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Friar who lived in war-torn South Sudan returns to Brisbane after 34 years

Coming home: Franciscan Friar Mario Debattista is living in his home city of Brisbane for the first time in 34 years. Photo: Emilie Ng

HE thought he was waking up to the sound of fireworks.

Fr Mario Debattista had been in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, for just one week when he woke to what he thought were early morning fireworks.

It took just a few seconds for the Franciscan Friar to realise the cracking noise ripping through the air was actually gunfire.

On December 9, 2013, the former Brisbane resident landed in Juba as one of three Franciscans pioneering their first South Sudan-based mission house since the 1800s.

It was a familiar part of the world for Fr Mario, having previously served as a missionary in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya for nine years.

He took on the role of chaplain to the Catholic University of South Sudan, was the vocations director, supervisor for the construction of a new residence for the friars, and was one of the priests ministering in Holy Trinity parish that had been entrusted to the care of the Franciscans.

One week after his arrival, the current civil war in South Sudan broke out, the sound of gunshots continuing for four to five days.

“It was my ‘welcome’ to the country,” Fr Mario says jokingly.

A portion of the South Sudanese military who supported the President had come into conflict with a rival section that backed the former Vice-President Reik Machar.

“Now unknown to me at the time, and unknown to many of us, there were other things happening as well, like members of one ethnic community being targeted and their homes occupied,” Fr Mario said.

Consequentially, these people sought refuge from the United Nations, and shortly after, the UN set up camps in Juba and elsewhere in the country for those South Sudanese who were being displaced by the conflict.

One of those camps was located within the Parish of Holy Trinity, where Fr Mario and the other friars ministered.

Along with his fellow friars, while saying Mass in the camp and visiting the sick and displaced, he saw some of the signs of the horrors of the war.

“It’s not something one necessarily wants to see,” Fr Mario said.

“I didn’t see actual killings or anything like that thankfully, but I saw the effects of people having been displaced into the camps and the evidence of people’s houses being burnt in several parts of the countryside.”

The atrocities of that war have left a deep impression on Fr Mario, who only six months ago was pleading with a military officer to free one of their African students in the process of joining the Franciscans and who happened to belong to one of the groups being targeted in the current conflict.

Fr Mario Debattista

Franciscan: Fr Mario Debattista. Photo: Emilie Ng.

After three years in Juba, Fr Mario had decided to return to Australia, but as the vocations director, he first committed to accompanying a group of five young seminarians to commence their training in Tanzania, and another three returning to their studies in Uganda.

The group left Juba in the early hours of July 8 to catch a bus for Kampala, Uganda, around a 12-hour trip.

Their departure date also happened to be the day before the country’s celebrations of independence from Sudan.

“There had been a lot of security leading up to that day, a lot of troops checking cars for guns and so on,” Fr Mario said.

“So on the way to the bus station we were stopped three times by the military checkpoints.

“At the last checkpoint just before reaching the bus station, it was about 6.30 am and still dark, they actually arrested one of our students because his birthplace was in the area of the group opposing the government.

“I feared what might happen to him because there had been a lot of tension building up that week.  I knew that he could possibly be killed or severely beaten or put in prison.”

Fr Mario negotiated with the soldier, and “by the grace of God” he let the young man go.

“I negotiated with the guy in charge and he in his mercy, in the Year of Mercy – I really have to put it down to the Year of Mercy – he let him go,” Fr Mario said.

Fr Mario stayed on in Africa for another two months before returning to Brisbane, his home city.

He is now the local Guardian at the Franciscan Friary in Kedron, taking over from Fr Anthoni Selvaraj who has been appointed to the Franciscan retreat house in Auckland.

It is the first time Fr Mario has lived in Brisbane as a friar, having entered the Order of Friars Minor (the Franciscans) when he was working as a Civil Engineer at the age of 22.

He met the Franciscans while a student at Padua College, and was a member of the Secular Franciscan Order while studying at QUT.

“It’s my first time to live in Brisbane since I joined in 1982 so I’ve been away for 34 years,” Fr Mario said.

The former Padua College student has not forgotten about his South Sudanese mission.

His prayers back home largely revolve around peace for his brothers and sisters in South Sudan.

“South Sudanese are incredibly resilient people, they’re courageous people, they put up with an awful lot, they’ve been through so much,” Fr Mario said.

“And quite frankly I admire them and I really don’t know how they live and how they put up with the conflict, but I fear everyone has their breaking point.”

One of Fr Mario’s hopes had been that the South Sudanese Bishops would fly in one of the world’s greatest promoters of peace in war-torn countries, Pope Francis.

The Pope is yet to visit South Sudan, but in recent years has sent African Cardinal Peter Turkson on his behalf.

“The Pope has been very clear and very supportive,” Fr Mario said.

“There is talk that he actually may visit South Sudan at some stage, the bishops advised him to come and visit.  I even made this same suggestion to the Cardinal when we religious met him as a group – send the Pope.

“The leaders there in South Sudan don’t seem to listen to people unless they really carry some sort of weight, but I’m not sure if they’ll listen to anybody now, to be honest.  Still, we have to remain hopeful and try to engage them – for the sake of all their people who just want peace and to get on with their lives.”

Back in his home town, Fr Mario encourages the faithful to be thankful for peace in Australia but not to forget those who are scrambling for their lives.

“Obviously one would not wish conflict upon anyone, but the fact that we haven’t experienced it directly should make us all the more compassionate and generous, not apathetic or self-satisfied,” he said.

“When you have something precious like peace, just count your blessings and think about those who don’t have it.

“The obligation on us then is to be generous and welcoming and open-hearted.

“There are forces that would want to make us inward looking – that say we have to protect what we have – well yes, we can maintain what we have, but let’s also share what we have.

“Let’s not just keep it for ourselves.”

Written by: Emilie Ng
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