ROME – Italian Ambassador Luca Attanasio was remembered by his parish priest as a “light that breaks through the fog, illuminates and warms,” after he was killed in an attack in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Father Angelo Gornati is currently the parish priest of Cesate, but served for several years in Limbiate — not far from Milan — where Attanasio grew up.
“He was able to grasp the positive side present in every person, to sew relationships, to build bridges,” the priest told Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops conference. “And every time he returned home from the various parts of the world where he was sent, he immediately ran to the family, and right after, he came to the parish and to the oratory.”
The priest also recalled the social commitment of the ambassador, 43, who as a teenager founded the “Aurora group” with friends. The society helped the elderly population of the parish community. Later, he founded a project aimed at helping disabled people, organizing trips and holidays for them.
“In recent years, however, together with his wife, he has taken care of street children in Congo,” the priest said, noting that this was particularly carried out by Attanasio’s wife, Zika Seddiki, who “was about to build a house for these children with funds made available by the Italian Bishops’ Conference.”
According to a statement from the Italian foreign ministry, Attanasio died in a hospital on Monday after the United Nations convoy he was travelling in came under fire near Goma, the capital of the Congo’s conflict-ridden North Kivu province.
An Italian military police officer, Vittorio Iacovacci, and an unnamed Congolese driver were also killed. And unknown number of people from the UN World Food Program were also injured.
No organization has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but local media is reporting is was probably an attempted kidnapping.
Attanasio leaves behind his mother, his wife and the couple’s three young daughters.
In October, Attanasio and Seddiki received an international award for the efforts to bring peace to DRC through the association Mama Sofia, which focuses on helping children and women in difficulty.
“In Congo words like peace, health, education, are a privilege for very few, and today the Democratic Republic of Congo is thirsty for peace, after three wars that have lasted twenty years,” Attanasio said when receiving the award.
Before being sent to the DRC, he had served in Italy’s embassies in Switzerland, Nigeria and Morocco.
Father Robert Kasereka Ngongi, a diocesan priest of Butembo in North Kivu, told the Italian Catholic news agency SIR that “every day, in Butembo-Beni there is always a carnage, people die like insects.”
“The road on which the convoy of the Italian ambassador was traveling is very dangerous,” he said. “Such bloody events frequently happen.”
The priest ventured to say that it is possible the assailants “saw a white man and thought it would be a way to get some money.”
Ngongi knows about the violence and the possibility of being kidnapped first hand: Two of his brothers, who are also priests, were taken from the parish Mary Queen of the Angels in Bunyuka on July 16, 2017. There has been no news since, despite a ransom being paid.
The violence and instability has been ongoing for decades yet, the priest noted, but the world only hears about the atrocities perpetrated by armed groups when a westerner is involved.
“Since the war in Rwanda in 1994, with the many refugees arriving in North Kivu, the situation has always been the same: Killings, kidnappings, fires in houses and villages, violence against women,” he said.
The Italian-based Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, which has a presence in the DRC, released a statement calling Attanasio’s murder a “serious loss.”
“We remember him with affection, having met him several times in Rome and in Kinshasa, having become acquainted with his great professionalism and humanity,” the statement said. “With him goes, in a painful and dramatic way, a sensitive man, committed to the common good. It is a serious loss for Italy, but also for Africa, a continent for which Attanasio was courageously spending so much energy, confident in a better future, one of development and peace.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma