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A Helpless Witness to the Chaos in Congo

The latest round of tribal fighting has Father Jo questioning his mission.

September 07, 2003|Andrew England | Associated Press Writer

BUNIA, Congo — The chain-smoking, beer-drinking Roman Catholic priest has seen good and bad -- and the horrific -- during more than three decades in Congo.

Jo Deneckere, affectionately known as "Father Jo," has lived under the corrupt rule of three presidents and through two civil wars during his 33 years in the northeastern Ituri region.

Through most of that time, the 58-year-old Belgian remained optimistic, convinced that helping impoverished Congolese was worthwhile, even as the country was descending into chaos. But the latest round of tribal fighting in Bunia and surrounding villages, which killed hundreds of people, destroyed houses and churches and forced tens of thousands of people to flee, has him questioning his mission.

"Even when it was going worse and worse, there was good work, and people were advancing in the bush and in the town," he said. "But now things have changed -- also in my mind, because I do not see any end to the troubles ... there's destruction everywhere ... I'm in trouble with myself."

Born in Korkrijk, a Belgian town near the French border, Deneckere joined the Missionaries of Africa, also known as the White Fathers, in 1963, shortly after leaving school.

After seven years of studies, he took his first post in Africa, moving to Ituri where his older brother, Mark -- also a White Father -- had been since 1959.

"When I first came I had more than I expected: more happiness, more love and more work and more things to do with people," Deneckere said. "We had beautiful times."

He arrived in Congo in 1970, five years after journalist-soldier-turned-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko rose to power in Africa's third-largest country with the help of the United States. Mobutu became one of the continent's most notorious, corrupt leaders.

Congo -- which Mobutu renamed Zaire in 1971 -- is about the size of western Europe and is endowed with vast natural wealth, including gold, diamonds, timber, copper, cobalt, zinc and coal.

But the country has never come close to its economic potential since independence from Belgium in 1960 because of rebellions and corrupt rulers who pillaged the state.

From the breathtakingly beautiful lands of Ituri, Deneckere has been a witness to the country's inexorable decline.

Greeks invited to the country by Belgian colonial rulers after World War II controlled the shops, hotels and restaurants in Bunia, the provincial capital 1,120 miles northeast of the national capital, Kinshasa.

But in 1973, three years after the priest arrived, Mobutu introduced "Zairianization," the nationalization program under which foreign-owned farms, plantations and businesses were handed over to Congolese, forcing the Greeks out. Politically connected people with no commercial experience got the businesses.

"After six months there was nothing left in the shops," Deneckere said in his raspy, gravely voice.

Some residents did manage to make money from mining Ituri's rich gold deposits, trading with neighboring Uganda or fishing from Lake Mobutu Sese Seko, now called by its old name, Lake Albert. But the government didn't "do anything to raise or build a better Bunia," Deneckere said.

Bunia's population grew to more than 200,000 people, yet the town of crumbling colonial buildings and mud-brick houses doesn't have a single paved road, or any street lights and road signs.

Still, the neglect didn't stop the Catholic missionaries from carrying out their work. The two civil wars since 1996 did that.

Deneckere had to flee for his life during the first conflict, which was launched against Mobutu by guerrilla leader Laurent Kabila with support from the governments of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda.

In November 1996, a few months after the war erupted, Mobutu's soldiers looted Bunia. Deneckere was responsible for the stores and supplies of the diocese and the troops thought he had money. After hiding for a week he was spirited out of the country by air.

Kabila seized Kinshasa in May 1997, and Mobutu died in exile in Morocco that September. But any hope Kabila's rise would bring a new, more prosperous era was quickly dashed as he continued the practice of rampant corruption.

Deneckere returned to Ituri in April 1997 and that August moved to the parish of Badiya, 18 miles southwest of Bunia, where there were only "cows and poor people."

The following year, another war broke out, this time with the Rwandan and Ugandan governments backing a rebellion against Kabila, whom they accused of supporting insurgents in their countries. Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila.

Widespread fighting had reached Ituri in 2000. Armed bands demanded money and looted houses, schools, clinics and churches. Offices, stores and churches of Badiya parish serving 140,000 people were gutted.

Deneckere despairs over the destruction and the thought of having to start again.

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