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 online here.
Brother Carlo Mosca — Back from the land of the dead
The assassination of four Comboni Missionaries around Rungu in the Eastern Province of Congo by Simba Rebels in November and December 1964 was but a part of the tragic political turmoil and appalling violence that followed the granting of Independence to the country by Belgium in 1960. Though it must be recognized that such chaos was due to the colonial exploitation and commercial extraction that the Congo had suffered over the previous eighty years or so, together with the interventions in Africa by the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
The country’s tragic colonial history and its legacy
The Belgian Congo, a country the size of Western Europe, achieved independence from Belgium under the name ‘Republic of the Congo (République du Congo)’ on June 30, 1960. King Leopold II of Belgium (1865-1909) had formally acquired rights to the territory, centered on the Congo Basin, at the Berlin Conference of European Powers in 1885 and promptly declared the land his private property, naming it the ‘Congo Free State.’ From that date millions of people died in the territory as a consequence of epidemic disease, famine and the many well-documented atrocities associated with the forced labor policies used by the Authorities to collect natural rubber for export. The severing of the hands of people who refused to participate in rubber collection achieved particular international notoriety, and caused outrage when it was made known to the public in the United Kingdom, Belgium, the United States and elsewhere. An international campaign against the ‘Congo Free State’ began in 1890 under the leadership of the British activist E. D. Morel, and Belgium was eventually forced under international pressure to formally annex the territory to form the ‘Belgian Congo’ in 1908.
In the run-up to Independence, democratic elections were held throughout the country and Patrice Lumumba was elected the first Prime Minister, while Joseph Kasa-Vubu became the first President. A conflict, known as the ‘Congo Crisis,’ soon arose over the administration of this vast territory which was extremely rich in natural resources. The Province of Katanga, with large copper deposits, and the diamond-rich Province of South Kasai, situated in the Southwest of the country attempted to secede and rebelled against the Government in Léopoldville (now known as ‘Kinshasa’). When Prime Minister Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union for assistance in the crisis, the Army Chief of Staff, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, supported by Belgium and the United States, arranged for his removal from office by President Kasa-Vubu on September 5, 1960 and ultimately his execution by Belgian-led Katangese troops on January 17, 1961. Mobutu continued to lead the country’s armed forces until he took power directly in a second coup d’état on November 25, 1965, and remained in office until May 1997.
The secessionist movements in Katanga and South Kasai were suppressed but peace did not return to Congo for long. On August 2, 1963, on his return from training in China, Pierre Mulele, the former Education Minister of Patrice Lumumba, launched a new rebellion against the Government in Léopoldville in his native Province of Kwilu. In a matter of months, with some support from the local population which felt poorly treated and exploited by the Government, so-called ‘Simba Rebels’ led by Gaston Soumialot, Christophe Gbenye and Laurent Kabila had conquered nearly half of the country. Recruiting young men and teenagers, armed mainly with machetes, spears and arrows, and often under the influence of ‘bangi’ (marijuana), the rebels believed their ‘dawa’ (magic potions and amulets) would leave them impervious to enemy fire. Their aim was to overthrow the ‘imperialist’ Government of Léopoldville and everywhere they went they targeted expatriates whom they regarded as enemy collaborators. On August 5, 1964, the rebels captured Stanleyville (now known as ‘Kisangani’), proclaimed the ‘People’s Republic of Congo’ and took hundreds of European, American and Asian expatriates living in Eastern Congo hoatge. The Congolese Army, assisted by Belgian troops and with the aid of battle-hardened French and South African mercenaries, launched the ‘Ommegang Offensive’ on November 3, 1964, and crushed the rebellion within a matter of months, although not without significant loss of life.
Brother Carlo Mosca was the only survivor of the massacre of the four Comboni Missionaries in Rungu. This is his story: “The Simba Rebels wore animal skins on their heads, banana leaves crossed over their chests and strips of red cloth on their arms. It was their way of identifying themselves. They came to the Mission in Rungu on the afternoon of October 29, 1964. The group of Missionaries in the Mission at the time comprised Father Piazza, Father Zuccali, Father Migotti and myself from Italy, with three Holy Ghost Fathers and four Religious Sisters all from Belgium. After ransacking the Mission, we were all confined to the house of the Fathers under the watch of armed guards and told not to venture outside. If we did, we were told in no uncertain terms, we would be shot on sight. Three days later, on November 1, 1964, another group of rebels arrived bringing with them Léopold Matabo, the Mayor of Stanleyville. We were ordered out of the house and forced to go to the nearby river to witness his public execution. The rebels began arguing amongst themselves as to how the man should be killed but while this was going on, some of the rebels started torturing and mutilating him. One of the Belgian Sisters fainted at the gruesome sight of the man being dismembered before her very eyes. Glaring at the commotion in the group, the rebel commander reproached us saying that we were not even courageous enough to witness a man being killed.
Locals risked their lives to bring us food
On Tuesday November 3, 1964, rebel leaders arrived from Stanleyville, shouting that they were going to kill the Belgians among us that very day, and then all the Italians the following day. On Wednesday, November 4, at nine o’clock in the evening, all eleven of us were loaded onto a Jeep and taken to Rungu Police Station, a couple of miles from the Mission. After we had been interrogated and illtreated, we were held in small cells for three nights and two days. We were then taken back to the Mission and locked in a large hall. Even though we were prisoners, we were free to move around and talk among ourselves. On November 25, 1964 news came that Belgian Paratroopers had reached the neighboring city of Paulis (now known as ‘Isiro’). The rebels panicked and fled. We managed to escape and hid in the forest. Risking their lives, local Christians secretly brought us food.
However, the paratroopers came no further than Paulis, giving the rebels time to re-group and return to Rungu. On finding that we had escaped, they threatened the local inhabitants saying they would kill everyone in Rungu if we were not handed over. In order to avoid a massacre of innocent people, we decided to surrender. It was December 1, 1964, at about four o’clock in the afternoon. We left our refuge in the forest without Father Zuccali, who had gone to see a sick Belgian farmer in another part of the area. As soon as they saw us coming, the rebels began to shout at us and threaten us with their weapons. One of them fired a volley of bullets into the air from a machinegun. They then took us to a hut. We heard the sound of a Jeep and a rebel commander suddenly entered the hut, firing his pistol in the air. He told us our time had come as the next day we were going to be killed. It was ten o’clock in the evening.
Prepared to face our death
The commander went out, but returned soon after and ordered the five Priests and myself to climb aboard a lorry. We were taken towards the river, little more than a mile away, where the lorry stopped just before the bridge. I was the first to alight. They ordered me to sit on the ground with my back to them. Then someone else barked an order, “Let me see your face!” Before I could turn my head I heard an explosion and what seemed a blow to my left shoulder. My arm was driven backwards and I fell over as if I were dead. I could feel the blood coming from a wound to my shoulder but my mind was very clear. I saw the other five Missionaries being shot: the three Belgian Holy Ghost Fathers, and my Confrères Father Piazza and Father Migotti. I can still hear the last words of Father Migotti who, with his usual serenity, asked in Lingala, “Wapi?” (‘Where shall I sit?’).
Having carried out the executions, they dragged us by the feet to the center of the bridge and threw us into the river. I was the last to be thrown over: I distinctly heard the five splashes of the bodies of the other Missionaries in the water. The bridge was about ten meters high and the river was only about a meter deep. I remember thinking, “What if I bang my head on one of the pillars of the bridge or against a rock? I will surely drown.” I was thrown from the bridge and hit the water feet first. I felt my feet hitting the water and then the rocks. Struggling to avoid being swept away by the current, I clung on for dear life to one of the pillars as I waited until the rebels went away. I spent some time wondering where to go, then I climbed up the bank and headed for the forest. In the dark of the night I walked through the long grass along the bank of the river without really knowing where I was going. At last I came across a hut. I approached and called out. A man came out and I told him how my companions had been shot and that I needed help. He told me to go away, for fear the rebels might kill him and all his family. With my wound bleeding, I again set out for the bridge, hearing sounds of shooting and shouting in the distance. Vast dark clouds made the night even blacker and brought very heavy tropical rain, which helped to keep me awake. I decided to follow the river, but the undergrowth was becoming more and more dense and I was getting weak. I stopped, sat down and fell asleep leaning against a tree. I cannot say how long I slept but I awoke to find the first rays of sunlight were beginning to penetrate the thick forest. I stood up, knowing I had to keep moving. After some hours I came across an abandoned hut. Entering, I saw a fire burning and some clean water. There was also some cassava and some fruit of which I managed to eat a little, swallowing slowly. My wound was becoming infected and I knew that I could not stay there. I continued wandering in the forest.
The world of the dead
At a certain point I could see a road but also some rebels in the distance, so I returned to the forest. I walked for goodness knows how long until I chanced upon another hut. As I approached it, a man came out who, on seeing the condition I was in, began to shout and ran away. Exhausted, I sat on the ground. Soon afterwards the man came back accompanied by rebels. I recognized them and they recognized me. They could not believe their eyes. Helping me up, they took me to their camp. On seeing me, the rebel commander asked if I had come back from the world of the dead. I told him I had never gone there. Looking at me with some trepidation, the commander called a soldier and ordered him to treat my wound and give me something to eat. The following day I was transferred to another rebel camp and finally to Mungbere where I met a group of about seventy other Missionary Priests and Sisters being held captive there. On the evening of December 29, 1964, they told us we would be shot at 8:00 a.m. the following morning. Early the next day, as we were preparing for our execution, pandemonium broke out in the camp. It was all so sudden and quite frightening. There were gunshots, explosions and screams from all directions. We could not understand what was happening. Then, from the window we could see foreign mercenaries and government soldiers from Léopoldville arrive in jeeps and trucks. The rebels had fled to the forest. We were released, and our nightmare was finally over. A few days later, I left for Rome.” The bodies of Father Lorenzo Piazza, Father Evaristo Migotti and the three Belgian Holy Ghost Missionaries were never found.