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 Egidio Biscaro — An Adventure that Deserves to be Lived
It was a hot sunny morning on Monday, January 29, 1990 in the Mission of Pajule in the North of Uganda. A woman was in need of urgent medical attention and had to be taken without delay to the nearest hospital in Kitgum. Father Egidio knew that the road to Kitgum was dangerous. A week previously, former soldiers of Idi Amin had raided the villages nearby, bringing mayhem and terror in their wake. Only the day before, twenty-three people had been slaughtered in an ambush of a bus along that very road. But Father Egidio, together with Father Aldo Pieragostini, decided to set off nonetheless and drive the woman to hospital as they feared she would otherwise not survive. It was 8:45 a.m. and everything happened in a flash. Only six miles down the road, their car was hit by a spray of bullets, fired by people hidden in the grass, and came to a standstill. The patient, a mother of three by the name of Irene Akello, was hit in the chest and died almost immediately. Father Egidio was shot in his right leg, his shoulder and forehead. The other Comboni Missionary, Father Aldo, received multiple wounds including a bullet to the face that lodged in his jaw. Father Egidio slowly turned his eyes towards his Confrère and whispered, “I forgive my killers; I offer my life for peace in Uganda.” He then closed his eyes and passed away. The bandits swiftly reached the vehicle, but merely glancing at its occupants, they exchanged a few words between themselves and left the scene of their heinous crime. Silence returned to the savannah.
Missionary Life: an adventure that deserves to be lived
Father Egidio Biscaro was born in Foresto di Cona, in the Province of Venice, on September 22, 1928. The family had a small farm holding and Egidio learned from his father to cultivate the land from an early age, his hands becoming accustomed to hard work. His mother died when he was still young. He would later claim, however, that she had lived long enough to teach him to be generous which was a characteristic that would accompany Egidio throughout his entire life.
Late one afternoon, a Comboni Missionary arrived in his local Parish of Vaiano di Merlino, and started to talk about missionary life to the young men from the surrounding countryside who had gathered at the Church. “The Missions do not need only Priests, but also Lay Brothers who are able to help in the construction of churches, schools, hospitals, workshops… and in everything else that is needed for the development of Africa and the African Church. So young men who know how to work the land can be very helpful in a Mission.” Egidio was struck by those words and thought at the time, “Although I do not have the formal education to become a Priest, I could become a Lay Brother. That is still a beautiful vocation.” He then approached the Missionary and told him what he had been thinking. They remained in touch and wrote frequently to one other, until finally, during the Second World War, Egidio, accompanied by his father, arrived at the Comboni Postulancy for Lay Brothers at Thiene. The students of this seminary cum technical school had the opportunity to combine a technical education in carpentry, mechanics or agriculture with studies for the Religious Life. Egidio was seen by the Fathers in charge to be particularly talented in repairing engines and machinery, and therefore trained as a motor mechanic. On July 16, 1947 he entered the Novitiate at Venegono and two years later he made his First Vows.
After spending some time in London learning English and undertaking a course in motor vehicle technology, he finally left for Africa at twenty-three years of age. His first destination was the Mission of Gulu in Northern Uganda among the Acholi ethnic group. He wrote to his family, “I am in the most beautiful Mission in the world. The life of a missionary is an adventure that deserves to be lived. I hope that other young people of our Parish will soon join me to experience what it means to work for the Lord and for the peoples of Africa.”
After three years of work in Gulu, he moved to the Mission of Layibi where the workshop needed a qualified mechanic. From 1958 to 1960 he was again in London at ‘Paddington Technical College’ in Bayswater. After graduating, he returned to Layibi as an instructor in the Mission Technical School, and in 1964 was given the responsibility of running it. Later he was appointed the Director of the Technical School in the Mission of Ombaci near Arua in Northwestern Uganda.
A Calling to the Priesthood
Brother Egidio had been greatly inspired by the deliberations of Second Vatican Council, which took place in Rome from 1962 to 1965, and particularly their pronouncements on the type of ministry and service required for the modern world. On New Year’s Day 1970 he summoned up the courage to write to the Superior-General of the Comboni Missionaries with a bold proposal, “Following the Vatican Council, the recent General Chapter of our Congregation reflected a great deal about rendering a more qualified ‘service’ to the ‘People of God.’ I understand that a vocation as a Brother is a complete one in itself, but I am convinced that my apostolate would be a more perfect witness of the gift of oneself to God if I could offer spiritual as well as practical support. I am happy and content to be a Missionary Brother, but I am not afraid to say that I would be happier and more satisfied still if I were a Missionary Priest, in order to be able to bring the ‘Word of God’ more fully to my work.”
He didn’t have to wait long for a positive answer from Rome. In 1971 Brother Biscaro was admitted to the Beda College in Rome which specializes in preparing late vocations for the priesthood. Attending theological studies was not easy for a man of forty-one years of age, but his enthusiasm made all the difference. He was ordained a priest in Milan on April 6, 1974. A few months later he was back in Uganda, working in the Mission of Alito, then in the Mission of Aber, and finally in the Mission of Pajule.
A troubled Nation
In the early 1960’s Uganda had gained independence from Britain, and Milton Obote of the ‘Uganda People’s Congress Party (UPC)’ was elected Prime Minister, although the results of the election were disputed. Three years later, with the aid of his army commander, General Idi Amin, Obote deposed the sitting President, Sir Edward Muteesa, suspended the Constitution, the Judiciary and all political parties, and jailed all his political opponents without trial. He then declared himself President of the country. Conflict with his army chief arose, however, and on January 25, 1971 Obote was himself overthrown in a successful military coup led by Idi Amin. For the following eight years the country was ruled over by a regime which was noted for the sheer scale of its brutality and Amin came to be known as the ‘Butcher of Uganda.’ It is believed that over three hundred thousand people were killed and countless others tortured during his ruthless dictatorship. Tribalism, a long-standing problem in Uganda, was brought to its extreme by Amin’s persecution of the Acholi, Lango and Karimojong ethnic groups in Northern Uganda. He also brought the country’s economy to its knees after expelling all Asians, the backbone of the nation’s commercial life, from Uganda in 1972.
After the fall of Idi Amin with the invasion of Tanzanian troops in 1979, many Missions in the North of Uganda were attacked and laid waste by former soldiers of the regime making their way to Congo and Sudan, with a number of Missionaries killed and others seriously injured. Travelling was dangerous, but Father Egidio could not sit back and watch. He continued to visit his Christians. One day he was riding his motorcycle when somebody fired at him. He promptly jumped off the motorcycle, threw himself on the grass so managing to save himself. After that experience he abandoned the motorcycle and travelled by car. A few weeks later, he suffered another attack. On his way to Lira, renegade soldiers fired at him, but he managed to escape the ambush unharmed and finally reached the Mission in Ngeta.
A difficult choice made easy
Given the perilous situation, the Superiors of the Comboni Missionaries in Rome told the Confréres in Northern Uganda that if they did not feel at peace staying on in the country, they were completely free to return home to Europe or the Americas. Not a single Comboni Missionary left their post. No-one wanted to abandon the local people in their time of need. “Once we, Missionaries, were killed by illness and disease,” wrote one Comboni Missionary, “now we get killed by bullets, but we do not give up. We do not leave our people alone in a moment of such desperation.” And they continued their work, living in such life-threatening conditions, driven on by their love of God and their devotion to the people they were called to serve. Simply, they remained loyal to their Missionary Consecration and to serving people regardless of ethnicity, culture, language or religion.
A gift to Africa from God
Though Yoweri Museveni came to power in January 1986, instability continued, above all in the North of the country. Former soldiers attacked villages and plundered markets. Father Egidio was at the Mission of Pajule, when on that fateful morning of Monday, January 29, 1990 he decided, together with his Confrère, to accompany that gravely-ill woman to the Kitgum Hospital. “I hope we won’t meet thugs along the road,” Father Egidio said to his companion as they were getting into their vehicle, “If we do, we immediately give them everything we have.” Less than half an hour later, both the desperately ill woman and Father Egidio were dead.
A local man, alarmed by the shooting, informed the military detachment in Pajule. Soldiers arrived to find the Land Rover perched on the side of the road, with the driver and the female passenger dead and the other Missionary badly injured but still breathing. The soldiers transported the three victims of the attack to the Kitgum General Hospital. Father Egidio’s body lay in state at the Church in the Mission of Kitgum until the afternoon of January 30, 1990. A large crowd attended the Funeral Mass, in spite of the danger of the guerrillas and armed thieves who had been operating to such brutal effect in the area. Father Egidio was buried in the cemetery of Kitgum Mission, near the statue of the Virgin Mary. The Local Bishop said at the Mass, “Many people bless this missionary because they realize that he really cared for them. His life was well spent, and it is right and proper that now Father Egidio rests among us as a gift to Africa from God.”