Br. Alfredo. Serving the People

On a hot and humid afternoon in late August 1992 TAP Flight 836 touched down exactly on time at Leonardo da Vinci International Airport in Rome. In the hold was a large casket carrying the bullet-ridden body of Comboni Missionary Brother, Alfredo Fiorini. A qualified doctor, Brother Alfredo had been killed in Mozambique in an ambush laid by the rebel group RENAMO (‘Mozambican National Resistance Movement’) who were fighting against FRELIMO (the country’s ruling ‘Mozambique Liberation Front’). Waiting to receive the casket were Tilde and Elio, Brother Alfredo’s mother and father; his brother, Fabio and his two sisters, Patricia and Roberta. 

Alfredo was born in Terracina, thirty-five miles south-east of Rome, on September 5th 1954. Having completed high school, he attended the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Siena in Tuscany from where he graduated with First-Class Honours as a surgeon on July 23rd 1980. After a year of national service, Alfredo decided to join the Postulancy of the Comboni Missionaries in October 1982 in Florence. 

In September 1984 he entered the Novitiate in Venegono Superiore in the Province of Varese with the intention of becoming a Missionary Priest and two years later, on May 17th 1986, he consecrated his life to the Missions with his First Vows. In 1986 he left for Uganda, where he was to study theology at the Scholasticate of the Comboni Missionaries in Kampala. The following year, due to the very unstable political situation in Uganda at the time, he moved with his fellow Scholastics to Nairobi in Kenya to continue his theological studies there.

In his spare time Alfredo worked in a Church-run Dispensary in a neighbouring shantytown and this experience caused him to reflect deeply about his vocation. Eventually he decided to tell his Superiors in Rome that he no longer wished to become a Missionary Priest but rather a Brother (a non-ordained Member of the Order). 

His proposal was accepted. In June 1989, at the age of thirty-five, he was assigned as a Missionary Brother to the Missions of the Comboni Missionaries in Mozambique where he had previously requested to work. His departure for Mozambique was delayed, however, while he undertook a two-year course at the ‘Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’. 

On February 3rd 1991 he finally arrived in Mozambique. Alfredo found a country in the throes of civil war with hundreds of thousands dead and millions of refugees. He was assigned to the Mission in Namapa where the local civil and religious authorities had agreed to having a missionary doctor work as the ‘Medical Superintendent’ at the local hospital.

For years the hospital had been under sustained attack by RENAMO rebels. Brother Alfredo wrote: “The hospital in Namapa, where I have been posted, is half destroyed. It is a District General Hospital in need of complete renovation, as it is in ruins after repeated attacks by the guerrillas of RENAMO. We have a total of eighty beds but three years ago the roof was destroyed by mortar fire, and after three rainy seasons the building needs to be completely refurbished. We need in particular to re-equip the operating theatre and the surgical wards. All the personnel in the hospital are Mozambican. My main work will be threefold – surgery, traumatology and obstetrics. We live at a particularly violent time in the history of this people. The daily work of the out-patient department is extensive – oral medicine, prenatal clinics and maternity services, paediatrics, ophthalmology and minor surgery. I think it is this basic health care which is of most use to the local community”.

Alfredo threw himself into the work. The sick, young children, pregnant women and those wounded in the conflict kept arriving. They sheltered in the inner courtyard and on the verandas, carrying with them their pots and pans to prepare food, water buckets and mats to sleep on. They then patiently waited to be examined and to receive medication for their ailments. Unfortunately, however, difficulties soon arose with the Hospital Administrator, who was not a doctor but a fully paid-up member of the ruling party. Not only did rebuilding need to happen, but the personnel, from the nurses to the cleaners, had to be re-trained and their work patterns re-organised – combating absenteeism, re-estabilishing regular shifts and improving punctuality.

A further area of concern was the lack of transparency and accountability with regard to the stock of medicines in the hospital. It was an immense task. Brother Alfredo sought to develop a new workplace culture within the hospital by encouraging staff to place the patient at the centre of attention at all times. This, he argued, was the basic criterion for all medical care and assistance. His efforts led to increasing tension with the Hospital Administrator and the District Medical Office. 

At first Brother Alfredo gritted his teeth and carried on stoically, but towards the end of 1991 he increasingly felt that he could no longer continue working in the hospital. In the end it was a medical emergency that forced him to resign his post. He referred to this in a report to the District Medical Office of Namapa: “On the night of January 3rd there was another surgical emergency: a patient had a strangulated hernia. I found the operating theatre flooded with rainwater; the laboratory closed thereby preventing a routine test to establish the patient’s blood type; and the pharmacy locked. There was no blood serum, sterilized surgical equipment or clean water available. I was watching the patient writhe in agony by torchlight while waiting for someone to bring the key of the generator-room. When the key was eventually found, I was then informed that there was no fuel to run the generator”. 

Brother Alfredo had had enough and felt it was time to move on. The following morning he sent a letter to the District Health Office in which he listed the reasons why, in conscience, he could not continue to work in the hospital but that he was willing to work out the remainder of his contract at a small rural hospital in Alua run by the Comboni Missionary Sisters. The District Health Office agreed to his transfer to Alua. 

Brother Alfredo began a completely new life at Alua. He became the driving force of the small hospital, always full of new ideas and projects, and he began to develop a plan of preventive healthcare through the network of the ‘Basic Christian Communities’ in Parishes throughout the local Diocese of Nacala. In the meantime, the war continued in all its ferocity. 

Early in August 1992, he set out for Nacala where he was to meet the Bishop to discuss his plan for primary health education throughout the Diocese. He passed through Nthutu, Namaqueto and Muiravale, the scene of numerous RENAMO attacks, and stayed in Nacala until Monday 24th August. From Nacala he planned to go to Carapira and then call in on the Health Authorities in the regional capital of Nampula, the largest city in northern Mozambique, to discuss the proposals that he had agreed with the Bishop.

Around 8:00 a.m. in the morning and travelling alone in his vehicle, he left Nacala. On his way back through Muiravale, he was forced to slow down because of potholes in the road. Suddenly, the car was struck by machine-gun fire and Brother Alfredo was hit. He died instantly. He was just thirty-eight years of age. The shots were fired by RENAMO rebels positioned on either side of the road. Shortly afterwards, a convoy of the area’s largest employer, the ‘Companhia Industrial do Monapo SARL’, arrived from the direction of Nacala on their way to Monapo escorted by a contingent of government soldiers.

The convoy stopped at a distance from the vehicle of Brother Alfredo which was in a ditch after having been hit by gunfire. The vehicle was still surrounded by guerrillas. The soldiers began shooting at the rebels causing them to scatter and then they approached the vehicle only to find the Brother dead, sitting in the driver’s seat but leaning to one side, with his head struck by a number of bullets. 

The vehicle, carrying Brother Alfredo’s body, was towed to the company’s base in Monapo about twelve miles from Muiravale. The Comboni Missionaries in Carapira travelled there and took his body aboard their vehicle, leaving the bullet-ridden vehicle to be collected afterwards. 

A few months later, on Sunday 4th October 1992, a peace agreement was signed between Joaquim Chissano, President of Mozambique and of FRELIMO (the country’s ruling ‘Mozambique Liberation Front’) and Afonso Dhlakama, leader of RENAMO (the ‘Mozambican National Resistance Movement’). With it came the end of a civil war that had lasted twenty-five years and cost more than a million lives and the displacement of over five million people in refugee camps across South-eastern Africa.