A HEROIC West Cork priest still has bullet fragments lodged in his back from an ambush and kidnapping by African rebels.
Missionary Fr John Kingston, from the Spiritan (Holy Ghost) congregation, said he forgives the rebels who attempted to kill him and regularly prays for those who weren’t lucky enough to survive the attack.
“Forgiveness was never something I struggled with. I never felt that hatred for them,” he said.
The Clonakilty man, who has worked in some of the poorest countries in the world, reflected on the harrowing experience.
“I worked in Angola, where I was ambushed and kidnapped, resulting in my disappearance for 10 days,” he said.
Fr Kingston had been driving to Mass with a colleague and acquaintance when the nightmare unfolded back in 1985. He described the moment the rebels opened fire.
“My young colleague was asthmatic, but had done a lot of martial arts training when he was young. When he fell to the floor after being shot I thought he was ducking to protect himself, so I did the same. That was what saved me. We later discovered he had actually been dying.”
The West Cork man recalled pleading for mercy after receiving three bullet wounds to his back.
“I started shouting ‘padre’ after I hit the ground. When the gunfire stopped I continued shouting. The leader realised I wasn’t involved with the military so he decided to spare my life.”
Fr Kingston recalled lying on the floor and being stitched up by a rebel who attempted to remove the bullets.
“One of the rebels specialised in treating gun wounds.
“I was lying on the forest floor having the bullets cut out of me. He knew exactly what to do, even though he ignored all the other wounds.
“Not all of the bullets were extracted and I still have bits of them in my back to this day.”
Unfortunately, this had only been the start of Fr Kingston’s ordeal.
“We walked all day and camped out at night until the day I was given back.”
Fr Kingston even conducted Mass while in captivity.
“The rebels had around 20 or 30 girls working for them, participating in tasks like cooking and lifting. They were quite humane, given that they were captured like I was.
“I asked if I could say Mass for my colleague who died and they made me an altar in the forest out of some tree bark.
“I was glad to be able to wear my tunic as it served as a reminder that I was a priest and not a man of the military.”
During that time, he was also fed undercooked food and caught malaria.
“The food was always undercooked and made with wet firewood. I can remember how my face ached from chewing it,” he said.
He recalled how one rebel turned out to be the nephew of a colleague.
“They put another man in charge of me whose uncle was a colleague of mine. He even went as far as making sure I was carried over the river as we walked so I didn’t get wet.”
The day finally arrived for Fr Kingston to be handed over.
“I asked if I could take the man with me, but they refused. “They told me that he still had gunshot wounds that needed to heal.
“At the time I believed them. I now wish that I had been more insistent, as he was killed that afternoon. We knew that it was definitely him who had died as his mother went to identify the body soon afterwards.”
The man’s death has weighed heavily on Fr Kingston.
“I have reflected on this an awful lot since and wondered why this young man had to die. I decided very early on not to blame myself because that would be an awful thing.”
Fr Kingston’s miraculous escape from death never ceased to astound.
“The bullets hit the back of my rib cage so every doctor who saw me after that wondered how I was still alive.”
He puts his healthy mind down to being vocal about the experience.
“I got many opportunities to tell my story, so I’ve never suffered with any problems psychologically. People used to invite me to dinner a lot after it happened.
“My mother had always told me that it’s rude to talk with your mouth full so by the end of the meal my food had always been untouched,” he laughed.
Despite the traumatic experience, Fr Kingston felt compelled to return to Angola.
“When I told my family that I was returning, they thought I was either stupid or mad. My father had always told me that if you fall off the horse you get back up again straight away. If you leave it too long, you end up becoming too nervous.”
He told of how many of his colleagues put themselves in danger to help others.
“We always pray for our colleagues in dangerous situations.
“One such colleague is currently based in Rumbek in South Sudan. Out there a shoot-out is like a game of volleyball, leaving him in permanent danger.”
Fr Kingston has been leading a Spiritan mission in Mozambique for the last number of years, where he educates people on the importance of sustainable farming.
The missionary is currently helping people dealing with the aftermath of two cyclones which hit central and eastern Mozambique.
Torrential rainfall has hindered the humanitarian efforts that followed. He thanked the people of Cork for their heartfelt concern towards those caught up in the aftermath.
“Many people who had the roofs torn off their houses have just put up ‘For Sale’ signs. They have simply given up.”
He spoke of one priest’s selfless gesture to those affected by the cyclones.
“One of the White Fathers was driving to help people when a bridge collapsed and plunged his car into the water. He swam to safety, but instead of returning home, he took a motorbike to help others affected.
“When the car was found there was lots of speculation about who it was that had been in the car.
“When he told the police that the car was his, they didn’t believe them. We donated a portion of the funds raised to this man.
“He chose to use it to buy a thousand blankets for people to use during the cold season.”