MEETING - August 21st


Watch Out for Those Two


A special report from Sierra Leone. In the inferno
of an ongoing war, the encounter with Father Berton
and Bishop Biguzzi, who spoke at the Meeting in Rimini.
“As missionaries, we are here because we chose
the missionary life. We are here to be with people.”




The jeep moved slowly forward through the silence of the gutted houses, the sticky heat of a driving rain, the sickly sweet smell of rotting garbage. Masiaka is not on the front line, but almost. The rebel outposts are only about ten kilometers away. The rebels make it even here every so often. They attack, shoot, and disappear again.
At the roadblocks, the soldiers were drunk and irritable. Their uniforms were torn, their eyes troubled. Suddenly, we were surrounded. In the center was the jeep, a trembling driver, the photographer Raffaele Ciriello, and yours truly. All around, a masnada of ragged uniforms, machine guns, sharks’ teeth necklaces, screaming voices, the acrid stench of sweat. “No snap, no snap.” “No photos, no photos.” They wanted the roll of film, our money, maybe something else. It was time for our magic formula. “Italians, Italian friends of Father Berton and Bishop Biguzzi.” The crowd calmed down, the screaming stopped. An officer came up. “Italians, friends of Bishop Biguzzi and Father Berton? Welcome, no problem, no problem. I studied at the seminary with Bishop Biguzzi.”
This is the way it always is in Sierra Leone. Whatever happens to you, say these two names: Father Berton and Bishop Biguzzi. There is no doubt that you will get out of whatever situation you are in. The power of the Church, miracles of religion? No. It is simply the strength of having spent thirty years among the people, opening schools, building dispensaries, staying to do what they could when the United Nations, humanitarian organizations, and diplomats were all climbing on airplanes to flee the country. Bishop Giorgio Biguzzi is the hardest bishop to catch in all of Africa. Like a spinning top in a cassock, he goes everywhere, heedless of wars and danger, morning to night. One day you follow him to Mile 91, a crossroads where 70,000 refugees are gathered together and lacking everything. The next day, when the guerrillas attack right there at Mile 91, the Bishop is already in Guinea to visit refugee camps. The next day still, he gets in the car at dawn and starts his round of the Care centers in the government zones. Kidnapped by rebels, held hostage, freed, captured again, freed again, Bishop Biguzzi moves about like a fish in water. Like a shepherd eternally looking for his flock. “What do you want,” he says, “it’s a missionary’s job to be with people. As missionaries, we are here because we made a Christian choice, to become involved in the lives of others. Our mission is evangelization. We are here precisely in order to be with people. When something happens, unlike businessmen or others, we cannot go away. Rather, at those times our function becomes more important. As long as there are people here, we are too. We are the same Church and we are, albeit of different races, brothers. I’m not the only one around here to have been through some hard times. We have to remember that in this country, more than half the population has had to abandon their homes. Missionary nuns have been kidnapped, Irish missionaries slaughtered, a Dutch volunteer killed with his whole family, many Italian missionaries kidnapped, and four sisters of Mother Theresa’s order lost their lives during the days of the rebel conquest of Freetown. Also out of respect for the sacrifice of these brothers, we cannot leave.”


The Lomè agreement

But the fact that this Bishop remains there—even after the rebels took over his diocese, after the destruction of care centers built in decades of labor and of hospitals that had been modernized and transformed to meet Western standards in the midst of the bush—has a significance that goes beyond religious witness. For good or ill, Bishop Biguzzi, with his experience, his knowledge of the people and places, and his acknowledged impartiality, has acquired also a political role. It is no coincidence that the Bishop of Makeni played a fundamental part in the negotiations that led, last summer, to the signing of the Lomè agreement. This agreement provides for the participation of the rebel forces in the administration of the country. For a few months, it brought some hope of peace to Sierra Leone. And it fell apart when the rebels took as hostages the UN peacekeeping forces who had been sent to make sure the disarmament plan was respected.
“I participated in the Lomè agreement as part of an inter-religious group that included Muslim leaders as well. I must say that everyone worked very hard. We were trying to put an end to the slaughter. We wanted to flush out the guerrilla leaders and see if we could come to some agreement. In the end the will to enforce the disarmament was just not there. The amnesty was granted, but the violence did not end. In the end, the rebels did not keep their word. Now, even if I am a man of the Church, I believe that the only way is to destroy their military potential. The government and the legal structures must be strengthened so they can capture these combatants who have behaved like criminals. In the last analysis, I do not think I am saying anything outlandish. It is necessary to act like any government acts when they send in the police to stop criminals. It has to be said that also the United Nations’ initiative was a great disappointment. Now it seems that the high levels of the UN want to learn from this bad experience in order to save what they can. They now seem determined to stay and defend the population. The hope is that the local army can manage to get stronger and wrest from the rebels control of the diamond-mining areas which they use to finance their war.”


The Pope’s ring

Then Bishop Biguzzi showed us his ring. “Do you see this? The Pope gave it to me when I was named Bishop in 1987. They have tried to steal it from me twice, but it always comes back.” The first time was a couple of years ago. That day, the wandering Bishop wanted to take custody of about a hundred child soldiers from a faction of the army that had passed over to the rebel side. “Suddenly a bunch of soldiers pointed their guns at me. They stole my wallet, ripped my crucifix from around my neck, and pulled my ring off. In the meantime, the cars disappeared. We had already commended our souls to the Lord. Then a soldier stepped forward. ‘I know you,’ he said, ‘you’re my Bishop, you gave money to my family so I could study. Don’t worry, I’ll help you.’ After a short while he came back with an officer. ‘Don’t worry,’ the officer said, ‘I’ve already had the one who stole your ring arrested.’ He made a soldier come over and questioned him in front of me. The poor man denied everything, lying, but in the meantime was feeling around in his pockets. He dropped something. The ring rolled on the ground and came to rest at my feet.”
The saga of the unstealable ring added another chapter last October. “Another missionary and I had gone to Makeni, my diocese. Suddenly a group of rebels came into the house. They shot a round of machine gun fire at the feet of one of the missionaries. I took my silver cross off my neck, but forgot about the ring. An instant later, one of them grabbed my hand. Two days later, one of the rebel commanders called me to come see him. It was darkest night, and going alone to their camp was not an entertaining endeavor. The commander offered me a beer and pointed to a poor wretch, naked and tied up like a salami. ‘We are not bandits,’ he said. ‘I found out who was responsible for the robbery. What do you want me to do with him?’ ‘There have already been enough dead,’ I answered. The poor man slunk away. The commander put the ring on the table. ‘You can take it,’ he said to me, ‘and go back to Freetown.’ In any case,” Bishop Biguzzi explained, smiling, “the help of Providence has a limit. After these two adventures, I always leave the ring at home.”


Father Berton’s children

Father Giuseppe Berton, 68 years old, with two heart bypasses and a calm, measured voice, can always be found in the same place. He stays there, at the Saint Michael Center in Lakka, isolated from the world and from the city, without a telephone, with no defense, surrounded by his children. There are a hundred and fifty of them. Maybe even more. Almost all of them are ex-soldiers. Father Giuseppe Berton was the first to discover their drama. “In 1997, the rebels of the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) came into Freetown for the first time. I remember truckload after truckload of children in uniform with rifles in their hands. I began to go around to the rebel headquarters. I would find a spot in the hospital for the wounded, and in exchange I would make them give me a child or two. If they gave me wounded children I would not give them back. The rebels kept up their end of the bargain. It suited them as well. Usually the weakest children are abandoned or killed. From then on, they started giving them to me.” In three years, Father Berton has given more than 1,300 child soldiers back to their families. “Those who have not found their parents or relatives,” he explained, “stay here with me in the center.” The center is a former Club Mediterranean site that was abandoned. Father Berton had it rebuilt. Now, among the bungalows on these golden beaches of the Atlantic, groups of children play and run. Father Berton knows them all, one-by-one. He knows that many have killed, tortured, fought. But he also knows that they were kidnapped at a very young age, drugged, and trained to fight.
“The child doesn’t cost anything… he wants to be promoted and so he always obeys. But above all, he doesn’t cost much. If he is drugged, he will shoot as much as an adult. They are low-cost cannon fodder,” he explains. “Many of these children were kidnapped, taken prisoner, and carried away from their families and villages when they were four years old. They trained them in their camps, they made them carry supplies, ammunition, and finally also to fight. A child in the end gets used to this life. Children like to show their courage. For this reason they are sometimes used as proper attack forces. In the end, they are the ones who suffer the most and pay for everybody. But we mustn’t think that they are all victims. At times, by dint of committing atrocities, they start to get used to it, to consider it a sort of game. Many of them in the time they spent with the guerrillas little-by-little changed their nature.” These are the most difficult cases, the ones that will be the hardest to retrain. Father Berton, faced with their cases, shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders, confesses he feels powerless. “Some of them,” he explains, “will never be recoverable. The work of drugs has gone too deep. Combined with an indoctrination of maybe five or six years, it has totally changed their nature. Obviously, we keep hoping and trying, but it is hard to be sure that we will get results. We often have cases of kids who cannot get free of drugs. They run away, trying to find some, and end up taking an overdose, and they become violent and dangerous. In these cases, recovery is very, very difficult.”
But Father Berton is also a practical man. He knows that by himself, he cannot go on, and that charity and assistance have a cost. And so he never neglects to tell his story to journalists. He never misses an opportunity to let the world know more about the tragedy taking place in this corner of the world, in every way and by every means. “Charity alone,” he says, “is not enough. When I was in Italy I went to meet Luciano Benetton. Whoever, like him, has used advertising to create a sensation should start paying attention to Sierra Leone. Here children are used to fight a war that has one sole purpose: control of diamonds. This is no longer a political conflict, it is not a civil war. It is a war between Liberia and Sierra Leone for the control of the diamonds. Liberia already some years ago claimed territory in the mining areas. Now Monrovia is hiding behind the screen of the RUF and is getting rich on the precious stones that it takes away from this country. Then these diamonds pass through the hands of the big companies who make a profit on them. This is not right. Companies must start asking themselves ethical questions; they cannot continue to pretend to be ignorant of what lies behind their business deals. During World War I, 90% of the dead were soldiers. Here, 90% of the victims are civilians. Men, women, and children have lost their lives or have had an arm, a leg, or a hand amputated. Those who kill and chop off hands are people who have been drugged and corrupted; they have become brutes. Those who stir all this up and feed this traffic with their demand are people who spend all day at a desk. They have to stop pretending that they don’t see, they must reflect and think that there are always two trays on the scales. On one side are the diamonds, on the other the lives of innocent people. This is the reason I went to see Benetton, to tell him that if he needs another sensational idea, I am at his disposal.”

AVSI for Sierra Leone

AVSI, too, has been involved for some years now in aiding the work of Father Berton on behalf of child soldiers and street children in Sierra Leone. Starting in 1998, the Christmas Tents have begun to support the Family Homes Movement founded by the Xaverian missionaries, collecting funds to give early assistance to the 150 children housed in the hospitality center active in Lakka on the peninsula of Freetown. Directly involved with their volunteers in assistance to child soldiers in northern Uganda, AVSI continues today to sustain the difficult work of Father Berton, knowing full well the importance of a commitment like this in favor of children in situations of war and violence like those which continue to afflict Sierra Leone.