A Bridge Too Far

By: Fr. Joseph Panabang, SVD

Rev. Fr. Joseph Panabang, SVD St. Joseph’s Catholic Church Kintampo Brong Afaho Region Ghana, West Africa.


Connecting Northern Ghana to the South is the famous Buipe Bridge over the Black Volta River that flows into Akasombo Dam, the world’s longest man-made lake. At the height of last year’s tribal war, mainly between the Gonja and Konkomba tribes, the bridge became a monument to the worst of human savagery. People both children and adults were mercilessly killed and thrown like dead rats into the river. Pregnant women were sliced like cakes and their fetuses forked out and hurled into the river. Infants, if they were male were plucked from the back of innocent nursing mothers and flung into the swirling river; thousands drowned. Whole villages were burned. Finally the government announced that the fight between Konkombas and Gonjas was over, that peace in the North was restored.

Ordeal Begins
Naively believing this propaganda that peace was restored, I brought my catechist, a Konkomba tribesperson to Allasan Kora village to drop off twenty bags of cement for the school. Also with me was a photographer and two other companions. Since the village is just a stone’s throw from the Black Volta River, we went to take a photograph at the famous Buipe Bridge. After taking the picture, a man riding on a bicycle came by asking us to which tribe to we belong. Sensingly something wrong, the photographer said “Father, go and park the car properly.” This startled me for the car was already well parked. Meanwhile he was prolonging the shaking of hands with the man on the bicycle and talking of many unrelated things. The catechist and I started moving away towards the end of the bridge. By this time, more people were coming towards us talking to one another in their own Gonja language. Fortunately my catechist understood what they saying: “go ahead and we shall catch him at the end of the bridge”. Thereupon the catechist ran and the chase begun.

Bitin sa Liog
As the Gonja people were running after him, I was also running and shouting at them to stop. Then suddenly, with the catechist now safe in the bush where the Gonjas could not follow him because this land was neutral (that is, the land belongs to the Mo people, another tribe, who are close friends of the Gonjas. If the Gonjas were kill the catechist in that land, it would spark another tribal war between the Gonjas and the Mo), so the Gonjas turned to me, grabbed my shirt at the back of my neck so that it’s first button was choking my throat. Small as I am and big as they are, they were lifting me like a rabbit hauled from a hole. Fortunately I could still walk with the tip of my toes barely touching the ground though I could hardly breathe. Then came the first hard and strong blow that shook my head and put my right ear out of action. Then another and another,... my head was like a punching bag knocked left and right. There was nothing left except to cry for pity but the tears that rolled down my battered cheeks did not draw mercy from enraged hearts.

Cut- Off His Head
In a moment, as the few people turned into a group and the group to a crowd and the crowd to a mob, they begun shouting, you wicked white man, helping the Kokombas to fight us; we shall kill you; cut off his head. Throw him into the river! Cut off three of his fingers!” I was horrified and was asking my self which fingers would I offer them. My companions too were crying and begging but they simply pushed them away. Who could stop the mob now lawless and impervious to reason? “Get from him the key of the car,” someone shouted above the mob. “This is it, I told myself aware that a number of cars were burnt on the same bridge at the height of the fight last years.

The Gonja Chief
They threw me into the open back of my Nissan Atlas pick-up. I wanted to stand up so that my own people could see me what was happening but the Gonjas forced me to sit down amidst continued shouts, sneers, and jeers with a chorus of “you wicked foreigner” to every shout. My companions helplessly shoved away, I really felt alone and abandoned being stripped of my would be witnesses. I could not help but break down and cry for the pain was both psychological and physical. But call it instinct or whatever, I still had the nerve to shout to my companions, “Follow us to see how they kill me and report to it to my superiors.” Then they drove off with me pinned down in the back to the palace of the Gonja chief.

Chief Decides
To my surprise, at the palace chief and his elders were all well dressed and already seated in their proper places. They thrust me onto the pavement in front of them and made me squat saying, “you do not deserve to seat.” Since I was in Gonja territory and unaccustomed to their practices especially how to conduct oneself in front of the chief, I greeted the chief  and his elders in Twi, a language generally spoken by the people I am working with  but understood nationwide. Anyway, the chief according to custom asked my mission or purpose in coming to the bridge. He also asked whether it was true that we the priest were helping the Konkomba tribe to fight the Gonjas.
I told why I came to the bridge and that the priests were not aiding either side. I also told him that “thou shall not kill” is the divine law and precisely a sacred command we priest come to preach. We come to preach. We come to preach love and not hatred. We are for all and for everybody...i could see in his face that he was convinced. My witnesses confirmed that I had said and the chief proclaimed his verdict: “the foreign priest is innocent; he came to the bridge with no evil intentions.” As the verdict was in my favor, the crowd outside which were already pressing against me and the chief and his elders rose up murmuring obviously against the decision and wanted to revise it. I couldn’t help thinking of that scene in Jerusalem when Pilate wanted to release Jesus but the mob shouted the louder. Finally there was silence. I was released together with my companions but the camera of my photographer was confiscated. The chief wanted to return it but we crossed the bridge safely, one of the sub-chiefs accompanied us with some warriors at the back of the car.
Now the Real Danger Begins
But the problem was far from over. The real trouble was the that catechist was from Portor, a town split between Konkombas and Gonjas. How could I report to Portor that their only educated, well respected leader Mr. Emmanuel Wage was Safe...but missing? Would they take it in a Christian way? Who would come with me to Portor? Those were the questions bothering me from 12:45 to 4:30 in the afternoon while under police custody where I had taken wise refuge.

I Don’t Believe You
Decision must be made and not just speculations. So at almost five o’clock we went to Portor. God is so wonderful. On our way, we meet Fr. Augustine Villanueva, SVD, Fr. Cashimir Gergont, SVD from Poland and Fr. Gus Hails from Baguio City. Relating to them the whole story, they advised us to be extra careful for it may not be as easy as we think. As they have predicted, just when we were fifty yards away from Portor, we saw the guns were out. One of our Catholics, a sturdy man with his shotgun strapped on his left arm met us. He wagged his head saying, no, no, no...” and left. Gripped by fear, my companions forced me to go back to the police station which I did.

Tribal War Looms
Looking at all the guns out, then and only then did I realize real danger. We were actually sitting on top of a volcano about to erupt anytime, for in Portor, on the left side of the road are the Konkombas and on the right are the Gonjas. So already the guns were pointed at each other. It was just a matter one trigger being pulled and we will have the whole nation again at war as is happening in Liberia, Burundi, Rwanda, and other African countries where tribalism seems unsolvable by any means excepts in terms of fallen  bodies and severed heads.

Calling in the Troops
Alarmed by gravity of the situation, I laid the problem before the police. Their man in command rushed personally to Kintampo Police Headquarter for reinforcements. By evening time, Portor was surrounded by armed police with our District Chief Executive (Mayor in the Philippines.) trying to cool down the tension. By that time I was hidden with my companions in the car cabin (screened by a thick curtain across the back) as were driven safely back to Kitampo.
At night while trying to get a little sleep in my room I woke at every slight sound or noise outside, I would peep carefully through my window thinking there’s a Gonja or Konkomba coming to shoot me. The Gonjas will shoot me for bringing a Konkomba man to the bridge which they claim is theirs and the Konkomba people may kill me for causing the death of their leader. So I was in danger from both sides.

Mental Agony
The following day, Emmanuel, the lost Konkomba catechist had not appeared yet, consequently, the Konkombas in Kintampo begun regrouping, mobilizing, their people to march to the Buipe bridge for retaliation against the Gonja; the rumor was spreading like fire. Tension was mounting in all the village side by side. While waiting for news from Portor I was agonizing imagining innocent people dying, babies slaughtered, pregnant women cut open, the villages burnt again just because of my naivete. This was slowly killing me inside. Though police in civilian clothes were around the mission for security’s sake. I was never safe. The consolation that kept me alive from beginning to end was the felling that the man (Emmanuel Waga) was alive. All four of us shared the same feeling. But one can not expect to go by mere feeling when we had no wisp of hard evidence which would satisfy the Portor people.

Hard Evidence
At last time evidence arrived; at ten o’ clock in the morning Emmanuel appeared in Portor alive. He was brought to Portor by the very man (belonging to another tribe) who had hidden him in his safe house after taking him in from the bush at midnight.

Good News
I was at the visiting room with my friends who had come to sympathize with me when the man himself who hid Emmanuel came to report that Emmanuel was alive. The clarified all doubts and conflicting reports. Then suddenly, I found myself crying uncontrollably like a child who just found his lost his mother, it was out of sheer joy and thanksgiving. A strange silence followed while I was pouring it all out, my friends too were affected, they too were in tears. As they joked later, it was their first time to see a priest crying out of joy. We all burst in to praise of the Good Lord who had prevented a tribal war which could have engulfed the whole nation.

Emmanuel Waga-was the one whom the Gonjas wanted to kill. Thank God he was fast enough to run into the bush.