On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, Focus on…
Doctor Chiara Castellani, missionary doctor in the Democratic Republic of Congo talks about her friend, Ambassador Luca Attanasio.
“I don’t want Luca’s three daughters to grow up with the last image they have of their father is when he was assassinated but knowing that their father shed blood for a future of peace and the right to education and free healthcare for the children in Congo”.
“I lived in Bandundu and Luca lived in Kinshasa. I saw him once a year. He didn’t want me to address him as His Excellency and he was a very down-to-earth person. I met him when he helped move to Kinshasa, a hard and aggressive city, even though rarely violent. But I got to know him better when he came to the Diocese in Kenga with his wife, Zakia Seddiki, at the beginning of April, 2019. Aware of our situation and our healthcare and humanitarian projects, he said he would have come earlier but his commitments had held him back. I’ve lived in the Congo for 30 years and this was the first time I had seen an ambassador “go to the trouble” of coming to Bandundu, an extremely poor agricultural region without strategic interests. He was swamped with “diplomatic” work but he made room in his calendar to visit Kenge and six centers. Luca came to Kenge with two cars: he, his wife and a carabiniere [military police officer Ed.] rode in one of them, and the Secretary of Italian Cooperation, another carabiniere and his bodyguard rode in the other one. I had prepared a very busy schedule: knowing I could not find accommodations for him and his security in Kenge, I arranged for them to stay with the nuns at the convent in Lonzo where they had rooms and water. Here in Bandundu, access to a vital resource like water, which we take for granted in Europe where it is abundant, is scarce and is one of biggest problems because water supply is inefficient almost everywhere. Even electricity is rare and we mostly make due with sunlight. But water is life and I see that right now as it’s raining and we have put buckets out to collect it as if it were a treasure.
I was on my way to the university where I teach but the rain, a gift from God, blocked me. It hadn’t rained for days. We were out of water so it was out of the question to accommodate the ambassador and his wife, who was always with him, here in Kenge. So we decided to get rooms at the convent in Lonzo. We arrived at dawn with the supervisor. The nuns were nervous, fearing that the convent would not be suitable for the caliber of the guest and his needs. They had no idea of Luca’s Franciscan simplicity! They still had the notion of upper-class people one referred to with the traditional addresses, “His Excellency”, etc. But we told ourselves, “it’s all right, he’ll make do with our poverty.” But until Luca arrived, the nuns were visibly unsettled. Then, clearly, everything went smoothly. In only a few minutes, Luca, with his overwhelming kindness and innate humility, assured them that everything was fine. In fact, the simple surroundings put him at ease. Even the carabinieri, including Vittorio, poor Vittorio Iacovacci who was also killed in the brutal triple-homicide, immediately loosened up with all of us.
First we visited the healthcare center and the maternity ward. There was a child with neonatal tetanus who was dying. Luca was truly heartbroken above all when told that nothing could be done to save him. Neonatal tetanus is unforgiving.
Like me, he spent the night at the convent and at 5:00 in the morning, he was in church for morning prayers. I arrived later, at 6:00 for Mass. His wife, Zakia , is Muslim but they prayed together and said, “it’s the same God.”
After the visit in Kenge, the ambassador came to visit the Dream project where we treat patients with AIDS together with the Comunità di Sant’Egidio, that helped us and continues to support us in building another Dream Center in Buzala, a village on the outskirts of Bandundu. There, all that’s missing is the roof and beds. In Saint Esprit, not only is the roof missing but so are the doors and windows. Unfortunately all work stopped because of COVID. The maternity ward at Saint Esprit is the most urgent need and Dream Kenge doesn’t have a maternity ward either. The hospital is building a neonatal department but Pediatrics is still too small: two patients per bed without any distance between them.
Luca, loved to collect information. He was very scrupulous. He took photos, took notes. He was an idealist and pragmatic, a rare combination, and in order to achieve this, he needed to be precise and punctual. Luca was happy and had integrity. He had maintained some of his childhood innocence, but was extremely determined and responsible. He was virtuous, like a true Christian, and it’s to people like him that the beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount is dedicated: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”.
Luca was on our side, that is, on the side of those who believe that there cannot be peace without justice: he gathered information, took notes and photographs, he denounced. It was important to him. In Lonzo, for example, he filmed and interviewed Sister Antonietta, the only Italian nun left who is responsible for the maternity ward in Lonzo, and me. Luca, I repeat, loved to gather information and he did it with zeal and passion in order to have a complete picture and all the details of the situation so that he could then be of more help. Therefore, he had prepared specific questions. I remember a few of them; “Why did you come to the Congo? Why, despite the hardships, the poverty and the risks, did you stay?” Surprisingly, but not too much, Sister Antonietta and I gave the same answer in unison, “Why? Luca, we were and always will be in love with the people of Congo who, despite poverty, always smile and want to sing.” He smiled, too, at our answers, our motivated and reassuring words. He said the videos would help him find public and private funds for the missionaries and the healthcare personnel, “the only people here in Congo who truly have the people in mind without any other interest than helping the population to grow and be healthy and create development.” He generously told us, “you are the only ones who truly work to support the people.”
This love was completely reciprocated. All the missionaries, all of us, remember him with great admiration and with much love and gratitude. I travelled with him. The Bdom Kenge runs 27 facilities, five of which are in Kenge. We visited all of five of them with the Bishop. Our nurses, who are older now and returned to study at the ITM (Istituto Tecnico Medico – Institut Supérier des techniques Medicales – ISTM) also work there. They are older nurses whose diplomas are not valid neither in Congo, where the obtained them, nor abroad so they are studying at the ITM so as not to find themselves at 50 without valid qualifications and without a job.
The nuns had succeeded in placing the initial foundations and thanks to Luca’s support, we were able to build the structure up to the roof, which is the only thing missing. We have the material, which was sent to us from Kinshasa, but who’s going to pay the workers now? This is a problem for us right now. Then we need windows, doors, beds and one mattress for each mother.
Luca was moved during the visit. Through the NGO founded by his wife, Mama Sofia (www.mamasofia.org), they helped us but we still haven’t been able to finish the work we wish to conclude in his name, too. I’d like to remember the words with which Ambassador Attanasio received the International Nassiriya Peace Prize in 2020: “for his commitment to safeguarding peace among peoples” and “for having contributed to the realization of important humanitarian projects distinguishing himself for his altruism, dedication and spirit of service in support of people in difficulty “
Luca also found us the money for the transportation and distribution of 280 solar panels which were gifted to us by Enel. At the time we didn’t have the money for transporting them, now we don’t have the money for the batteries, etc. for the panels.
The last time I saw Luca was on 7 June 2020 when he was able to get me on a humanitarian flight so I could look after my sick mother. From behind his mask he said, “I’d like to hug you but COVID prevents that. Give your mother a hug from me.”
When Luca died, Sister Wiwine said, “we will complete the maternity ward with our own forces and we will name it “La rêve de Luca” (Luca’s Dream). We want to finish everything he dreamt for us. We owe it to his memory. We need it so that his daughters, who are too young now, have a clear picture of who their father was: real images, concrete ones. An efficient maternity ward they can visit as adults and feel they are part of when they read “Luca’s Dream” (“la Rêve de Luc”) on the door.
I don’t want Luca’s three daughters to grow up with the last image they have of their father is when he was assassinated but knowing that their father shed blood for a future of peace and the right to education and free healthcare for the children in Congo. No. Luca did not die in vain. He sowed love, projects, aid, ideas and a way of living and looking at the world that will grow continuously through time. His death demands that justice finally be done for the five million deaths in the past twenty years in Eastern Congo.
Absolutely not, he did not die in vain. This is why we must invest in solidarity that is also distributive justice. The project for the roof of the maternity ward at the Saint-Esprit hospital in Kenge that meant very much to Luca and he supported is just one example. It will be named “Luca’s Dream” and in honor of his memory we will also help the obstetricians to study. To honor his memory, to make it fertile and fecund.
Naturally, the ambassador did not limit his activities to issues regarding Italy and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He gave himself unsparingly to many tragic situations and helped them recover, feeling all of them as a reason to live. If we support development, we will have peace. The Congo needs distributive justice, free schools and healthcare for everyone. In fact, education is not open to everyone in Congo but only, or mostly, the rich. The same is true for healthcare. His death ripped open a tear in the oblivion and indifference in this forgotten area of the world and reminded the international mass media of the five million deaths of anonymous Congolese victims of a war that has been going on for ten years and the criminal corruption of the trafficking of precious minerals in exchange for Kalashnikov rifles. When the three girls will be old enough to understand, I want them to know that their father was an honest man whose blood will sow more integrity and solidarity in Congo.
But when Luca came to visit us at ISTM Kengeera it was in a period of peace and we had almost a thousand students. Bandundu is not a strategic location so risks are relatively low. For these little girls, I feel the responsibility to do him justice and so it is necessary to show them the good that he has done and will continue to do through us after shedding his blood in this tormented land.
They demand justice. No more violence, but peace and development, schools and maternity wards for the poor. Bandundu is extremely poor. It does not have coltan or gold or diamonds, on agriculture on arid, sandy land. We must “get out of hibernation” in many situations. The blood Luca shed in eastern Congo does not demand revenge (he wouldn’t want that) but justice for the six million who died in silence, ignored by the media.
“For justice’s sake, I will not be silent” is a quote from the bible that Luca often cited. The Archbishop of Milan remembered the testimonies he received from our missionaries, the people he visited in Congo, who said, “we felt in him an ally”. All the missionaries spoke well of him and not only because he prayed. Faith without works is death; without justice and love, it’s useless and hypocritical. Don Maurizio Canclini said something very profound, “Luca said some words that now echo even louder because they were said with the gift of his life: “be attentive”. Luca tells us, “be attentive to how people live; be attentive to those who have been forgotten and discarded, be attentive to the pain of innocent children in the streets; be attentive to not live isolated in your gilded world; be attentive to the indifference that kills.”
Shall we come together and launch a proposal? Italy, Luca and Vittorio Iacovazzo’s homeland, will host the G20 in a few months. Wouldn’t it be a good and important idea to dedicate a session for the impoverished Africans and against the predation of Africa’s natural resources? And I want to reiterate “Luca’s Dreams” of which a maternity ward at Saint Esprit is only the one that is more advanced in completion but it reminds me of what my niece said. What is truly important to the girls? Distributive social justice, health and education for everyone, supporting people through professional and human training courses. It’s important that his daughters don’t see his death as absurd and futile but as blood that was shed on land that is thirsty for justice.
Luca was a true and good Christian. A kind person who was sociable and too troubled by the suffering he saw around him to stay at home in his office. He was a man of integrity, he had maintained a childlike innocence but was extremely determined and responsible, virtuous, like the true Christian Luca was. And it’s to people like him that the beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount is dedicated: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
If you would like to support the important humanitarian projects being carried out by Dr. Castellani and her collaborators, you can send a donation by bank transfer to:
“Insieme a Chiara Castellani Onlus” (www.insiemeachiaracastellani.org)
c/c postale n. 001023160961