The Cross is part and parcel of every Christian vocation. For each Christian, the sharing in the Cross of Christ takes on a different form. For some, the identification with Christ’s sufferings reaches the point of giving their lives as in the case of those Comboni Missionaries who wished to remain faithful to their missionary vocation ‘until death’ as taught by their Father and Founder, St. Daniel Comboni.
The following excerpt is from Supreme Witness: Comboni Missionaries Killed in the Line of Duty, an account of the lives of 25 Comboni Missionary priests, brothers, and sisters who died in the service of the Gospel in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Brazil and Mexico. You can find the book onlinehere.
Father Raffaele Di Bari – A Voice for the People
“In my many years in Africa,” wrote Father Raffaele, “the greatest mission I received from Our Lord has been that of being a voice for these people, condemning before all the world the atrocities the rebels commit on an almost daily basis, especially against women and against children who, because of this war, are abducted, drugged and transformed into murdering child soldiers.” Speaking of such child soldiers he said, “These little ones are terrorized and traumatized; real martyrs in a dreadful war that continues to be part and parcel of life in Northern Uganda. This is all due to the appalling deeds of the guerrillas of the Lord’s Resistance Army. I cannot remain silent before these atrocities.”
Born for Africa When Father Raffaele took his First Vows in 1948, at nineteen years of age, he wrote, “I know that the priestly, religious and missionary vocation is the greatest grace the good Lord could possibly give me. I ask to be admitted to Religious Life for my own sanctification and for the salvation of many souls, even if, for just one of them, I have to give the last drop of my blood.” Little could he have imagined the dramatic events in which those prophetic words would be lived out. Father Raffaele di Bari was born in Barletta, a town in Southern Italy, on January 12th 1929.
At the age of eleven, he joined the Junior Seminary of the Comboni Missionaries in Troia and continued his training in Sulmona, all in the South of Italy. Raffaele was, by all accounts, a lively lad and with a very cheerful disposition. He entered the Novitiate in Florence when he was seventeen on September 14, 1946, and was ordained a priest for the Comboni Missionaries in Milan on May 26, 1956 by Cardinal (later Pope and Saint) Giovanni Battista Montini.
Three years later he left for Uganda. He was first appointed to the Mission of Morulem in the North-east of the country which had a leprosy center where people came for treatment from villages for many miles around. For the rest of his life, Father Raffaele had great compassion for those who were suffering, attributed he always maintained, to these two years he spent with the victims of leprosy in Morulem. In 1962, Father Raffaele moved to Kalongo where a large mission hospital was under construction, but two years later he was at the Mission of Opit. Although his first concern was the instruction of catechumens and the training of catechists, being the man of action that he was, he initiated many development projects: setting up grinding mills, opening dispensaries and building schools.
Meanwhile, the country was going through dark times, especially during the dictatorship of Idi Amin. Father Raffaele never abandoned his post, making every effort to save human lives and to ensure the survival of the Missions themselves. In 1978, for health reasons, however, he was obliged to return to Italy, but not for long. He simply could not reconcile himself to the orders of his Superiors that he remain in Italy. So, in November 1979, he wrote to them in stark terms: “The very thought and the fear of not being able to return to the Missions has destroyed my peace of mind and I am close to entering a deep crisis. The letters I receive from Uganda tell me many Parishes have been left without priests. The priests that are there are waiting for someone to take their place. The idea of staying in Italy makes me feel like a deserter and I therefore ask you to let me go back to Uganda.”
Back to Africa The following year, in June 1980, he received permission and left immediately for Uganda. He was appointed to the Mission of Atanga. There he worked for nine years in evangelization and on development projects. Those were difficult times as Uganda was the scene of war, violence and famine. Father Raffaele knew that concrete action was urgently needed. He motivated the most willing and able of the youth to organize themselves to cultivate rice and sunflowers. This would ensure a good supply of food. Being full of initiative, he would not rest until he had ensured a decent life for his people. “The land of Uganda is fertile,” he would often say, “just cultivate it properly and there will be food for all.” Fortunately his message was understood and followed by many. He wrote to a friend, “This year I distributed hundreds of hoes and some plows. Providentially, the rains were plentiful and people are selling the yield of an exceptional harvest: maize, ground nuts, sesame, sweet potatoes, millet, sunflowers and cassava as well as bananas and mangoes. Before this there was terrible hunger. Let’s hope it’s finally over.”
Parish Priest of Pajule In 1989, Father Raffaele was asked to go to the Mission of Pajule. After his arrival there the rebels attacked the Mission, shooting indiscriminately. The house was ransacked. The rebels belonged to the National Salvation Army which, in 1994, became the Lord’s Resistance Army, founded by Joseph Kony, for the declared purpose of taking power in the country and governing according to the ‘Ten Commandments.’ The Lord’s Resistance Army unleashed a series of violent guerrilla attacks, causing death, violence and destruction. They distinguished themselves by the fact that they kidnapped and enrolled children into their ranks.
In 1996, Father Raffaele wrote to friends in the following terms: “These few lines come to you from this corner of Northern Uganda on the edge of the forest of Opit. For eleven years now, the people have been living in the midst of a guerrilla war of terror waged by murderous criminals and bandits. It is now normal to live in a state of tension and fear. In solidarity with the people, I too am easily disturbed, sometimes shocked, traumatized and angry at all that is happening. It is strange but the children do not know what it is like to live in peace and plenty; they think the whole world is at war like here in this country. At present, here at our Mission, we have a huge number of refugees and homeless people, who have had to flee from their villages. Everybody has a tragic story to tell of parents and babies killed, children kidnapped and taken to Sudan, huts and houses burned to the ground and countless disfigurements caused by landmines. I do not think I am careless or reckless to live in such a high-risk area as this, among people who are so poor and subject to all sorts of calamities. Extreme caution is needed but one must go out of one’s way and take calculated risks. It is really in solidarity with these people that I feel fulfilled, for here I am demonstrating coherence with my faith.”
Death on the Road On September 29, 2000 the Mission of Pajule suffered another rebel attack. Father Raffaele escaped by nothing short of a miracle. He was advised to evacuate the Mission but said that he could not even think of it. He just had to stay on. Only two days later death met him on the road. An AK47 Kalashnikov and a bazooka ended his life. This is what it took to stop Father Raffaele who had spent forty years of his life on African soil. It was half past ten on a hot October morning. Father Raffaele was driving along the road from Pajule to Achiolibur to celebrate Mass in a Chapel there when the car was suddenly struck by a hail of Kalashnikov bullets from several directions, followed by a round from a bazooka. The round struck the vehicle on the driver’s side and the priest was killed on the spot.
The driverless car came to a halt by the side of the road and a Sister, with some of the passengers, managed to escape. Rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army surrounded the car and those who had not escaped became their prisoners. They searched the vehicle for anything they could lay their hands on and their leader gave orders for the car to be set alight with the aid of a hand grenade. The grenade exploded but the car did not catch fire. The rebel commander then ordered that grass be taken from the roof of a nearby hut, be placed under the vehicle and set on fire. This time, the flames suddenly took hold and enveloped the lifeless body of Father Raffaele that was still in the driver’s seat. The assassins then made off with their captives.
News of the attack on Father Raffaele’s car soon reached the Mission. Two of his fellow Missionaries immediately went to the scene of the ambush where they found the vehicle smoldering by the side of the road. With the help of the Faithful they managed to open the door only to see the body of Father Raffaele still burning. They had to wait a few hours before being able to remove what was left of the burnt body. They wrapped the charred remains in a sheet and headed back to Pajule. Local people expressed their sorrow with cries and lamentations.
The funeral of Father Raffaele took place the following afternoon on October 2, 2000 in Pajule. The grave was dug in a corner of the Mission. It was afterwards enclosed by a fence and soon became a place of pilgrimage for local people. Some days after the killing, a cross was erected on the spot where the ambush had taken place, in order to become, as one of the Missionaries wrote at the time ‘a sign of peace and forgiveness for all, and a memorial to all the dead, the wounded and the abducted of this absurd war.’
A scrap of paper was later found in Father Raffaele’s room which bore the following words: “I would like to travel without fearing an ambush. Spend a night free of gunfire. See the people go to the fields without being afraid. See the kidnapped children returned to their parents. See a teacher teaching in his classroom and not under a tree. See the local people taking in hand their own development. See the sick being properly cared for. See people gathered in Church for Mass without being terrified of rebel attacks and praising God with songs of joy.”