Father Barnaba Deng. “ I am ready”

The soldiers grabbed him. Fr. Barnaba did not resist. He asked to be allowed to take his cassock and pray. He put it on, made the sign of the cross, and recollected himself in prayer while the soldiers released the safety catch on their rifles. “I am ready,”

On 3rd September 1965, Hassar Dafalla, Commissary of the Bahr Ghazal province, in South Sudan, sent the following letter to the Bishop of Wau, Ireneus Wien Dud : “ I very much regret the death of Father Barnaba Deng, which occurred or the evening of August 23rd  at a point three miles north of the army barracks on Aweil road. The official record that I received from the security forces on his case shows that suspicious behaviour was mainly responsible for his death. He was met by a military patrol at 6.30 p.m. while parking a car at the side of the road, in an area which everybody knew was quite notorious and, ignoring the curfew, had aroused the suspicion of the patrol. When the man in charge of the section stopped the car to make inquiries, Father Barnaba, who was dressed in shorts and a shirt, stepped down from the car and attempted to run away. Failing to obey the army order to stop, he was shot dead’.

The letter continued: “ It may be relevant here to mention that our intelligence record of Father Barnaba is not clear. He was observed many times collecting monetary donations for the Anya Nya rebels and it was suspected that he was supplying them with food and ammunition in the mission car.”  

The letter concluded: “I feel it my duty to bring to the attention of Your Lordship that this is the second occasion of substantiated relationships between the Anya Nya rebels and the Catholic Church. The first occasion was after the demise of Father Archangel, which took place on 21st July. (The soldiers killed Fr. Archangel on July 21st 1965).  The file included the very portrait of the priest himself which gave clear indication as to his association with their dealings.”

The real story was, of course, entirely different. The Khartoum government of 1964 did not want eyewitnesses to what was happening in the country, so on March 3rd they expelled all the missionaries – more than 300 Comboni fathers, brothers and sisters.  Many places of worship were destroyed, many Christians killed and communities dispersed. 

Barnaba Deng was born in Atokuel, a small village of Kwajok Mission, Bahr el Ghazal, towards the end of 1935. The boy was baptised on 1st June 1947 in Kwajok. 

Two years later, having finished the Primaries in Mbili, Barnaba asked his mother’s permission to enter the seminary. Barnaba was received into Bussere seminary on the 25th February 1949. Having completed Secondary School, he left for Lacor in Gulu, Uganda. When St. Paul’s Seminary in Tore River was founded,  Barnaba left Uganda and spent two years there before he expressed his wish to enter the Comboni Institute.

In 1957, Barnaba was sent to Italy to join the Comboni Missionary.  He was ordained priest in Milan on 7th April 1962.  

A few months later, he was back in South Sudan, first in the mission of Dem Zubeir, then in those of Raga, Gordhiim, and Aweil. In November 1963, he was transferred to the town of Aweil, where he was in charge of three missions: Aweil, Nyamlel and Gordhiim. Bidding farewell to the last missionaries whose cars the soldiers had looted on 4th  March 1964, he spoke these prophetic words – ‘Father, pray for us. We shall see each other again only in heaven’.

Month after month, he went around visiting the scores of Christian communities entrusted to his pastoral care.  In Nyamlel, the soldiers had been so busy with their killing that there were hardly any Christians left to visit.  It soon became clear that the government officials were after him as well. Since he was going from village to village with clothes and food, they saw him as bringing supplies for the “Dinka soldiers”.  Now his name was amongst those that had to be eliminated. But now another Dinka enters the story. His name was Santino Deng, a Dinka who had defected to the Arabs and taken upon himself the infamous task of denouncing his own brothers.

One morning, news reached Fr Barnaba that Santino Deng had come to Aweil with a contingent of soldiers.  At once he called Cyril, the house boy and went to the market square to have a meeting with Santino Deng’s secretary.  There, they heard disquieting news: “ There is an order to arrest you and Acuil Mayuen (a Dinka merchant), they were told. “The soldiers have been ordered to arrest you and kill you”.

Fr. Barnaba lost no time in making good his escape, but not before passing the news to Acuil Mayuen. He returned immediately to his mission and after hurriedly loading some things into the car, made for the forest. At the end of the road, he abandoned his car and proceeded on foot. Cyril was sent back to the mission to ascertain from a safe distance what was happening back at the mission. 

At sunrise, Cyril went back to the mission, saw what the soldiers had done during the night and returned to the forest where he reported all he had seen to Fr Barnaba.   

Fr Barnaba gave him the keys and some clear instructions: “Go and bring me the typewriter and what remains of the money. But be careful not to be seen.” The boy came back successfully, two hours later with the typewriter and the money. The Father gave him some money so that he could go to the market and buy food.

The following morning, Fr Barnaba decided to go to Wau with Cyril. As they came near Wau, Father Barnaba gave a message to Cyril to be taken to a priest of the town. One hour later, a car came, driven by the priest who had received the message. He took Fr. Barnaba to the mission. There was little traffic in the town.  People avoided the roads because the scene of the massacre that had taken place the previous month was still vividly etched in their minds. 

All was very quiet in the afternoon, and Fr Barnaba went out by car. ‘I would like to visit some families,’ he said to the priest. He planned also to see a sick person, and so he carried his cassock. As usual he took Cyril, and after having seen the market, he drove in the direction of Aweil. At the airport crossing before Khor Grinti, he noticed a military convoy on the road.

He turned back and parked the car off the road and waited for all the cars to pass. The boy counted them. Five had passed, the sixth seemed about to pass too, but it stopped. On board was Santino Deng, the renegade Dinka, who recognised Fr. Barnaba and said to the soldiers: ‘Look, there’s the one we were looking for in Aweil!’ The soldiers grabbed him. Fr. Barnaba did not resist. He asked to be allowed to take his cassock and pray. He put it on, made the sign of the cross, and recollected himself in prayer while the soldiers released the safety catch on their rifles. “If you wish, I am ready,” he said, looking at Santino. A soldier broke away from the others and from very close range fired at his head.

The Father fell backwards. The same soldier finished him off with three bullets in the chest. It was 16.30 on 23rd August. Father Barnaba was only thirty years old.