The experienced testimony of Brother José Mª Ferre takes us back to the time when they took the lives of the Martyrs of Bugobe.
José María Ferre (Alicante, 20-10-1946) is a Brother who lived very closely the murder of the Bugobe Martyrs. His testimony takes us back to that time and to that terrible moment when the lives of Servando, Miguel Ángel, Julio and Fernando were cut short. However, today, a quarter of a century later - and while he has been in this world for three - his memory is still very much alive in Marists.
Víctor Recuerda, from the Communication and Marketing Team of the Marist Province of Mediterránea, spoke with José María in the following interview.
To get started, could you give us some background if we talk about the Bugobe Martyrs?
In essence we are talking about a community of Brothers. But let's start at the beginning: between the former Zaire and Rwanda, a group of Rwandan Brothers decided to open a community in the countryside to care for the refugees of the war between Hutu and Tutsi; but it was seen that it was better to have a community made up of foreign Brothers who were not involved in the conflict. The Superior General intervened, asked for volunteer brothers for this delicate mission and Miguel Angel Isla, Servando Mayor, Julio Rodriguez and Fernando de la Fuente were chosen.
Was it a group that was already known?
No. They came from different places, from different experiences. Miguel Ángel was from Burgos, but from a young age he had lived in Argentina; then he went to the African continent and was working in the Ivory Coast. Fernando, also Spanish, had Chilean nationality, a country where he had lived and worked for years. Servando was from Burgos; he had always worked in Andalusia where he left indelible memories as a teacher and in charge of pastoral activities. Julio was born in Valladolid, worked in various schools in the Madrid Province, and had been a missionary in the Congo for several years. The four of them faced the challenge of forming a religious community of consecrated brothers, with all that it implies... And to put themselves at the service of the thousands of refugees.
And they became martyrs because, sadly, they were killed.
The four were killed, it is true, but it was something more. It was a community that gave its life. They had to dialogue a lot, to discern together what the Lord was asking of them in the face of the turn of events. And this Jesus, who had called them together without their knowing each other, invited them to decide, as a community, whether they were willing to take the risk. And they chose to stay. A personal choice but also a group choice, a community attentive to the whisperings of God in the ears of the heart. With this community perspective, their example is enriched. They are an encouragement to those of us who believe that Christian life is built in community.
Theirs was a personal choice but also a group choice, a community attentive to the whisperings of God in the ears of the heart. With this community perspective, their example is enriched. They are an encouragement to those of us who believe that Christian life is built in community
How was the fatal outcome experienced?
The news of the murder of the four Marist Brothers in Bugobe came as a bombshell. We were informed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "A group of Marists who were in the Bugobe refugee camp have been massacred and their bodies thrown into a septic tank. Please inform the families as soon as possible. The news is going to be on the 3pm news". I leaned against the wall and didn't know how to react: I was in tears. But the harsh reality woke me up... the media impact was enormous.
Were the Marists well known?
I don't know, but we certainly wish we hadn't been killed by such a news story. Radios, TV stations, photographers, journalists, agencies... everyone asked questions and wanted to know more... Moreover, there was a lot of confusion in the news about the identity of the four murdered: there was talk of aid workers, volunteers, tourists, missionaries, priests, fathers... Brothers, they were Brothers! We repeated this message left, right and centre through the group we had created to relate to the media, and I was the spokesperson. We hammered home the fundamental ideas: that they were Marist Brothers who had consecrated their lives to Jesus; that they had chosen to live in the camp because of their fraternity with the refugees; and that, even though they could have escaped, they had chosen to be brothers to these people and not abandon them.
Brothers to the end, right?
Indeed. Brothers, who loved, to the end. It is true that they could have fled, but they had written: "A brother does not abandon his weaker brother in difficult times". When the threat of an attack increased the tension in the camp, many organisations left. An old woman came to the brothers' little house and said to them: "Are you going to leave too? You are the only sign that God has not left us, and that he still loves us".
I suppose it would be very complicated to address this issue.
It was very hard. However, the sacrifice of the four Brothers of Bugobe gave us the opportunity to announce to the four winds what it means to be brothers of Jesus, brothers to each other and brothers to others. Living fraternity is essential for us, and that is why we bear the name of Brothers, which reflects our identity. Being a brother is not a title, but a programme of life.
Do you have any special memories of those times?
Many, but I will highlight one. Just when it seemed that the media frenzy was dying down, an event rekindled the fire of our innermost feelings. A Sister who had just arrived from Congo brought something for us. The memory of the Sister offering me a red canvas bag is indelible: "They let us leave with just a handbag, so I put in some personal belongings and this, which I thought might interest you". And from the bag he took the well-known image of the Christ of Bugobe, the broken Christ. For many days I had kept a cold blood that I still don't know how to explain, but, in front of the Christ, I collapsed; because that Christ didn't speak, he shouted! It was the image that presided over the oratory of the murdered Marists, it was the witness of their dialogues, of their decisions, of their martyrdom. That Broken Christ that gives meaning, meaning to all that they did and to the fraternal love they showed.
Any other issues you would highlight?
Memories crowd my mind, but I would like to mention Our Lady's presence with them. Let me explain. Among the rubble was the Broken Christ, a cassock stained with red clay, two diaries in which Michelangelo regularly wrote his diary... And a statuette of Mary. We don't know how it got into the Brothers' oratory.
The important thing is that they had her there, next to her crucified son, bringing to life the well-known Gospel passage: Next to the cross of Jesus was his Mother... (John 19:25). And the image, of little material value but brimming with symbolism, has come down to us. Mary represents a lot for all Marists on our pilgrim way to Jesus and it was certainly not difficult for the four Marists to discover hundreds of images of Mary among the women in the refugee camp.
Has your view of it changed at all?
Personally, I had to wait for days to put a name to everything I experienced and felt, but since then, in the serene light of God, what I experienced remains: my first reaction was rage, a lot of rage for that murder, and a lot of desire to cry; I repeated to myself many times why that had happened. But I also felt pride and joy as I realised the greatness of his martyrdom. I felt joyful, happy to belong to a religious family that produces people of such human and spiritual stature. And then I had a second reaction, in which I felt deeply challenged by the example of the four brothers, by their witness. I knew them, I knew their values and their limitations, but it was only from afar that I could sense their greatness of spirit. Their example, their testimony, challenged me then and they continue to challenge me now, 25 years later.
Are they a true message of faith?
The four Bugobe Brothers have been and continue to be our prophets, with their life and with their death. And many others with them. We cannot stop listening to them or allow their cry to die out. And this is not the only example, since, sadly, two priests and three aid workers, also Spanish, were assassinated in Rwanda and Congo between 1994 and 1997. And, in the Marist world itself, there were more victims and other cases of heroism in the same context. Brothers Chris Mannion and Joseph Rushigajiki were killed; Brother Provincial, Etienne Rwesa was killed along with some nuns; Brothers Gaspard, Fabien and Canisius; and thousands and thousands of anonymous people were massacred during this dramatic genocide.
Their example, their testimony, challenged me then and continue to challenge me now, 25 years later. We cannot stop listening to them or allow their cry to die out.
Every violent death is terrible.
No doubt about it. I understand that the Spanish press turned its attention to our Marist Brothers, because they were nationals. And it is good to keep their memory alive because they were truly heroes. But without forgetting so many other victims, with or without names, of whom only God knows the heart. The martyrdom of our four brothers is a cry for peace, compassion, solidarity and fraternity in the face of the violence, discrimination and hatred that are still alive in our world. The martyrs are there, officially recognised or not, with their weaknesses and their heroism. The annual remembrance of our Bugobe martyrs remains a provocative call to our consciences. It questions how we welcome those who are 'different' by race, religion, character, culture or social class.
The martyrdom of our four brothers is a cry for peace, compassion, solidarity and fraternity in the face of the violence, discrimination and hatred that are still alive in our world.
Author: Víctor RH
Communication and Marketing Team
Mediterranean Marist Province