BUNIA, Congo — The chain-smoking, beer-drinking Roman Catholic priest has seen good and bad — and the horrific — during more than three decades in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Rev. Jo Deneckere, known as “Father Jo,” has lived under the corrupt rule of three presidents and through two civil wars during his 33 years in the northeastern Ituri region.
Through most of that time, the 58-year-old Belgian remained optimistic, convinced that helping impoverished Congolese was worthwhile though the country was descending into chaos. But the latest round of tribal fighting in Bunia and surrounding villages — which killed hundreds of people, destroyed houses and churches and caused tens of thousands to flee — has him questioning his mission.
“Even when it was going worse and worse, there was good work, and people were advancing in the bush and in the town,” he said. “But now things have changed — also in my mind, because I do not see any end to the troubles … there’s destruction everywhere … I’m in trouble with myself.”
Born in Korkrijk, a Belgian town near the French border, Father Deneckere joined the Missionaries of Africa, also known as the White Fathers, in 1963, shortly after leaving school.
After seven years of studies, he took his first post in Africa, moving to Ituri, where his older brother, Mark — also a White Father — had been since 1959.
“When I first came, I had more than I expected: more happiness, more love and more work and more things to do with people,” Father Deneckere said. “We had beautiful times.”
His 1970 arrival came five years after journalist-soldier-turned-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko rose to power in Africa’s third-largest country with the help of the United States and became one of the continent’s most notorious, corrupt leaders.
Congo — which Mobutu renamed Zaire in 1971 — is about the size of Western Europe and endowed with vast natural wealth, including gold, diamonds, timber, copper, cobalt, zinc and coal.
But since independence from Belgium in 1960, the country has never come close to its economic potential because of rebellions and corrupt rulers who pillaged the state.
From the breathtakingly beautiful lands of Ituri, Father Deneckere has been a witness to the country’s inexorable decline.
Greeks invited to the country by Belgian colonial rulers after World War II controlled the shops, hotels and restaurants in Bunia, the provincial capital 1,120 miles northeast of the national capital, Kinshasa.
But, in 1973, Mobutu introduced “Zairianization” — the nationalization program under which foreign-owned farms, plantations and businesses were handed over to Congolese, forcing out the Greeks. Politically connected people with no commercial experience got the businesses.
“After six months, there was nothing left in the shops,” Father Deneckere said.
Some residents did manage to make money from mining Ituri’s rich gold deposits, trading with neighboring Uganda or fishing from Lake Mobutu Sese Seko — now called by its old colonial name, Lake Albert. But the government didn’t “do anything to raise or build a better Bunia,” Father Deneckere said.
Bunia’s population grew to more than 200,000, yet the town of crumbling colonial buildings and mud-brick houses doesn’t have a single paved road, any streetlights or road signs.
Still, the neglect didn’t stop the Catholic missionaries from carrying out their work. The two civil wars since 1996 did that.
Father Deneckere had to flee for his life during the first conflict, undertaken against Mobutu by guerrilla leader Laurent D. Kabila with support from the governments of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda.
In November 1996, a few months after the war began, Mobutu’s soldiers looted Bunia. Father Deneckere was responsible for the stores and supplies of the diocese, and the troops thought he had money. He was spirited out of the country by air after hiding for a week.
Mr. Kabila seized Kinshasa in May 1997, and Mobutu died in exile in Morocco that September. But any hope that Mr. Kabila’s rise would bring a new, more prosperous era was quickly dashed as he adopted his predecessor’s rampant corruption.
Father Deneckere returned to Ituri in April 1997, and that August moved to the parish of Badiya, 18 miles southwest of Bunia, where there were only “cows and poor people.”
The following year, another war broke out, with the Rwandan and Ugandan governments backing a rebellion against Mr. Kabila, whom they accused of supporting insurgents in their countries. Mr. Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila.
Widespread fighting had reached Ituri in 2000. Armed bands demanded money and looted houses, schools, clinics and churches. Offices, stores and churches of the Badiya parish, serving 140,000 people, were gutted.
Father Deneckere despairs over the destruction and the thought of having to start again.
“To go back to the place where I was, to rebuild everything, to restart everything — the truth is, I don’t know if I will have the strength for that,” he said, somberly puffing on yet another cigarette.
He has been in Bunia since the end of April. He had come to town for a meeting and was on his way back to Badiya when he saw a man staggering along the road with four bullet wounds. The priest brought the man to Bunia and has since been here as rival tribes fought for control of the town, killing more than 500 people.
Father Deneckere is kept busy organizing flights of food aid and plastic sheeting to erect crude shelters for the thousands forced from their houses.
He says the support of his brothers and sisters, with whom he is in contact by e-mail most days, helps him endure. “They are living here with me, really,” he said.
Bunia’s tribulations have tested his faith in God, too.
“I think God did not go away, but I’ve had some doubts,” he said, “but I could not be here if I didn’t believe God was here.”
Everybody in Bunia knows Father Deneckere. He speaks the languages of the rival Lendu and Hema tribes, and a walk through town is punctuated by stops to chat with teenage gunmen and women with assault rifles slung over their shoulders, and with children selling hard-boiled eggs.
He’s determined to stay until the fighting stops. After that, he’s not sure what he will do, or what will happen in Congo.