The Day I Became A Refugee

By Sr Rosita Austria ICM

Sr Rosita Austria is a Filipino missionary working in a hospital in Congo, formerly Zaire. Three years ago, some anti-Angola government rebels followed into Congo and attacked the hospital where Sr Rosita and her fellow Sisters treated some Angolan soldiers who sought refuge after an encounter with the Angolan rebels. Below she tells us of that terrifying experience.

It was Sunday, November 28, 1999 at 4:30 am. Noises of heavy firing and falling glass windows awakened us. We heard voices outside shouting “Matar” (meaning “kill” in Portuguese). The Angolan rebels surrounded and attacked our hospital. Their reasons: the Congolese people allowed the Angolan soldiers in Congolese territory and we treated the wounded Angolan soldiers in the hospital. The Angolan rebels came for revenge.

Terror with the rebels

We hid under our beds, trembling with fear. The rebels killed two of the Angolan solders who were admitted the day before. Other patients were killed, too. They looted the hospital. They did not spare the operating room, the dispensary and even the little things of the sick. It was around 7:00 am when the firing stopped.

At gunpoint

Suddenly we heard a strong knock on our door. Flor, our Congolese postulant, opened it and she raised her hands up in fear. I was behind her. Before I realized it, the rebel had his gun on me. Trembling, I showed them my cross and the small statue of the Virgin Mary, pleading and crying. I could not believe it when after a few seconds of tremendous fear the rebel who was about to shoot us slowly put down his machine gun. The rebels then entered our room, took a can of corned beef, some cubes of sugar and quaker oats, then left.

The exodus

At 8:30 am we, together with our patients, managed to get out of the hospital. Flor and I were separated from the other Sisters. We just followed the village people in exodus, together with our patients. We all knew that the rebels would come back. So we had to hurry.

It was raining and we had to walk barefoot because of the muddy soil. My hands were sore and numb from holding on the thick cogon grasses and branches of trees as we trekked along. I tried repeating my mantra prayer while trying not to get my feet stuck in the mud: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me…have pity on us…”

Grueling journey

We climbed mountains, we crossed rivers. I almost drowned in one river. The water was up to my neck and the current was too strong. We were tired, dirty, hungry and scared – but we had to continue walking. I was crying silently. I pitied the mothers with their babies on their backs and bundles on their heads. Men carrying their chickens, dragging their goats, even their dogs. I pitied those children looking for their lost parents; those parents looking for their lost children. We were a band of hungry refugees in the wilderness fleeing the Angolan rebels.

The people looked at me with pity as I struggled to walk. I was the only foreigner with them and they told me they were touched by my being with them in solidarity with their sufferings.

Free at Last

We finally reached a barrio – 20 kms away from Kimpangu – and stayed there to rest for two days, eating almost nothing. Meantime our Sisters tried all means to look for us. Finally they were able to trace us. Our Superior was able to negotiate with the military and on the third day in that barrio, Flor and I with our guide started again our journey to Nkwilu-Ngongo to meet our Superior. It was a joyful reunion. We left for Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, where all our Sisters were eagerly waiting for us.

Its been three years now and yes, it is over, but not for our African brothers and sisters. Forget not Africa, even if the media ignores it. Forget not our longsuffering brothers and sisters – the hungry, the sick, the dying.