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REPORTAGE FROM THE...
from issue no. 03 - 2009

The Church in a time of genocide


A conflict for control of natural resources, the symbol of the tragedy into which Africa has plunged in recent decades. How the Church has lived fidelity to the Lord in these years


by Davide Malacaria


Eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The horror comes suddenly, as the door opens. The mummified bodies of men and women, in their hundreds, lying on undressed wooden shelves, piled in a room with flaking walls. The woman quickly opens the room nearby. “Here are the children”, she says flinging the door open. And again those shelves displaying the ferocious horror. There are two thousand bodies, says the woman who is the caretaker of the place, crammed into those low buildings, which were to house a school. Before everything happened. Before the dark madness began. Another forty-eight thousand, she continues in bureaucratic fashion, are in mass graves not far away. It was in April when it happened, the woman goes on, people had been herded in from the surrounding areas and packed into that remote corner. Without food or water for two weeks. Many died from hardship. The others from machine-gun fire and spiked clubs.
We are at Murambi, in Rwanda, a country where there are dozens of such places. They call them memorials. They were built to commemorate the tragic unfathomable folly known as the Rwanda genocide in which, in 1994, eight hundred thousand people were killed in one hundred days.
From here, with this smell of death that will be our companion throughout the day, our journey starts to nearby Kivu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo [Congo hereafter, ed.], to tell of another genocide. Or rather, the outcome and consequence of that in Rwanda. Four and a half million deaths, between 1996 and 2003, in two wars that saw Rwandan, Burundian and Ugandan troops, as well as those of various local warlords, storming through the Congo. A slaughterhouse for the control of natural resources for the benefit of Western multinationals, which is also the symbol of the tragedy into which Africa has plunged in recent decades. And where the Church has been called to follow the Lord through great tribulations.

Bukavu
The streets of Bukavu are impossible and the asphalt is a distant memory. The few vehicles grind along at walking pace, between two lines of people going backwards and forwards all day long, looking for something to get them through to the morrow. It rains often in Kivu. And then things get complicated, because the red earth turns into mud and the wheels slide. And always, the two lines of people in movement. Barefoot in the mud. Somebody is struggling with a broken-down truck, women display their poor wares on muddy stretches of cloth.
In Panzi stands the Xaverian Center of mission activity, headed by Father Sebastiano Amato. Panzi is on the outskirts of the city. And you get there through the most densely inhabited district of the city, a succession of wooden shacks clinging to the sides of the road. Some are leaning and it seems they must collapse with the next rain. And so it happens from time to time. But people live there all the same. Fatalism perhaps, or perhaps a lack of alternatives.
Father Sebastiano tells us of the masses of Hutu who poured into Congo after the Rwandan genocide, in that long ago 1994, after the taking of Kigali by Paul Kagame. They were fleeing the vengeance of the Tutsi and the stigma of infamy. “They were pursued by the accusation of having committed genocide... it’s true, among them were also those guilty of that programmatic folly, but they were a small minority... The truth is that there hasn’t been a thorough investigation into what happened, so that all the Rwandan Hutu adult males found themselves charged with genocide. An accusation that has been used to justify the crimes that were then committed later in the Congo”. A common view, in these parts. And continually relaunched in the dramatic letters written by the Archbishop of Bukavu, Monsignor Emmanuel Kataliko.
Kataliko has known exile and sudden death (it was the jubilee year of 2000), and he is the successor of Monsignor Christophe Munzihirwa, killed on 29 October 1996, the first day of the war. Hostility against the Church, especially priests, nuns and missionaries, was a mark of this conflict. Part of a strategy to eliminate and silence those who were spokesmen for the oppressed. Father Sebastiano was bursar of the diocese when Munzihirwa was killed. And he remember those days well. As he speaks of them he goes to the far end of the courtyard of the Center and opens a low door that gives onto the outside. One seems to be entering some magical world: the urban landscape has vanished and something else begins. But what we find is not the land of Oz, just mud houses and poverty.
Children run up in flocks, shouting the priest’s name. And they hang in bunches from his hands. He shows us the school built by the Xaverians. Really large, with lots of classrooms and desks and blackboards. Normal things, so exceptional in this part of the world. Women greet us. “Before there was nobody here,” says the priest, “it became peopled only a short time ago and it is getting more crowded every day.” And one doesn’t have to wonder why: war, hunger, the usual things.
A stone’s throw from Panzi, in the district of Chai (tea, in the local language), there is a parish run by the Xaverians. The parish priest, Father Carmelo Sanfelice, was forced into exile during the war. He was accused of being the clandestine leader behind a pocket of Congolese resistance. He shakes his head at the recollection, almost amused. He leads us to the church, with its two thousand seats. “We have one thousand catechumens”, he nods contented. And the large crucifix hanging on the wall, of a particularly dark wood that gives it the color of the parishioners,must also be happy with that rich harvest. As he says farewell, Father Carmelo tells us that traditional witchcraft is coming back into favor with people, in a darker and more diabolical form. We believe him. As for that, it’s not difficult to see the hand of the devil in what happened in this corner of the world...

2008. Distribution of food  around Goma [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

2008. Distribution of food around Goma [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Little sympathy for the Congo
One day a week the Xaverians in the region meet at the mother house. Father Gianni Brentegani, the superior, points them out one by one, saying a few words about their personal histories and the years spent on mission. He tells of the relationship with the Church of Africa, so different from that in the West, and how the missionaries are careful to keep in the background, not to overshadow the local ministers. In the background, but always present, even in the darkest years. “A continuity in being here that is welcomed. And that has increased communion and fellowship both with the clergy and with local people”, he says.
Among the many who come to the mother house is Father Giuseppe Vignato. He is one of the youngest and has a shy look that makes one wonder how he could have managed to get through all those horrors. He tells of his mission, in Shabunda, a hundred thousand souls, and a vast territory. “We did the rounds of our community twice a year: we got to the farthest off (two days on a motorbike) and then gradually moved back towards the mission. With the war things became difficult, but we still managed to go to see them as soon as conditions permitted”. Around Shabunda were the fearsome May May, the Congolese militias who were such a tough nut for the invaders to crack. “But when we went out from the mission to visit our communities they let us pass, giving a military salute”, recalls Father Giuseppe. Other times, when things worsened and the war raged more fiercely, it was the catechists who moved. There were those that did a hundred and sixty kilometers to reach Shabunda, recalls the missionary. Then he says that their mere being there, sharing the woes of the Congolese, was a reason for hope to those people. And while he speaks, in his subdued tones, one has not the slightest doubt that it was so.
Don Justin Nkunzi has broad shoulders. They must have been useful to him in the war years. He is in charge of the diocesan Justice and Peace Commission. Don Justin is particularly fond of that passage in the Gospel where Jesus, faced with the hungry crowd, says to his followers: “Give them something to eat”. Then it is He who performs the miracle with the little or nothing that His disciples have. But, now as then, he says, the Church is called not to remain indifferent to the needs of the poor and oppressed. Now the war seems to have calmed down but Don Justin well remembers the terrible times and speaks with Christian realism: “The enemies belong to this world ... What makes one sad, especially in circumstances like those we went through, is when there is little solidarity on the part of the universal Church...”.

Child soldiers [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Child soldiers [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Concealing the slaughter
Burhale was for years an unsafe place and ambushes were an everyday thing. The way there is a dirt road that winds through the hills near Bukavu. And on the way one goes through villages of poverty-stricken houses whose names recall little-known massacres.
In Burhale there is a health center that that was prey to systematic looting during the war. Recently it has re-opened thanks to a CISS (International Co-operation South South) project, one of the few NGOs that has managed to do something here, funded by the Italian Foreign Ministry, as the coordinator, Beatrice Luccardi, explains. There are doctors now in Burhale and sisters to care for the sick. They are the Daughters of Mary Queen of Apostles and they accompany us on a visit of the wards and beds that are newly accommodating patients. Not very many yards away there is the school they run and some children daring the heat of the afternoon. At the center of the large square there is a niche housing a statue of Our Lady. The nuns tell of the past and the killing that went on around, including that of Don Jean-Claude. “One of our sisters was murdered, too”, says a nun in a soft breath. Light as something entrusted to the Lord. Yes, they pray for the executioners of that time, comes the reply to a remark of ours.
The assassination of Father Jean-Claude caused great upheaval throughout the diocese. “We were friends since we were kids,” says Don Justin. “We became priests together... here everybody thinks of him as a martyr, like Monsignor Munzihirwa, like Kataliko. And on the anniversary of the day he died Mass is celebrated where he was killed.”
There were many priests and nuns killed during the conflict. Father Francis Xavier Bashi, parish priest of St Mary Mediatrix, on the island of Idjwi (the largest island in the middle of Lake Kivu), shows us a book in which they are recorded by the dozen. It is a rosary of names and places, dates, altogether unknown to us Westerners, so dear to the people of the place. Very little is known: here the rule was to keep things hidden, to conceal.
The normal way of proceeding during the war, explains Jean Moreau, because they did everything to hide the evidence of genocide. Moreau is the president of a human rights association, set up by Archbishop Munzihirwa. “The countryside around Bukavu is covered in mass graves”, he continues. He has been threatened several times, and with him others of his office, but the association has continued its work, faithful to the legacy of the bishop. “Going around the streets of Bukavu”, he explains, “you sometimes see bunches of flowers laid in front of a building. Yes, because here in the city, they built houses over the mass graves...”. And there are also those who say that the bodies of massacred Congolese were taken to the Rwandan Memorials to increase the quantities in those heart-wrenching ossuaries. Myths, probably, but truly a lot of people believe them in these parts...

2008. Refugee camp near Goma [© Afp/Grazia Neri]

2008. Refugee camp near Goma [© Afp/Grazia Neri]

The lava of Goma
Goma has been black since the nearby volcano erupted in January of 2002, and the lava covered almost all of it. Here the tension is higher than elsewhere and Rwanda is too close. One still breathes fear in the air. In these parts Laurent Nkunda recently sowed death and terror, before being arrested last January. The last flare-up of the war, at least so far ...
Luisa Flisi, a lay missionary, works in Goma. She tells us of a program aimed in particular at people with AIDS, a program that has grown thanks to the work of Françoise, one of the first HIV-positive patients they treated. “Now we are helping five hundred ... and also a hundred children born with HIV.” For years her path has crossed that of a singular missionary figure, the Xaverian Fr Silvio Turazza, who came to Africa in a wheelchair. “It’s not legs one needs for the mission, but a heart”, comments Luisa, mentioning the many works of charity that have flourished around the missionary.
Luisa was with Don Richard Bimeriki when they killed him two years ago, and well remembers how it went. They made them lie on the ground, the RCD militia (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, a pro-Rwandan movement), then shot him pointblank. “He died in hospital. It was Easter Sunday”, she recalls.
At the other end of Goma there is the Caracciolan seminary. We reach it just after the Adoration has ended and the children are swarming out of church. Some stop to sing a hymn to St Francis Caracciolo, founder of the Order. Father Tommaso Barbona has been here for years and divides his time with the mission of Nyamilima, in the hinterland. He takes us round the seminary: really splendid, with a garden sloping down to the lake. But what is most pleasing to the Lord must be the thirty students who are being trained. We see them engrossed in their books or absorbed in silent prayer, sprouting up everywhere.
Today is a holiday. The superior general of the Order, Father Raffaele Mandolesi, has come from Rome. With Father Tommaso he has shared decades on the mission in Nyamilima. Father Raffaele tells of one of his catechists, who, urged to flee with the rest of the villagers, decided to remain to guard the Eucharist. He speaks of it as something important. And, perhaps, if the faith was preserved in the days of hatred, it is due also to things of this kind.
Father Tommaso accompanies us back in the car, at a walking pace naturally, and while the vehicle wobbles on raising volcanic dust, he tells us about Nyamilima: twenty-five elementary schools, two nursery schools, six colleges, six dispensaries, a hospital. Numbers that speak of an industrious charity. Unharmed even by Nkunda’s ferocity.

2008. Displaced people near Goma [© Afp/Grazia Neri]

2008. Displaced people near Goma [© Afp/Grazia Neri]

Here I am, send me
Those who have suffered violence here in Goma are instead the Salesians. One of their centers was attacked, and some of them beaten up, last January. “Bandits”, cuts short Don Mario Perez, who directs the Don Bosco Center in Ngang, as he takes us to see the marvel that the Salesians have built on the edge of one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. Workshops, training centers and schools, housing activity beyond suspicion. And then a center for undernourished children, a clinic ... The crisis caused by Nkunda displaced two million. Some thousands of them are still crowding the doors of the Ngang Center, others are inside: entire families who have one or two poor possessions spread out on a piece of cloth. And then five thousand orphans, taken in from the streets and countryside around. Among them some who fought as soldiers. Some are in the nutrition center, fighting against death. For all of them Don Perez has a smile, a special word, a caress. The priest is sparing with words. But when the tide of terror mounted, with its freight of horror and grief, he raised his voice. To draw the attention of the world to what was happening. And it was heard. Certainly by the Lord, to judge from what one sees in this center on the outskirts of Goma.
From Goma to Bukavu. Today is 11 February, Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Mass is at a reception center founded by the consecrated laywoman Isella Natalina. Here she takes in girls off the street, in an attempt to return them to normal life. It’s a new phenomenon, she says. Once the extended African family was able to take care of children without parents, but no longer. One of the many legacies of the war ...
African Mass with rhythmic chants, some really beautiful. Some of the girls have their heads wrapped in scarves, leftovers from some ecclesial gathering in Italy. They are orange in color, with the words: “Here I am, send me”. And one immediately realizes that that testimony and that mission were all generated by the simply being there of a small girl before Jesus. Today as then, Bernadette before Mary.
And then the horror is a distant memory. And heaven more real and close. Even here, where some people decided to unleash hell.


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