Fr. Raffaele Di Bari is the 22nd Comboni Missionary Martyr, killed in an ambush at about 4 km from Pajule parish, while on his way to Aciolibur for the holy Mass. It was about 10:30 a.m. when suddenly a burst of firearms was heard and then the burst of a bomb, a bazzoka shot against a car. The grenade hit the car near the driver, pierced the door, hit the father on the side, went through the dashboard and stopped on the engine.
Fr. Raffaele had just the time to cry out for three times: “Ahi! Ahi! Ahi!” Some people who were travelling with him, ran away. A woman, who happened to pass by, was hit on the back by a volley of machine gun and fell down dead. The Sister and others who were travelling with him, escaped. Meanwhile the car went to stop on the borders next to the road. All this happened in spite the fact that the Father, before starting the journey, had gone to the military post to inquire whether the road was safe and was assured it was. The rebels, a group of the LRA, surrounded the car, and took prisoners all those who did not escape, then searched everywhere for something to steal. They snatched the Father’s watch, dipped their hands into his pockets for money, but got nothing and this angered them.
The burning of the car and the kidnapping of the boys
Having searched everywhere, one of them, probably the leader, gave order to throw a hand grenade to set the car on fire. They did but the car did not catch fire. The leader then sent two of his gang to snatch some straw from a hut nearby and try to burn the car. Flames burst out suddenly involving the father’s corpse, which was still sitting at the driver’s place. Then the rebels started moving quickly away taking with them the boys, whom they set free shortly afterwards, except one, the son of the parish cook; he was no longer seen; probably he was sacrificed
Wrapped into his alb
The news reached the parish centre, Pajule, as they were concluding the Mass. Fr. Antonio Simeoni with other people, went to the place. The pick-up was all on fire. They could not stop it, but rushed back to the centre to collect some water to put out the flames. Back to the place, they failed to open the car’s door while the Father’s corpse was burning like a torch. After some more trials they opened the door. What was left of the Father’s body fell to the ground. Fr. Simeoni, then, spread out the mass alb he had in the box and with tenderness and veneration, collected the few charred bones and returned to the parish. It was about one o’clock p.m.
Fr. Raffaele had prayed the Lord not to let him end his days on a wheelchair (which he was providing to some polio children) and not too old. The Lord answered his prayer.
The funeral took place the day after, 2nd October. Fr. Sebastian, Vicar General, presided the Requiem Mass since the archbishop was away in Rome for some commitments. Many diocesan priests joint the Comboni Missionaries, though some were prevented from coming due to the insecurity of the roads. Also the Protestant Bishop, whose wife had been killed by a mine, was present.
“I was present at the burial of a martyr, the twenty second in the list of the Comboni Missionary who sacrificed their lives for justice, charity and fidelity to their vocation –writes Bro. Croce -. Fr. Raffaele, like all the others who preceded him through a violent death, could have stayed quietly in the parish and nobody would have disturbed him, or he could have left his place and retired in Italy. Even the Lord had said: “If they persecute you here, take safety in another place”, but he did not do it. Fr. Raffaele wanted to share the life of his people, even at the risk of his life, aware that his missionary vocation was asking this”.
His tomb, dug next to the church, near the Sisters’ property, surrounded by a little fence, has become a place of prayer.
Fr. Antonio Simeoni adds: “A few days later, we erected a cross on the very place of the ambush, as a sign of peace and forgiveness for all, and a reminder of all the dead, wounded and deported during this absurd war.”
Towards the priesthood
Raffaele entered the Novitiate in Florence on 14 September 1946. Fr. Stefano Patroni, his novice master, wrote three months later: “I noticed some perplexity in him. During the first weeks he seemed lost, out of place, with little affection for his vocation. Now he is following the life in the novitiate with more interest, and he looks happy. He is active, impulsive, not very thoughtful. I doubt he will make it. I pray he may mature”. The following year the novice master write: “He has made a good progress during the last months. He is a lad who needs to be helped a lot”. At the of 1947 Fr. Patroni left his place to Fr. Giovanni Audisio. This, in May 1948, wrote: “Raffaele has a serious desire for progress and he is doing a praiseworthy effort to correct his character. He has a sincere good will to persevere in his vocation, but he will have to fight harder to overcome his roughness. His strong personality pushes him to speak out his opinion and criticise things which are not according to his liking. But he is ready to accept corrections and is generous in everything”.
In his admission letter to the Vows, Raffaele wrote: “I have understood that the priest, religious and missionary vocation is the greatest grace the good Lord could give me. During this time I have tried my best to improve myself, even though my defects are many still. Nevertheless, having considered all the duties I will undertake with my vows, the difficulties I’ll be meeting, the struggle I’ll have to face, I humbly ask to be admitted to the religious profession for my sanctification and to save many souls even to the cost of giving, just for one of them, all my blood.” These last words were indeed prophetic, written on 9 September 1948.
He was ordained priest in Milan on 26 May 1956 by the future Pope, Card. G. B. Montini. He had hoped to leave immediately for Africa, instead the superiors stopped him in Italy for three years; first in Crema as a bursar and teacher to the Comboni aspirants, and then in Troia as a vice-rector, Spiritual Father and local bursar.
Fr. Raffaele was appointed to Gulu diocese, in 1959. Just as he arrived, Gulu diocese, led by Mgr. Giovan Battista Cesana, a Comboni missionary, was split into two, giving rise to Arua diocese, whose newly-elected bishop was Mgr. Angelo Tarantino, consecrated Bishop at Portogruaro, his native town on 1st May 1959.
His first mission was Morulem, with a parish and a leprosy centre. His first commitment was to learn the language, under the guidance of Fr. Alfredo Malandra, a well known missionary who had written an Acholi grammar and dictionary. His stay at Morulem parish was providential to him, because there he could come in contact with the reality of the poor, the cast out, in the person of the lepers he was meeting daily and who became his “teachers in humanity”. For all his life Fr. Raffaele will show particular tenderness towards those who were suffering, taught by the example of Comboni, the instructions he had during his formation years but especially during those two years he spent with the lepers brought to the centre for treatment from all villages around.
In 1962 Fr. Raffaele passed to Kalongo, where, under the directives of Fr. Giuseppe Ambrosoli, doctor and now also Servant of God, a large hospital was taking shape. Fr. Raffaele gave his assistance by undertaking many journeys to Kampala to bring doctors and medicines for the hospital.
He knew how to draw children around with his little games and tricks. The altar boys still remember him for trips to the national parks. He organised together with Fr. Santi and Fr. Volpetti the “crusaders” movements with competitions at diocesan level.
St. Joseph’s well
In 1964 he was in England for a year to learn the language, then he came to Rome for the renewal course, 1965-1966, while he was celebrating his tenth anniversary of his priestly ordination.
Back to Uganda at the end of 1966, he returned to Kalongo. Two years later he passed to Opit. Writing to the Superior General, on 12 March 1968, he said: “Two months ago I left Kalongo to come to this small community, together with Fr. G. Clerici and Bro. Brigadoi. We live in extreme poverty, but we trust divine Providence who will surely come to our aid. As we ran short even of drinking water, we made an novena to Sr. Joseph and then we began to dig a well. At just eight metres below we struck plenty of water both for us and for the people. Now Bro. Battistata has come to fix the well properly. I would like to pull up a decent catechumenate in the mission. I would also like to give something to our 15 catechists each month, as an encouragement to carry out their ministry ever better.”
From 1968 to 1975 Fr. Raffaele was superior of the parish and then parish priest of Awac. That was his best period. Working together with Fr. Giovanni Scalabrini, he put all efforts in fulfilling several projects for the people. They introduced the grinding mills for the women, to alleviate their tiresome job of grinding wit two stones. They multiplied schools and chapels and catechists. They also pleaded for scholarships for young people particularly gifted to study abroad. Some of these have now high places in several government offices.
At the end of July Pope Paul VI visited Uganda, on the occasion of the Symposium of the Pan African Bishops’ Chairmen. Fr. Raffaele went with a group of his Christians to greet the Vicar of Christ, who, on that occasion, blessed the altar of the great Uganda Martyrs’ Shrine. The huge number of people that gathered for the occasion testified the presence of the Catholic Church well rooted in the people.
Saviour of human lives
During the Amin’s regime, Fr. Raffaele never abandoned his place endeavouring to save some human lives and the parishes too. He was going up and down between Lachor and Pabò giving assistance to anyone who might have been in danger. During the period of famine and cholera he tried all ways to stop the scourge begging from anyone who could be of some assistance. This caused him a bleeding ulcer which forced him to return to Italy for treatment. In the meantime his mother had also died (1978), and his brothers were claiming their brother’s presence. The worry of leaving Uganda, fearing a long absence, was a painful thorn in his heart. In Milan the doctors’ team at the Capitanio clinic managed to avoid the operation and stem the sickness through medicines. The Father had the chance to take part to another renewal course in Rome, and also to update contacts with friends and Italian benefactors. But his eyes and heart were always turned towards Uganda.
Among bags of rice and fields of sunflowers
“Dear cousins – he wrote from Anaka in December 1983 – I come to you from Uganda, a land much loved and yet so troubled by continuous tragic situations… after spending three years spent in the forests of Atanga, I passed to the savannah of Anaka, on the road leading to the Nile, at about 70 km from the main residence. Here are elephants, lions, crocodiles, leopards, gazelles, antelopes, giraffes, hippos, rhinos,.. and I have been having some daily thrilling encounter with them. What is dear to me, though, are not the wild animals, but the people, simple and sympathetic with who I share my joyous but often sorrowful situation.”
Faced by famine which war always brings, Fr,. Raffaele reacted in his own way. He called around him some generous young people and told them that it was necessary to plant rice and sunflowers. These would provide them with food and oil. Resourceful and a good manager, he was not at peace until he could guarantee a decent living to his people. “The land is fertile in Uganda – he used to say – it’s just a matter of digging and it will provide food to all”. His message found willing ears and many followed him.
“This year I could distribute hundreds of hoes, and some ploughs. Providentially rains have been abundant and the crops are exceptionally good: maize, peanuts, sesame, sweet potatoes, millet, sunflowers, cassava; of course, bananas and mangoes. Hunger is quite bitter, frightening. Let’s hope it will soon pass away.”
Missionaries ask people to drop their arms
President Museveni, contrary to others who wanted peace through violence, as he conquered power in 1986, tried to establish peace through amnesty towards those who laid down their arms. All the missionaries contributed to this, asking ex soldiers to hand in their gun, and go back to the land to start a new life. Fr. Raffaele was in the front line presenting amnesty not as a trick of politicians, but as the only way to peace. But many kept their guns dear because the current opinion in Uganda was that the gun was the only means to recapture the lost power. On 18 August 1986 the Acholi reopened the guerrilla against Museveni.
Among rebels and flesh-biting ants
In 1989 Fr. Raffaele went to Pajule to replace Fr. Pinuccio on his way for a well deserved holiday in Italy. In the meantime there was an attack by some extremists who arrived at the mission singing and shooting. The three Fathers ran to hide in the house: Fr. Pinuccio in the poultry house, Fr. Tarcisio in the garage, and Fr. Raffaele among the bananas, covering himself with some dry grass.
The house was looted and when the furious shooting died out, Fr. Raffaele was the first to come out and call the other confreres, all fortunately unhurt and with a dramatic experience to tell. But he had to run remove the flesh-eating ants which were furiously biting him.
The government army could not have the upper hand on these small groups, which were moving around the savannah in great speed. This helped spread among the people a distrust in Museveni, who, rather than defending Uganda soil, sends his soldiers to fight in Congo.
Towards the end of the year, Fr. Raffaele went to reopen Kalongo, which had been evacuated, but well guarded by the local Christians.
On Christmas 1989 he wrote: “With the improved situation, thanks to God, we missionaries were allowed to return in places which had been, for a long time, terribly destroyed by the guerrilla, which caused killings, famine and sickness. In spite of my pensionable age, I can still busy myself in all jobs. Thanks to the request of the Italian Embassy, the Uganda government has granted me the use of the radio transmitter, to communicate with other centres in Uganda. Now I do not feel isolated any longer.”
From 1994 to 1996 he was at Namokora as a parish priest. He built local structures, huts for old people and the “meeting point” group, which follows AIDS patients. He strengthened the number of catechists handing over to them many parish roles. A great chance of ecumenism was the funnel of Tito Okello, native of Namokora, back from exile. Fr. Raffaele had trained the choir and prepared everything for the funeral rites, but let the Church of Uganda lead the rite as Tito Okello was a protestant.
In 1996 there was another chance for Fr. Raffaele. He joint Fr. Ponziano Velluto at Opit. On 20 February 1997 he wrote: “I write from the corner of North Uganda, on the borders of the Opit forest. For the last eleven years, here people have been living in a climate of guerrilla and terror because of the presence of criminals and fierce bandits. Everyone lives in constant tension and fear.
For solidarity sake, I too live quietly nervous, at times anxious, shocked, traumatised, upset by all that is happening around. Strange but true, young people here do not know what peace is, earnestly thing that all over the world there is the same war situation as here. Many are the starving children, who come to meet us with their big shining eyes hoping to get something from us. A biscuit, a lump of sugar, though it makes them happy, is not the solution. At present, we have many refugees and displaced people in our residence at Opit, people who were forced to leave their villages. Each one has his own tale to tell: parents and relatives killed, children and young people kidnapped and carried away to Sudan, burnt huts and many maimed by mines.
I don’t think I am mad or reckless to live in this high risk area, amongst these poorest people, thrown in so many calamities. One has, with due care, to try to help and to risk. It’s in solidarity with these people that I live my faith.”
At Opit Fr. Raffaele went through two attacks to the missionaries’ house. On 1st November 1997, at 6 a.m., a guerrilla group assaulted Opit mission. A machine gun volley hit Fr. Pio of Pietralcina’s picture, but left Fr. Raffaele and the Sisters unhurt. Father was certain that on that occasion he had been saved through a special protection of the blessed Fr. Pio, whose intercession he had been praying for. The last time as he returned to Italy he brought that picture, riddled with all those bullets, and gave it to the Capuchins at San Giovanni Rotondo, as a token of thanksgiving, for a safe protection. He underwent another attack, on 29 September 200, at Pajule. On that occasion too he was brushed by bullets.
Years before he had been pushed to the wall to be shot. He narrowly escaped by the exchange of a few words with one of the guerrilla, the only one who spoke English. In spite of these attacks, which would have warned anyone to withdraw, at least temporarily, to a safer place, he did not, but continued his activity for the people. Mission life had become his life and he could not detach himself, except for short holidays in Italy, every three or four years, to rest and to share his experience. His last stage of missionary life was Pajule parish. P. Raffaele arrived there in July 1998. Fr. Tarcisio Pazzaglia, the parish priest, had gone to Italy for health problems. Fr. Raffaele accepted the burden of parish priest, in the hope that it was just a short stay.
Why Fr. Raffaele’s death? Why that type of death? He himself gives the answer, as we gather from a ‘phone call to MISNA just a few days before his death. “In so many years in Africa, the greatest task I have received from the Lord was to be a voice for these people, to denounce to the whole world the atrocities the rebels are committing nearly everyday, especially to children and women who, because of this war, are kidnapped, spoiled, turned into soldiers, murderers and also for paedophilia purposes and trade of organs.”
In a letter to his brother Enzo, speaking of these children, Fr. Raffaele spoke of them in these words: “Poor terrorised children, true martyrs of dreadful situation which drags on for years in northern Uganda, due to the shameful actions of the LRA rebels.”
When Mrs. Marcella de Palma, a RAI 3 correspondent, reached Pajule parish, Fr. Raffaele tried all means to make her encounter some parents of the kidnapped children, and speak to the lucky ones who managed to escape the Kony camp in Sudan.
“I cannot keep silent in front of these atrocities”, he wrote. For these reports as a “correspondent from the front line” Fr. Raffaele was threatened many times. Now he doesn’t speak any longer, but his martyrdom cries out.
At the beginning of 1999 the rebels withdrew into Sudan and for a few months there was peace, so that Fr. Raffaele wrote: “At the sunset of this century and before the new millennium starts, it looks as if hope is blossoming. At least here in my area among the Acholi, we can live in a climate of relative peace after 13 years of war with all its disastrous consequences.” But at Christmas 1999, Kony rebels crossed the border into Uganda and began a new series of looting and kidnapping.
A strong and generous person
“Fr. Raffaele was loved by all for his great humanity – writes his last superior, Fr. Tarcisio Pazzaglia -. All those who went to him for help, found something. One could drop into the mission at any hour and with as many people he liked to bring, and he was welcoming everybody, going all around to prepare something to eat, bringing out anything good he had, and then preparing a place for the night, just as if his own brothers had arrived. All felt at home with him. Few days before his death he had gone to Kampala to provide some blankets and other things for the people. Nobody should leave the mission empty handed.”
Don Donini, a priest from Brescia and a missionary doctor at Kalongo says: “Fr. Raffaele had a spontaneous openness to give. I would dare say his generosity was too excessive. He was giving away his own clothes, paying for others, even allowing himself to be cheated. But he never regretted this, saying that it was better to run the risk of been cheated rather than denying something to someone in need. How often he was robbed of things or money. he would get upset, but then, to make up for his anger, he would the thief and add something else. He knew they stole out of necessity. In his pastoral work he was very zealous. Kalongo had 52 chapels. Fr. Raffaele was visiting them all, as he did not want his people to be without a priest for too long. He cared for catechists, following them, instructing them, helping them, so that they might carry out their ministry with no worry for material issues”.
The formation of leaders
“One of the first things I did in Africa – Fr. Raffaele wrote – was to secure some scholarships to send some young people to Italy for professional training. (He paid all or in part the school fees of twenty six people, plus eight seminarians of Pajule. Four of those he assisted are now priests. Editor). Then I took interest in agriculture. From a group of Chinese I came to learn about the possibility of growing rise even in places with scarce water. I got from them twenty sacks of rice which I sowed on the mission land. The yield was greater than any expectation, so that I could share some with the prisoners who sowed it on the prison land. Through the assistance of Caritas, we received the first rice hullers … Now, 25 years after, the North Uganda exports rice to the South. I did the same with maize, and sunflower, of course with the help of other confreres, first of all Bro. Elio Croce. Someone objected that this is not the role of the missionary. Let’s remember that the Vatican II said very explicitly that evangelisation is also human promotion. Besides, this has always been practised by all the old missionaries and by Comboni himself.
I have never been a trader, I just provided people with a series of instruments so that they might raise the standard of life, which was, in most cases, below the poverty level. I always placed evangelisation, catechesis, formation of catechists, sacraments at the first place.
A bare wooden cross, just as simple and poor as Fr. Raffaele’s life, at the foot of the altar in Santa Maria Maggiore Cathedral in Barletta represented the Martyr during the solemn Requiem Mass presided over by Mgr. Giovanni Battista Picchierri, on Tuesday, 3rd October 2000, at 5 p.m.
At the homily, the Bishop reminded the authorities and the faithful who filled the cathedral that the missionary’s corpse was buried in Uganda (such was his wish many times expressed to confreres and relatives), as a sign of sharing with the poor and the oppressed. At the end of the Mass he challenged the young people present: “His body has been left in Uganda, just as he wished, among the innocent people he lived with. Fr. Raffaele was a man of Barletta and another man of Barletta must take his place in Uganda, to carry on the work he began”.
Fr. Guido Oliana, provincial superior of the Comboni Missionaries in Uganda, repeated the same words, adding that a fruit of Fr. Raffaele’s work could be seen in the person of the two Ugandan Comboni missionaries present there.
The Town council of Barletta proposed to name one of the town streets after him. And on 13 January 2001, the same town council, during a solemn celebration at the presence of civil and religious authorities, offered Lit 80 million for the purchase of a pick-up, similar to the one destroyed in the ambush, for Pajule parish.
All school children and students, guided by their teachers, wrote essays and did research on Fr. Raffaele, and his missionary experience Indeed one could say that all Barletta town gathered around its missionary in a wonderful and all hearted manner.
The Secretary General of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Mgr. Ennio Antonelli, writing to the Superior General, expressed the condolences and the profound sorrow of the C.E.I. and of all the people from the various ecclesial communities of our Country, who are dedicated to the universal role of the Church.
Fr. Raffaele’s dreams
Summarising, we remember Fr. Raffaele as a missionary enthusiastic of his vocation, a man known to everyone for his charming character and generosity, a man never tired of helping people and always open to useful activities.
The refrain Father was often repeating in his conversations under the veranda, as if it were a dream was about a few but essential things for his people. He jotted them down on a piece of paper found in his room: to: travel without fear of ambush
Sleep at night without hearing gunshots
See the people working in the fields without fear
See kidnapped children return to their parents
See a teacher teaching in a classroom not under a tree
See local people agents of their own progress
See sick people properly treated
See a liturgical assembly, gathered without fears, who praises God with joyful songs
He was standing with the poor because he saw Christ crucified in them - wrote a confrere -. He never said no to anyone, not even to death. We bow our heads in front of him.”
Truly Fr. Raffaele, a genuine instrument of peace, has fulfilled in his life the well known-prayer of St. Francis: “Where there is hatred let me bring love; where there is division, may I bring unity; where despair may I bring hope: so that your light may shine on all people.”
Fr. Lorenzo Gaiga