A martyr in a land of martyrs
Jesuit Missions Director, Paul Chitnis, recently returned from South Sudan where he spent some time with Fr Victor-Luke who was tragically killed last week. He reflects on this experience.
The pot-holed road to Cueibet is not an enjoyable experience. The road is, by turns, dry and dusty. Elsewhere deep craters, brimming with water, gape wide and deep across the road.
South Sudan is the world’s newest country, but it is also one of the most violent and impoverished. Five years of civil war have followed the decades long struggle for independence from Sudan.
Stories of massacres between the different ethnic clans abound. Fr Victor-Luke is a Jesuit who has been working in South Sudan for 10 years. He drives up and down the road to Cueibet regularly. On our journey, he points out the different places where, in recent years, massacres have taken place: “130 people were killed here. This is the tree under which the bodies were piled”.
Eventually we arrive at the teacher Training College in Cueibet. It sits in a huge compound encircled with a feeble looking barbed wire fence. A few buildings are dotted around; classrooms, a kitchen and dining room, accommodation blocks for the students. Finally, there is the Jesuit residence built around a small quadrangle with a large iron gate and neat flowerbeds.
The bedrooms in which Fr Victor and his four Jesuit companions live are small and lined with books. Their sitting room doubles as their office and dining room. It is homely but cramped and cluttered. It is certainly inadequate for the four men who have to live, work, pray and survive in this harsh environment.
Victor shows me a 3D model of the new College which he envisions. He also shows me the plans for the site; more accommodation and classrooms, a football pitch for the students, better accommodation for the Jesuits.
We have our picture taken outside the residence before I leave with Fr Victor who is driving me back along that road. By the time he returns to Cueibet that evening, he will have travelled that road four times in a day.
Twenty-four hours after I return to the UK from South Sudan, I hear that, early in the morning of 15 November, Fr Victor has been murdered.
One of Fr Victor’s four Jesuit confreres, Fr Kizito Busobozi, describes being woken up in the early hours hearing a door banging and a fight taking place in the sitting room. He looked out of his window to see an armed man standing guard outside his room. The sound of fighting and shouting continued from inside followed by two gunshots. Fr Kizito started shouting: “We are dying. We are being killed”. The students who live on the campus came running to help. They saw six men run away. Fr Kizito and his fellow Jesuits ran to the sitting room and found Fr Victor lying face down in a pool of blood.
Victor’s murder sits alongside that of dozens of Jesuit martyrs in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is extraordinary that so many men should have been killed for bringing the Good News of the gospel to the poor.
His death is also one more in South Sudan where, over decades, millions have died. In recent years alone, 300,000 people have died because of the civil war; 4 million people have been forced to flee from their homes. South Sudan is home to the poorest people on earth. It has 2.4 million children out of school, more than anywhere else. Children routinely go without food. There are 2.1 million acutely malnourished women and children in the country.
When the Jesuits agreed to go to Cueibet to take over the Teacher Training Centre, it was precisely because it was one of the most difficult and dangerous places to work. As one Jesuit said, if God loves the poor “passionately” and is especially present with them, where else would a Jesuit be than seeking God among the poorest people on earth in Cueibet?
It is hard to see anything good coming out of the senseless killing of Fr Victor-Luke. I remember his passion for the poor, his energetic vision and selfless dedication to his work. I want to believe that he was called “Victor” for a reason. While I cannot be sure, it would not surprise me if Victor saw his life in South Sudan in the same way that he viewed driving along that bumpy road: uncomfortable, dangerous but something that had to be done. Discussing the enormous challenges of training teachers in South Sudan, he told me: “We cannot despair. We have to do something.”
Fr Victor-Luke’s death means that the Society of Jesus has lost a fine Jesuit; the East African Province a cherished colleague; the people of South Sudan a determined defender of the poor. Sadly, the Church has gained a martyr.