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Celebrations and Tight Security as Pope Francis Lands in a Conflict Zone

Excitement spread through the Central African Republic on Sunday as the pontiff arrived in the capital city Bangui, bringing a message of peace and reconciliation to the African country.

by Kayla Ruble
Nov 29 2015, 9:55pm

Photo de Daniel Dal Zennaro/EPA

Cheers erupted when the plane carrying Pope Francis landed in the Central African Republic's capital city Bangui on Sunday morning. Schoolgirls in matching uniforms lined up and sang, while members of the official welcome party clapped on the tarmac. But the loudest applause came from just outside the airport, where a crowd of people had gathered from a makeshift camp nearby that houses thousands of internal refugees.

A procession of Vatican affiliates walked off the plane and onto a red carpet, where an assembly of dignitaries and a military procession were on hand to greet the pontiff.

Outside the airport, security forces with riot shields controlled the excited crowds clamoring to get a glimpse of the pope on his first trip to Africa, following stops in Kenya and Uganda. Francis' two-day stop in Central African Republic (CAR) comes amid renewed violence in the capital that has displaced tens of thousands of people since September.

School girls line the red carpet wearing outfits matching the Vatican's colors. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

Security in Bangui for the pope's visit. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

The displacement camp near the airport sprung up when conflict flared in the country in December 2013. It now hosts upwards of 15,000 people who were forced to flee their homes over the last two years. Violence in the country has largely been connected to armed groups with religious affiliations. The former French colony is a majority Christian nation, where around 15 percent of the 4.7 million citizens are Muslim.

In March 2013, the armed Seleka group, which aligns itself with the Muslim minority population, ousted President Francois Bozize. On December 5, rebel anti-Balaka fighters, who associate with the Christian majority, overran the capital and waged a brutal fight against the Muslim population.

Related: Can Pope Francis Bring Peace to the Central African Republic?

In the months that followed, more than 400,000 people fled their homes, seeking refuge in local churches, the airport, and other locations. International agencies supplied tents and food as the crisis continued. Nearly half a million others fled to neighboring countries. A peace agreement was signed in July 2014, but the sectarian violence has persisted, particularly outside of the capital. In September, clashes again occurred in the capital, sparked by the killing of a Muslim taxi driver. Dozens have died in the weeks since.

Kids in Bangui wear clothes emblazoned with the face of Pope Francis. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

Excited onlookers run after the papal convoy as it ventures further into Bangui. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

Enthusiasm for the pope's arrival spread beyond the airport and throughout the capital on Sunday, with crowds roaring at the sight of the papal convoy.

Francis rode in an open-air truck flanked by United Nations (UN) jeeps and armored vehicles. Government police and UN peacekeepers kept a tight grip on the streets. At one point, they halted an impromptu parade of motorcycles and pedestrians heading towards a main traffic circle to celebrate after the convoy had passed.

Related: Pope Francis Is About To Head Into A War Zone For First Time Ever

Following a stop at the presidential palace and CAR's only pediatric hospital, Francis made his way to a displacement camp in the capital that sits on the grounds of St. Sauveur Catholic church. Groups of people could be seen running down the streets following the papal convoy. International agencies draped banners welcoming the pope on the side of refugee tents, and the area was decorated with colorful sashes.

"Work, pray, do everything for peace," Francis said during his stop at the camp. "But remember, peace without love, friendship and tolerance is nothing. I hope that all Central Africans can see peace."

Decorations at the IDP camp Pope Francis visited. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

A woman made cassava after Francis stopped by the camp where she has lived for two years. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

Shadrack Nambobona, 19, described how he managed to make his way to the pope as the crowd in St. Sauveur swarmed. He expressed excitement for getting the chance to shake the pontiff's hand and receive a blessing from the religious leader. The teen fled to the camp just two weeks ago when a group attacked his neighborhood and burned his house. Shadrack said Francis understood the issues faced by people in CAR.

"The visit of the pope means that he cares about small people who are suffering," he said. "After three years of suffering there is no school since then. I want things to go back to normal, I can go to school and expect to have opportunities."

Related: Activists Ask Pope to 'Help Us Cure One of the Worst Diseases in Africa: Homophobia'

Nambobona isn't alone in feeling reassured by the visit. Before Francis even set foot in CAR, hope was evident among the population that he could help kickstart reconciliation in one of the world's poorest countries. With the visit underway, that optimism only grew stronger on Sunday.

One woman, Clotilde Atangobo, recalled the first time she set eyes on the leader of the Catholic church — Pope John Paul II, who traveled to the country in 1985. Now a 50-year-old civil servant with the Department of Agriculture, Atangobo traveled from a town more than 450 kilometers outside of Bangui and got a second opportunity to see a pope in her home country. She reflected on the changes the country has gone through in the thirty years since, saying it was much safer before.

Francis greets observers while en route to the presidential palace in an open air truck. (Photo by Kayla Ruble/VICE News)

"Now, at 6pm people run home because they fear for themselves," she said, explaining that she hoped for a better future for a younger generation. "I want peace in this country for my children. "

Steps to improve security and achieve reconciliation are clearly part of a long, challenging process — with or without the pope.

The first phase could come by the end of the year, when the country is expected to hold presidential elections to democratically select a leader that will replace the current transitional government led by Catherine Samba-Panza. The elections have been rescheduled several times, with the latest date set for December 27, although it appears the handover of power will not occur until the spring of 2015.

Related: Spiraling Violence Puts Brakes on Central African Republic's Journey to Democracy

Closing out the day on Sunday, Francis delivered a mass inside the main cathedral, with the service broadcast on a projector to thousands of people gathered outside. The pope preached a message of peace and forgiveness.

During his visit, however, the 15,000 Muslims in the city have largely been kept penned inside the Muslim-majority neighborhood known as PK-5. The pontiff is expected to visit a mosque in the neighborhood on Monday morning before flying home and wrapping up his brief tour in sub-Saharan Africa.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB 

Watch the trailer for the upcoming VICE News documentary United in Hate: Central African Republic: