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Burundi. Three lives for Africa: Olga, Lucia, Bernadette

Three Italian missionaries, Lucia Pulici, Olga Raschietti, and Bernadette Boggian, members of the Xaverian Catholic order, were murdered in the mission of Kamenge, a district in the north of Bujumbara, capital of Burundi.

It was a Sunday afternoon when Sister Bernadette went to the office of Fr. Mario Pulcini, the superior of the Saverian missionaries in Burundi, asking about sisters Lucia and Olga. Father Pulcini and Sister Bernadette went to the nuns’ house where everything was locked up and all the curtains were drawn. The gatekeepers had not seen them leave the building. Father Mario was about to break the lock when the door opened and Bernadette came out with a look of shock on her face. She had opened one of the service doors on the side of their open house and upon entering had found the lifeless bodies of sisters Olga and Lucia. The civil, military, judicial and religious authorities were advised immediately. The police arrived to inspect the scene and it was decided that some agents would stay to guard the mission. The other nuns decided to sleep in the residence despite the tragic event. “Around midnight”, Father Mario says, “the nuns called me again; they were afraid the aggressor had returned to the house. I got dressed and went there with another confrere. We entered and went round checking the rooms: we found Sister Bernadette lying on the floor in her room, in the same position as the two nuns found the previous day.”

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The superior of the Saverian missionaries says, “The whole thing is too big … we cannot find any justification whatsoever, any reason for such a bloody murder to be committed against elderly women ….” The small community of the Xaverian nuns in Burundi is mainly engaged in health care, they assist lepers and are active in human promotion (especially of women). In 1984, they were forced to leave the country for political reasons and were able to return in 2000 .

A life for Africa

Sister Olga had just turned 83. She went to Zaire, today the Democratic Republic of Congo, for the first time in 1968. She experienced the years of wars that tore the nations of the African Great Lakes region apart. In 2010 she arrived in Burundi, in Kamenge, in a populous suburb of Bujumbura, in the St. Guido Maria Conforti parish run by the Xaverian missionaries. In July 2013, Sister Olga had said: “I am now almost in my 80s. On my last visit to Italy, the superiors were uncertain whether to allow me to return to Burundi. One day during the adoration, I prayed: “Jesus, may your will be done; but you know I want to go back”.

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Sister Lucia was 76, she left for Brazil in 1970 and served as a nurse and midwife among the poorest in the Latin American country for about twelve years. In 1982 she was sent to Zaire where she remained for 25 years, until 2007, continuing her work as a midwife and nurse. She was then sent to Burundi, in Kamenge. Although, she was not able to work anymore because of health problems, she had chosen to stay there to provide her support by praying and sharing the everyday life with the others at the mission. Last October on the eve of her return to Burundi, she said: “Now I am returning to Burundi. Though at my age I am physically weak and limited, inwardly, I think I can say that my drive and desire to be faithful to Jesus’ love expressed in the mission is very much alive. The mission helps me to tell Him in my weakness, ‘Jesus, look, it’s my gesture of love for you’.
Sr. Bernadette was 79, she also had a long experience as missionary in the current Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she had arrived in 1970, to work in the Diocese of Uvira, north of Lake Tanganyika, not far from the border with Burundi. In 2007 she was sent to the neighboring country, in Kamenge, where she carried on her pastoral and charitable activity. Her simplicity and attitudes of solidarity made her overcome the everyday problems and language barriers. At the end of August 2013, a year before that damnable night of September, she had written: “We need to nurture in ourselves a gaze of sympathy, respect and appreciation of the values of the cultures, traditions of the people we meet. This attitude, besides giving peace of mind to the missionary, helps us more easily find the appropriate language and gestures to communicate the Gospel. Despite the complex situation and conflict in the countries of the Great Lakes, at this point in my journey, I intend to carry on my commitment to our African brothers, trying to live with love, simplicity and joy”.

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Three white coffins

The murder investigation is underway. On 9 September, the Burundi police arrested Claude Christian Butoyi, a 33 year-old man, for the killing of the three nuns. The arrested man, was found with a key to the convent and a mobile telephone belonging to one of the nuns, according to police sources. The accused had just sold a cell phone where SMS were written in the Italian language and that belonged to one of the nuns killed in the first attack Sunday afternoon that left two nuns dead.
A man who bought the stolen phone led police to the suspect’s house. According to police, the man said he killed the missionaries because they were foreigners who occupied his ‘property’, claiming that their convent is built on land that belonged to his parents.
On Thursday, September 11, thousands of people turned out to pay tribute to the three sisters at the sanctuary of Mont Sion Gikungu in the suburbs of Bujumbura where a funeral Mass was celebrated. Words of peace and rejection of any spirit of vengeance against the killer were echoed in the homily of the Archbishop of Bujumbura, Evariste Ngoyagoye, who concelebrated the Mass with several bishops in front of hundreds of priests and lay people. “The crime is inhuman”, said the Archbishop, “ however we don’t want the murderer to be condemned to death, we want him to become a different man”.

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The three nuns were buried in the cemetery of Panzi, near the town of Bukavu, in the East of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, near other missionaries who have died or have been killed in this region of Africa. The final farewell to the nuns, on 11 September, was particularly moving. Immaculée Nahayo Nyandwi, National Solidarity Minister and representative of the Government of Bujumbura, said touching and significant words: “All the people of Burundi, Christians and non-Christians, has been devastated by this tragedy. I am here to ask for forgiveness on behalf of all. I want to say thank you to Sister Olga, Sister Lucia and Sister Bernadette and to all the missionaries in the country who have brought and bring love. (…) We all must work together in order that love may win over violence”.
“The closing ceremony in the Cathedral of Bukavu, was presided over by Father Faustino Turchi, Superior of the Xaverians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Father Mario, Superior of the Xaverians in Burundi. About 200 priests, 400 nuns and thousands of faithful came to pay their tribute to the three missionaries. Along the 8 kilometres that separate the cathedral from the small cemetery of Panzi, the caskets of the three missionaries were accompanied by prayers, songs, and above all “great solidarity”. Sister Anna Maria Oppo, a Xaverian sister who has served in Congo for years said, her voice betraying her emotion, “The prayers of the people and their solidarity make me feel confident that what has happened is not the end but the beginning of a new path. Today we have buried a seed that will bear fruit and the solidarity shown to us will feed it and make it germinate.”

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