IN THE HANDS OF KIDNAPPERS
Radosław Malinowski interviews Fr. Jean de Dieu Bukuru
RADOSŁAW MALINOWSKI: A night of 21 to 22 May 1996 – four days before the Pentecost. Will Father remember it till the end of the life?
FR. JEAN DE DIEU BUKURU: Yes, at that time we were kidnapped by rebels. It was shortly before midnight, in our dormitory of the lower seminary when everybody was sleeping. At that time hell on the earth began!
That is true. Father mentioned that kidnapping had taken place in the lower seminary. I thought that such places are respected in Africa and there are no assaults on them…
Yes, the Catholic Church as an institution has always been respected both in Burundia and in whole Eastern Africa. But in 1996 there was a brutal civil war in which neither rebels nor the army could win, which would have made one side prevail over another. What is more – both sides of the conflict treated the population as potential collaborators, there were rapes, slaughters all over villages, done both by rebels and the army. And it was when there happened the assault on our seminary.
In order to gain slaves for work and food for rebels.
Slaves for work? It sounds as if from travel stories in the 19th century.
Yes, we were kidnapped for slavery work in the base of rebels. We were kidnapped because rebels desperately needed people for work and fulfilling their armies.
When kidnapping happened, did Father know what would happen later?
Certainly, I didn’t. It was shocking for me. I was woken up at about midnight with beating me. I was sleepy – I had just fallen asleep – so I did not know what was happening and that I was being beaten. Only when I saw a masked man who was holding Kalashnikov in one hand, and a wooden truncheon in another, I realized that something bad was happening. Everywhere there was chaos and I could hear shouts of beaten colleagues, the whole dormitory looked as if its ceiling was about to fall onto us. Rebels told me to pack my things and led us outside a building. They made us stand in a row and we set off towards a forest.
Didn’t Father try to escape?
We were terrified, not understanding what was happening, as rebels told us not to break the array, and everybody who stands out of the array, will be shot dead, as an example. When we got to the forest edge, our kidnappers passed over us to another group which – as it turned out – became our owners. We were ordered to unpack our rucksacks and then the oldest things were chosen from them, like rags which we had been given and the rest of our possessions were taken away. A short and torn trousers were the only things which we had!
Did anyone want ransom for you – seminary students?
No, we were a labour force. I think that the aim was to make us rebels but only after forcing us to give in.
What is it like to be a slave of rebels?
You belong to them as a thing. We got up at 2 a.m. and when being beaten and insulted, we began to work. We were ordered to cook, clean up, work on their small farm, be their carriers do everything we were forced to do. We were beaten and humiliated. After a long and hard day we were often ordered to enter very cold water in a river and spend a night there – for fun of our owners.
Was there no exception for seminary students, any respect for Your faith?
Not at all, but on contrary. Having got to the camp, we had a cross shaven on our heads, which brought a bad treatment to us. Every new group of rebels who were walking through our camp, were humiliating, beating and slandering us.
It is hard to survive this situation…
Yes, one day a group of our friends tried to escape. Unfortunately, during their attempt they were captured and brought to the camp. Rebels gathered us around them and then killed them in our eyes to give us an example. It was terrible to look at our friends being killed in this way and also be unable to do anything…
I cannot imagine it.
I still remember their faces. There are moments when you think that only suffering and death are what you can expect.
Did Father lose hope?
Luckily, I didn’t. What kept me alive was a prayer. When I was a child, my mum taught me to say Catholic prayers. And the prayer of the Road of Cross gave me hope. I found consolation in reflecting the passion of Christ.
And Father’s prayer was heard by God.
Yes! I managed to escape. One day rebels decided that we were to move the camp onto the border with Congo. During that action, we trespassed the road to the capital of the country. It was the first time when I had known where I was! So, I knew which direction I could escape. And the very occasion to escape appeared on the way back, when we ran out of food. Rebels decided to attack and plunder a Polish village. We were left behind with luggage. When the oppressors returned, loaded with plundered food, they suggested us go to the village by ourselves and plunder the rest of food. And then, going towards a village, I had understood for the first time that I was not being guarded and I could escape!
Weren’t Father scared?
I was! I remembered what rebels had done to our mates! But for me life in the camp was like death, so I had nothing to lose. I began to escape to the opposite direction than my division and thanks to God I succeeded.
When did Father feel safe?
For a few days and nights I was walking through deserted areas where there were only rubbles and bodies of the killed. Later I came across a division of the army which was trying to kill me but I managed to hide in the nearby village. Inhabitants wanted to report on me to soldiers, too, but, luckily, somebody recognized me and instead of that, the whole village escaped and I was let free.
If the army had got to know that the inhabitants of the village had reported on me to soldiers, they might have plundered the village, and killed the inhabitant within revenge. I was lucky that somebody had recognized me.
Did Father return to the seminary?
After my seminary there were only rubbles, and nothing to return to, so I was advised to go to another seminary, then I decided to continue my formation as a member of the Congregation of Missionaries of Africa (white fathers).
Did that terrible story have an influence on Father’s road to priesthood?
Yes, it did. It was at that difficult time when I felt vocation to work with those who had been deprived of freedom and hope. And working as a priest, especially on missions, is bringing the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ to others.
And it was how Father ended up working with the former slaves…
Yes, although I also studied in the Holy Land and ran a parish in Mozambique. However, now, together with the HAART Kenya organization I am working with people who were slaves like I used to be.
Slavery still exists, which we are often not aware of, here, in Poland.
Unfortunately, it is one of recognizable signs at our times. According to the UNO, every year even 40 million people may be in the situation of slavery. They are sold to forced work, sexual abuse, and even body organs. Certainly, slavery exists on all continents, but in the countries such as Kenya, it is a particular problem – state institutions do not want or cannot give help to victims. So, the Church is the only one which can give help.
ather is taking part in the campaign called ‘Liberated – not liberated’.
Yes, we are collecting funds for help to victims in Kenya, in a refuge run by the HAART organization. This is the only institution like that in the whole country where they can find help. Unfortunately, helping victims, especially when medical care is needed, always costs a lot. We have never refused to help but sometimes we find it really difficult.
And how can we help you?
Now we are pursuing a campaign with the Papal Association Help to Church in Need, within which we are collecting funds for our brothers and sisters. These people need – like I did – our support.
In order to support the work of Fr. Jean de Dieu Bukuru, you can pay any amount of money onto the account of the Papal Association Help to Church in Need: 72 1020 4900 0000 8502 3179 5260 or text: WOLNI to 72052 (cost 2 zlotys +VAT).
Translated by Aneta Amrozik
Niedziela 19/2019 (12 V 2019)