Spain – Fr. Roca, SDB: “I wish to continue to offer a loving presence according to the teachings of Jesus Christ and Don Bosco”

30 March 2023

(ANS - Barcelona) - Fr. Alfred Roca, 89, is a Salesian missionary who has Ethiopia in his heart. He has spent nearly four decades sharing joys and sorrows with the people of Ethiopia, especially in the Tigray region. He recently spoke to the Salesian Bulletin of Spain about what has been happening in northern Ethiopia for the past two years.

The media constantly talk about the war in Ukraine, but Ethiopia is hardly ever mentioned. How do you feel about this situation?

When the war in northern Ethiopia broke out in November 2020, it found some space in the media and some nations and international organizations took an interest and offered their help. But as the days passed and the war in Ukraine began, the conflict in Tigray stopped making headlines. These two years, for the Tigray region and to some extent for the rest of the country, have meant great suffering for many people: war, hunger, lack of medicine and medical care, closure of schools and universities, conscription of many young people... But it is a fact that the end of hostilities was possible thanks to the intervention of international organizations. As for the comparison with the treatment of the war with Ukraine, it is not for me to make.

Your community, in Tigray, is in the area most affected by the war: what are the needs of the people?

A doctor at the most important hospital in Makallé told a local TV program, "We, as doctors, are here to save lives, but the reality is that we can only wait for the day when these people, whom we cannot help, will die." This testimony reflects the hardships of two years of siege and war. The lack of food and medicine, along with the absence of communication, has marked the lives of most people, and not just the poorest. These have been years of hunger, with deaths and malnutrition, especially among children.

Because of the insecurity and destruction caused by land and air attacks, many families have migrated and are living in refugee camps in the country itself or in Sudan. There is a need to facilitate their return home and help them rebuild their lives.

How have you organized yourselves to cope with the needs of the situation?

Like other civil and religious realities, the diocese of Adigrat, with its bishop in the lead, the Salesian, other religious, and religious communities, we have been close to the people with our presence and, when possible, distributing food obtained through subsidies received through our community of the Addis Ababa Vice-Province and the United Nations World Food Program. Then, we welcomed people, receiving their thanks with expressions such as, "We don't come here for what you can give us, but because here at 'Don Bosco' we feel safe and loved."

What has all this meant for the younger generation?

Schools and universities were closed for three years, first because of the pandemic and then because of the war, with clear repercussions for the future of children and youth and the entire country. Many young people in the region were forced to enlist as soldiers.

Salesian communities in Ethiopia and Eritrea, with 106 members and many lay people, are working in schools, parishes, youth centers, and social works. Young people have changed and feel the need for qualifications to have access to a good standard of living, but they suffer the consequences of the current situation. This explains why there is heavy emigration, unplanned and without the conditions of security. The lack of jobs after studies make many aspire to move abroad, thus swelling the number of Ethiopians in the diaspora.

You are still in good shape despite your age: does your journey still continue in Ethiopia?

My 36 years in Ethiopia have been personally enriching for me - I have received much more than I have been able to give - and this makes me, despite my age and the fact that I have been in Spain for a few months, want to return. I can offer my presence and little else, but I believe this is what people, and especially young people, need most: a loving presence made up of closeness and conviviality, in imitation of Jesus Christ and Don Bosco.

Make a wish to God for this people you love so much.

My wish is that all of us in the country work to heal the wounds, to found peace on justice and fraternal coexistence, respecting the Constitution, the values lived by the different religions that the people profess, and the different ethnic groups. Expressing myself in the form of prayer, I would ask God that the words of the psalmist, "Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands to God" (Psalm 67/68) be fulfilled.

I do not want to end this interview without thanking the solidarity of Salesian Spain, which, through its NGOs "Bosco Global," "Jóvenes y Desarrollo" and "Misiones Salesianas," continues to support our projects in the country.

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