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.
Father Barnaba Deng – “I am ready”
On September 3, 1965, Hassar Dafalla, Commissary of the Province of Bahr-el-Ghazal in Southern Sudan, sent the following letter to Bishop Ireneus Dud of the Diocese of Wau: “I very much regret the death of Father Barnaba Deng, which occurred on the evening of August 23, at a point three miles north of the army barracks on the Aweil Road. The official record that I received from the security forces involved in the case shows that suspicious behavior on the part of the priest was mainly responsible for his death. He was met by a military patrol at 6:30 p.m. while parking a car at the side of the road, in an area which everybody knew was quite notorious and, ignoring the curfew, had aroused the suspicion of a passing army patrol. When the man in charge of the detachment stopped the car to make inquiries, Father Barnaba, who was dressed in shorts and a shirt, stepped out from the car and attempted to run away. Failing to obey the army order to stop, he was shot dead.”
The letter continued, “It may be relevant here to mention that our intelligence records on Father Barnaba note that he was observed many times collecting monetary donations for the ‘Anyanya Movement’ (Black African, mainly Christian, Southerners who had rebelled against the Arab, and predominantly Muslim, North) and it was suspected that he was supplying them with food and ammunition in the vehicle of the Mission, in addition to typing their leaflets and correspondence. His activities were mainly centered on Odwel near Aweil. The circumstances of his case which is under review have also cast a heavy shadow of doubt over his relations with the outlaws.”
The letter concluded, “I feel it my duty to bring to the attention of Your Lordship that this is the second occasion of a corroborated association between the ‘Anyanya’ rebels and the Catholic Church. The first occasion was after the demise of Father Archangel Ali, which took place on July 21 (Soldiers of the Khartoum Government had killed Father Archangel, the first Priest of the Ndogo tribe, on July 21, 1965). Among his possessions was a photograph of the priest himself in the company of rebels which give a clear indication as to his connection with their activities.” The real story was, of course, entirely different.
Promises broken: a ‘scorched earth’ policy
After achieving Independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956, the Arab-led Government in Khartoum, reneging on promises to the Black African South, sought to proclaim an Islamic Republic. Declaring Arabic the official language of the country, they abolished Sunday as a day of rest replacing it with Friday and nationalized all the mission schools. This led to a rebellion in the partly-Christian and partly-Animist South. The Authorities in Khartoum responded by trying to violently suppress the insurgency through the indiscriminate killing of many innocent civilians and by adopting a ‘scorched-earth’ policy which resulted in the wholesale destruction of towns and villages. The ‘Anyanya Movement’ was established as a loosely-knit guerrilla group with its core membership drawn from veterans of the mutiny in Torit by Southern Army Officers in 1955. The Government in Khartoum did not want eye-witnesses to the cycle of relentless violence and destruction being wreaked on the people of the South. On February 27, 1964 they expelled the remaining two hundred or so Comboni Missionaries from Southern Sudan. This, then, is the true story of Father Barnaba Deng.
“We shall see each other only in heaven”
Barnaba Deng was born in Atokuel, a small village in the Mission of Kwajok in the Province of Bahr el Ghazal, towards the end of 1935. He belonged to the Rek who are a sub-group of the Dinka ethnic group. Aluel, the mother of Barnaba, was the second wife of a certain ‘Akec’ and following his death was not, contrary to the traditional custom, inherited by a brother or blood relation of the late husband. She remained single and brought up her family alone. Aluel succeeded in sending little Barnaba to the Mission Primary School in Gogrial. She did not object when he told her that he was frequenting the Catechumenate there. The boy was baptized on June 1, 1947 in Kwajok. Two years later, having finished his primary schooling in the Mission of Mbili, Barnaba asked his mother’s permission to enter the local Diocesan Minor Seminary. She was not a Christian and, although understanding little about what the boy had requested, she gave her consent.
Barnaba was received into Bussere Minor Seminary on the February 25, 1949. Having completed his secondary education, he left for Lacor Major Seminary in Gulu (Northern Uganda). When St. Paul’s Major Seminary for the training of local priests for Southern Sudan was opened in Tore River (twenty-five miles from the city of Yei towards the border with the Congo) in 1956, Barnaba left Uganda and spent a year there before he expressed a desire to enter the Comboni Missionaries. In 1957, Barnaba was sent to Italy to join the Comboni Missionary Novitiate in Gozzano in the Province of Novara in North-western Italy. After taking his First Vows there two years later, he went to the Scholasticate of the Comboni Missionaries in Venegono near Varese to continue his theological studies. He was ordained a priest in Milan on April 7, 1962 by Cardinal (later Pope and Saint) Giovanni Battista Montini.
The return home
A few months later, Barnaba was back in South Sudan, first in the Mission of Dem Zubeir, and then in November 1963, he was transferred to the town of Aweil, where he was in charge of three Missions: Aweil, Nyamlel and Gordhiim. Bidding farewell to the last of his European Confrères to leave, in late February 1964, he spoke these prophetic words, “Fathers, pray for us. We shall see each other again only in heaven.” Father Barnaba immediately threw himself into pastoral work, and month after month went around visiting the scores of Christian Communities entrusted to his care in the three Missions. As he was often going from village to village with clothes and food for needy local people, it was not long before he was accused by the Authorities of furnishing supplies to the ‘Anyanya’ rebels. His name soon appeared amongst those who had to be eliminated.
Flight to relative safety
Another Dinka, by the name of Santino Deng, now enters the story. Santino Deng had deserted the rebel cause and defected to the side of the Government in Khartoum. As a trusted informer he was tasked with identifying members of the ‘Anyanya Movement’ among his people to the Authorities. One morning, news reached Father Barnaba that Santino Deng had come to Aweil with a contingent of soldiers. He called Cyril, a young man employed to undertake domestic duties in the Mission, and together they went to the market square to see what was afoot. Among the people gathered there, they heard disquieting news. “There s an order to arrest you and Acuil Mayuen (a local Dinka Merchant),” he was told, “and the soldiers have been ordered to arrest you and kill you.” Father Barnaba went immediately to pass the news to Acuil Mayuen and then lost no time in making good his escape. Returning to the Mission, he hurriedly loaded some things into the car, and made off for the near-by forest. At the end of the road, he abandoned his car and proceeded on foot to a place of safety.
Cyril was sent back to ascertain from a safe distance what was happening at the Mission. In the yard of the Mission he found the vehicles of the soldiers parked with the headlights on. The soldiers then went to the Presbytery, and after breaking down the front door they searched every corner of the house. Seized by fear, Cyril fled the scene and spent the night out in the open with some local women, who had also fled on hearing the sound of gunfire near their houses. At sunrise, Cyril went back to the Mission, saw what the soldiers had done during the night and returned to the forest where he reported all he had seen to Father Barnaba. “They have forced open all the doors except that of the office which they did not succeed in opening,” he reported. Father Barnaba gave him the keys to the office and some instructions, “Go and bring me the typewriter, and the money in the top drawer of the desk. But, on all accounts, be careful not to be seen.” The young man returned some hours later with the typewriter and the money. Father Barnaba gave him some money to go to the market and buy food for the ten women and children who had, in the meantime, sought refuge in the same part of forest after fleeing Aweil and the wrath of the soldiers hunting down suspected guerrillas.
As evening fell, Father Barnaba realized that the group could not remain there for much longer for fear of being discovered and so he proposed that they all go to his native village. Everyone, including Cyril, decided to follow him. By shunning the usual paths and roads leading to the village of Kwajok, and by walking from dawn to dusk, the group arrived safely at the homestead of Father Barnaba’s mother on the evening of the fifth day. She could not believe her eyes at their arrival. After preparing a meal of beans and maize meal for them, the mother of Father Barnaba wished them all good night with the words, “Thanks be to God, at least here we are at peace and you are all safe.” The following morning, Father Barnaba informed his mother that he had to go to report to the Bishop what had happened at the Mission in Aweil. His mother objected, saying that it was too dangerous and that he should wait a while longer before setting out for Wau. But Father Barnaba insisted, saying that Cyril would accompany him, and in the end his mother relented and wished him a safe journey.
“The one we were looking for”
As they approached Wau, Father Barnaba gave a written message to Cyril and asked him to take it to a priest in the town. An hour later, a car came, driven by the priest who had received the message and he took Father Barnaba to his Parish. There was little traffic in the town. People were avoiding travelling on the roads because the scene of the massacre, that had taken place the previous month there, was still vividly etched on their minds. Father Barnaba then met with Bishop Dud who, on hearing the report, decided that the only thing to do in the circumstances was to arrange for Father Barnaba’s ‘safe-conduct’ to Khartoum. The Bishop went in person to the Local Authorities and succeed in obtaining the required travel papers for Father Barnaba. However the Father never made it to Khartoum.
All was very quiet the following afternoon, and Father Barnaba went out by car. “I would like to go and anoint a sick person that I know,” he said to the priest. As was by now his custom, he took Cyril with him and drove in the direction of Aweil. Close to the airstrip before Khor Grinti, he noticed a military convoy on the road. He turned back and parked the car off the road and waited for the convoy to pass by. Cyril counted them. Five vehicles passed, and the sixth seemed about to pass too, but then it stopped. On board was Santino Deng, the renegade Dinka, who had recognized Father Barnaba along the road and ordered the driver of his vehicle to stop. Approaching Father Barnaba, who had by this time got out of his car, Santino pointed to him and said to the soldiers, “Look, there’s the one we were looking for in Aweil!” Whereupon the soldiers grabbed Father Barnaba who made no attempt to resist. The Father asked only to be allowed to take his cassock from the car and to pray for a moment. He put the cassock on, made the sign of the cross, and recollected himself in prayer while the soldiers released the safety catch on their rifles. Looking at Santino, Father Barnaba said, “If you wish, I am ready.” A soldier broke away from the others and from very close range fired at his head. The Father fell backwards. The same soldier finished him off with volley of bullets to the chest. It was 4:30 p.m. on the afternoon of August 23, 1965. Father Barnaba was only twenty-nine years of age.
Santino Deng left the scene, but five soldiers remained to guard the body. Cyril, terrified at all he had seen, ran to carry the news to the Parish. He came back with one of the priests who asked for permission to remove the body. The soldiers refused. The priest went back to the Parish and returned with another priest to recover the car Father Barnaba had been driving, which was still parked by the roadside. After some hours, the soldiers buried Father Barnaba in a shallow grave close to the spot where he had been killed. His body was recovered the following day. Acuil Mayuen, the Dinka Merchant who had been placed on the same ‘hit list’ as Father Barnaba, was killed in similar circumstances a year later by soldiers.