One day, God decided to look down from heaven to see how things were going on earth. He immediately noticed that London had changed a lot since he last looked out, and Egypt was not at all as he remembered it. However, Yemen... well – God smiled – Yemen has not changed at all since the day I created it. I listen to this ancient legend as a moonscape passes before my eyes, great grey craters sloping down towards the immense deserted beach. Silence broken only by the listless rolling of the waves and the screeching of seagulls. Not a house can be seen, nor, in truth, any other sign of human life as far as the eye can see. Here, we are on the southern coast of Yemen and it really does seem that nothing has changed since the first day of creation. However, it is doubtful that God would smile smugly at this landscape today. For the white sand hides a terrible secret.
Those black, lava stones strewn along the beach are not there by chance, they signal the presence of mass graves of dozens and dozens of bodies of men, women, and children. These are the final resting place of Somalis fleeing their homes in small boats, who died during the crossing of the Gulf of Aden, often drowning just a few meters from the shore because they could not swim. The fishermen of a nearby village buried them by digging big holes on the beach; from the number of black stones you can tell how many corpses are resting underneath. A young Yemeni, called Aoud, who accompanied us to the site explains, “twenty stones, twenty bodies […] It was not possible to do more, the faces were unrecognizable, their documents lost at sea”. Buried without a name, without a headstone, their loved ones will never have a place to mourn them. I listen to the account of the latest shipwreck and wonder how is it possible that so much pain coexists with so much beauty. As a child, I could only think of war in black and white, with dark skies, cold air and dirty earth. Even now, I find it hard to imagine that boys my son’s age died fighting in a flowery meadow, afraid, under a blue-sky and warm air. Or, that children like Amhal, whom I played with a few hours earlier in a refugee camp, could drown in such a beautiful sea, and now lie there, all covered in sand.
It is March 12, 2008. In Yemen, Andrea Martino and I are there to carry out a reportage for Tg2Dossier [Italian National TV] on this country that is suspended between hell and paradise. It was on this occasion that I met the Mother Teresa of Calcutta nuns in their houses in Sana’a and Aden where they take in poor people with physical or mental disabilities, including some Somali refugees.
I cannot forget the smile of those nuns, the sense of deep peace they conveyed. In March 2016 - exactly eight years after my Yemeni trip - a commando of armed men, probably Islamic terrorists, who slaughtered four of the five nuns and sixteen volunteers who were assisting the elderly, attacked the Aden home. All the victims were found with their hands tied and a bullet in the head.
Yemen had not yet plunged into civil war but our trip, organized by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, was already considered dangerous due to the frequent kidnappings of foreigners and the presence of active Al-Qāʿida cells. One of the routes we had to take to cross the country from north to south is called Bin Laden road, built by the father of Osama Bin Laden, the ideologue of the Twin Towers attack. We were obliged to travel under escort, accompanied in every move by a pick-up truck on which a large machine gun was mounted. We were told this was a necessary precaution because a UN convoy had recently been the target of gunfire too.
The first encounter with the Missionaries of Charity was in the capital Sana’a. When you cross the walls of the old city, you lose all sense of time because you are catapulted into a fairy-tale world. The colorful buildings look like they are made of cardboard and are instead made of clay, the white clay façades and the carved balconies that look like lace. It is then we understand why Pier Paolo Pasolini was enchanted by it and even made a documentary about the ancient walls of Sana’a in the form of an appeal to UNESCO: “Architecturally, Yemen is the most beautiful country in the world. Sana’a, the capital, is a wild Venice in the dust without St Mark’s and without the Giudecca, a city-form, whose beauty lies not in the perishable monuments, but in the incomparable design”.
I was reading Pasolini’s words as colleagues and I, with other Somali interpreter, made our way to the Missionaries of Charity’s house. Pasolini was the first writer ever to discover Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He did so before many Curia cardinals, before the Catholic press, before everyone. In 1961, he met her in Calcutta when the Albanian nun’s name still meant nothing to the international media. He was struck by “her sweet eye that where it looks, it sees” and by her “goodness without sentimental haloes, serene, powerfully practical”.
The same human characteristics I now saw illuminating the gaze of the nuns in the convent-house in Sana’a, where they offered accommodation to some 20 homeless people, to “the poorest of the poor”, as Mother Teresa wanted. The building showed no symbol of the Christian faith on the outside. This detail had attracted the attention of some colleagues. They wanted to make the Catholic nuns - some Indian, some African - say what they could not say, namely that the country in which they had chosen to be witness to the Gospel, Yemen, was a difficult Country, with a history of unprecedented entanglements between Islam and Marxism. In such a situation, it was not prudent to display signs of the Christian faith in public. They were well aware of the dangers they were running. In 1998, a fanatic killed three nuns in the house in Hodeida, in the north of the Country, to which the government promised special protection to the missionaries who had landed in Yemen in 1973. Nevertheless, the risks persisted. A public “denunciation” against Islamist intolerance would not have improved their condition; indeed, it would have exposed them to greater dangers. Moreover, this was their way of being, to be there, a presence that spoke with their faces, with their gestures, with their charity.
I remember the reaction of a colleague who insisted, in an almost reproachful tone, to ask what sense it made for religious missionaries to be in that place if they could not “evangelize”. As if evangelising meant making proselytes and not witnessing with one’s life to one’s faith, even in the most hostile places, entrusting the eventual conversion of the people encountered to the good Lord. Caught up in this discussion, I had lost sight of my interpreter, a Somali Muslim. I set out to look for him and found him sitting on a cot, talking to an elderly woman, a guest in the house of the Missionaries of Charity. The man’s eyes were shining. I asked him what had happened, why he was crying. The interpreter could not speak; he stammered a few words and shook his head. Only after a few minutes did he recover and told me that the woman was Somali like him: “they treated her like a queen, that’s what she told me; the nuns treated me like a queen!” Many years earlier, the woman had fled Somalia, where she had suffered a lot of violence and mourned the death of her family members, who had fallen victim of the civil war. She managed to land in Yemen after having crossed the Gulf of Aden on a rubber dinghy but then, after wandering aimlessly and without any help, her life had fallen lower and lower, into depression and despondency. A human wreck. The nuns had picked her up from the streets, and treated her as if in their eyes she was the most important person in the world, a queen, as the interpreter kept repeating, stupefied. Today, she was all nice and clean, more serene, out of the darkness, and full of gratitude. I was thinking about the discussion a few moments before, about the absence of the cross on the exterior façade of the convent and the veiled reproach of the nuns for being too surrendered to Islam and for giving up their evangelization. Moreover, I was looking at that reborn woman and my Muslim interpreter, amazed and moved by the way the Catholic nuns who had treated her life-ravaged compatriot.
I thought about how different are the ways God acts in the world, compared to our presumptuous reasoning.
The second meeting with the Missionaries of Charity took place in the port city of Aden. We met in the church of the Holy Family in the Crater district, the oldest church in Aden, dating back to the British colonial period, deconsecrated in the 1960s by the communist regime in South Yemen, but later restored.
The nuns in white saris with blue edges greeted us with their usual smiles. They could have shared their thoughts and concerns about their precarious security with us. Instead, they preferred to communicate to us their joy, the source of which is in their relationship with Christ.
On our way out of the church, we also met the only three Yemeni Christian families in Aden. There were barely three hundred Catholics in the whole city, mostly foreigners, particularly Filipino and Indian immigrants. However, there was also this very small but moving presence of native Catholics.
The women had their hands tattooed in the Arab manner. The rosary and henna always makes an impression on me, when I travel to the Middle East but also throughout Africa or Latin America, to see how Christianity can easily spread and express itself in all cultures, taking on their distinctive traits without becoming distorted.
Those Yemeni Catholic women told us that they had received the faith from their parents who, in turn, had received it from their grandparents. Beside them stood the joyful nuns of Mother Teresa.
I do not remember their names. I do not know if those same nuns were still there, in Aden, when at eight o’clock in the morning of March 4, 2016, while serving breakfast to their poor, a pack of human beasts raided their home and executed four of the five missionaries present (one managed to hide and survived) and sixteen innocent volunteers. Sister Annselna, Sister Judith, Sister Margarita and Sister Reginette are the names of the murdered nuns, one was of Indian origin and the other three were African. There were warnings of impending danger. The previous year, the Crater church had first been looted and then set on fire. The plight of the women religious, like that of the entire Yemeni population, had become more difficult with the civil war that flared up in early 2015. The missionaries of charity were the defenceless presence, the most exposed target to the fundamentalist madness. Nevertheless, they decided not to leave the Country. They remained in Aden. When bombs rained down around the convent, they huddled tightly under the stairs and prayed. “Together we live, together we die,” they wrote to the mother superior, a few months before their death.
The text of the letter was read out on Tv2000, March 12, 2016. At that time, I was the CEI radio station news director. It was a profound emotion to discover the existence of that letter and to be able to broadcast it. “Every time the bombardments become heavy, we kneel before the Blessed Sacrament exposed, imploring the merciful Jesus to protect us and our poor and to grant peace to this nation. We do not tire of knocking on God’s heart, trusting that there will be an end to this. As the war continues, we find ourselves calculating how much food will be enough. The bombing continues, the shooting is on all sides, and we only have flour for today. How will we feed our poor tomorrow? With loving trust and total abandonment, the five of us run to our shelter, even when the bombardment is heavy. We sometimes take refuge under the trees, thinking that this is the hand of God protecting us. Then we run again quickly to reach our poor who are waiting serenely for us. They are very old, some blind, others with physical or mental disabilities. Immediately we begin our work cleaning, washing, and cooking using the last sacks of flour and the last bottles of oil just like the story of the prophet Elijah and the widow. God can never be less in generosity as long as we stay with him and his poor. When the bombardment is heavy we hide under the stairs, all five of us always together. Together we live; together we die with Jesus, Mary and our Mother”.
By Lucio Brunelli
This article was published on Lucio Brunelli’s blog. She is a journalist, a Vatican specialist for Tg2, director of the Tv2000 and InBlu2000, which are broadcasters of the Italian Episcopal Conference. Today she calls himself a “journalist emeritus, in the sense of retired” and in the blog she recounts her most beautiful encounters luciobrunelli.com