Franciscans at the forefront of human rights: Sister Thérèse Balela FMM

In the 2000s, the discovery of large gas and mineral reserves in Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado promised to bring economic growth and human development to the population. However, while it led to massive investments from European companies, local communities have hardly benefited from it. On the contrary, the exploitation of resources highlighted inequalities and participated in the rise of violence. The situation in Cabo Delgado further escalated in October 2017, when an extremist group locally known as Al Shabab* engaged in a brutal insurgency, indiscriminately targeting citizens. Since it started, thousands of people have been killed, and over one million have been displaced.

Amid this complex and multi-faceted crisis, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM), of which Sister Therese is a member, help internally displaced persons in resettlement camps through psychological support and practical training courses, particularly for young women. We discussed her daily work with affected people, some of the root causes of the crisis, and how she views international advocacy.   

Can you explain what your work involves? 

In northern Mozambique, the arrival of internally displaced persons was sudden and massive. Every day, between 300 and 500 people turned up, some with their luggage, others empty-handed. When this happened, we had to make a quick decision. As I already had experience working with Rwandan and Burundian refugees, I didn’t hesitate to get involved and put myself at their service. Thanks to the collaboration of local authorities, we were able to find different sites to welcome people, and we currently have eleven camps in our district. The first thing my sisters and I do is to welcome them on one of our plots and provide them with the emergency aid sent by our congregation, which includes food for the first few days and a mat to sleep on. Our work also has a psychological dimension: every morning, our priority is to be close to them and listen to them. Our presence alone is essential. Finally, we train them to be self-sufficient, so that they don’t become dependent. 

Before arriving in these camps, what was the experience of these displaced persons? 

Many people were displaced by the terrorist attacks, which began unexpectedly. Villagers watched helplessly as armed groups burned down their homes and beheaded their neighbors and relatives. When you see that, you have no choice but to flee. So many of them were displaced by this violence, but it wasn’t the only factor. Indeed, the soil of the Cabo Delgado province is rich in minerals, making it an especially attractive place for the mining industry. Rather than engage in dialogue with Indigenous populations and traditional chiefs, transnational companies have evicted them from their land, often with the false promise of giving them new plots in exchange that would enable them to continue their farming activities.

What’s the situation like in the camps?

Thanks to the help of non-governmental and ecclesiastical organizations, the situation has improved. Some of them are taking care of water by digging wells, the sanitary facilities are in better condition, and generally speaking, collaborating with other entities means that local needs are better taken care of. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), for example, was one of the first on the ground to provide essential aid. However, humanitarian assistance is not always constant: due to a lack of funds, the aid provided by the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) is about to stop, so we are in the process of receiving the last stocks of food. This is problematic, because rain is scarce, and it takes three months to harvest. The most difficult thing about our work is the means. If we don’t have the material means, it’s all over.

What inspired you to start this work and how does it connect with your vocation as a Franciscan sister?

Right from the start of my vocation, I saw myself as a missionary, which means I accept any kind of work, even if it’s difficult and risky. Our Foundress used to say, “My consecration is love”, so I must love everyone without distinction. My priority is to help those who are suffering, but I also play the role of mediator. Because the land is State-owned in Mozambique, certain fields have been redistributed to newly arrived displaced persons, creating major tensions with the locals. The latter began to demand a share of the crops as compensation for the land they had lost. In this type of situation, I don’t take sides and try to maintain cohesion. Finally, I think that my work reflects the necessary balance between prayer and action.  

What was your impression of your first experience at the United Nations?

I enjoyed it because I thought that only certain countries would be represented and have the opportunity to speak – I didn’t expect there would be so much diversity in the debates. Besides, the exchanges I witnessed were very respectful. Now I have a completely different impression of the UN, and I can see how much human rights work is carried out by so many people.

What is your main message to the international community? 

My main request is that human rights and freedom of expression be respected. In the context of mining activities in Mozambique, it is necessary to start a conversation with civil society, and for this, the international community has an essential role to play. It is important to put pressure on heads of state to engage in dialogue with their people and to ensure their participation in decision-making processes that affect them. It is also the responsibility of governments to set limits for companies and to maintain a reciprocity that is inclusive of local populations. Finally, I’m convinced that we could all live very well together on this earth if we respect human rights – rights that are included in God’s Ten Commandments.

*No ties to the Somali group of the same name.

For more information, check out our main article on Franciscans at the Forefront of Human Rights.