Biedrawa has been a sought-after counsellor for communities and civil society in the conflict- and crisis-ridden country, the Central African Republic. In seminars, workshops and training, she helps strengthen a culture of non-violence and heal the pain of violence through trauma work.

The Threshold supports her work with funds from the Small Projects Fund.

April 2021 marked the 10th time in 6 years that I have been to the Central African Republic (CAR). My regular visits and outreaches have introduced me to quite diverse circles.

An unforgettable experience for me was working with Bishop Dennis Kofi Agbenyadzi in Berberati. He invited all the pastors and imams who live and work in his diocese to a pastoral meeting which actually only concerns the clergy, religious and catechists. They were joined at the last moment by some chiefs of the Antibalaka. There were perpetrators and victims in the room. The encounters during these 4 days led to the Antibalaka laying down their arms. It continued a few months later with two events on trauma recovery with the same audience, also in a hotspot, and work with women as agents of peace.

Another highlight was working with the journalists from Radio Maria on nonviolence as a way to peace.

All these years also saw the growth of a friendship with the team from the parish of Notre Dame de Fatima in Bangui, which is located to the centimetre on the border with the Muslim district with its Great Mosque and the Great Market of Bangui. Whenever violence occurred in Bangui since December 2012, these two neighbourhoods have been particularly affected. The community was for 18 months a camp for internal refugees, Christians as well as Muslims (6000 people on a plot of land equivalent to about 2 soccer fields), but it was also the target of 3 attacks in which around 40 people lost their lives. 

This parish has historically had a very close relationship with Muslims. Apart from the riots, which were made possible by a general psychosis, most of the Muslims are moderates, but they are also, in a sense, the first victims of jihadists who came from Chad and Sudan, mingled with the population here and took the reins. The parish therefore wanted and wants to take every opportunity to be a place of encounter, cooperation and peace, and is also incredibly creative in doing so.

As a "response" to the last attack, the parish built a cultural and interreligious centre. Now interfaith and intercultural coexistence have a place, a visibility.

My contribution was and is to support these initiatives through counselling and direct involvement in the trauma counselling centre with a Central African clinical psychologist, who unfortunately only has half a day per week available. In addition to individual counselling and therapy, we are developing other support services, e.g. traditional dance for women suffering from depression as a result of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Accompanying traumatised people, who exist on both sides, is a bridge as soon as people realise that they have experienced something very similar, only in reverse, and that it affects them as human beings in the same way. Our tears and our blood are the same colour, beyond all religious, ethnic or ideological boundaries. This realisation often creates a very deep solidarity among those affected. The insanity of violence, the lie of all justification attempts become obvious, and thoughts of revenge are slowly healed.

I also hold regular training courses, e.g. "Trauma counselling if you are not a psychologist", but simply a neighbour, grandmother or work colleague. Every existing group or movement in the community sends a core of 3 to 5 members with the aim that these people can reach out to others, re-establish human closeness and also accompany those who are particularly badly affected to specialists, doctors, psychologists and lawyers. The parish reaches about 6000 people, by far not only members of the congregation but also neighbours, even into the Muslim world.

My last visit was specifically about the following:

  • A training for young people in leadership roles
  • Accompanying a women's group (with the aim of strengthening their self-esteem so that they can take control of their lives again. In September we will continue working on how they can start their own business together)
  • A first seminar on non-violence with a view to improving social conditions (in this neighbourhood there is running water only in very few houses, electricity now and then; prostitution and drugs are a real problem) - to be continued in September. It was the step out of lethargy.
  • Consultation for a programme Education for non-violent conflict resolution in the Catholic private school and the public school (in the Muslim quarter), to run for 3 years. The first phase will start in September with a core group of teachers and includes 3 steps: Human Rights - Training of Peer Mediators - Restorative Justice in School.
  • Consultation for adult education: a training in interpersonal conflict resolution was very well received. It is now to be continued with the training of an interfaith mediation team, which will then be available to the public.
  • And, of course, the trauma counselling continued. 

This stay was not planned, but it was important because it was the first phase of calming down after the election unrest and exactly the turning point where people look forward again for the first time after 3 months of panic and hardship. My experience also tells me that in this country you have to take advantage of the pauses in the struggle. I am therefore particularly grateful for the help of the schwelle foundation.

Maria Biedrawa

May 2021



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