Danger does not deter NI family from Congo work

Billy and David McAllister with their father Bob (centre). Photo by David Cavan

Billy and David McAllister with their father Bob (centre). Photo by David Cavan

Despite being held hostage and shot at by a rebel death squad, an Ulster family have developed an unbreakable bond with one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Bob McAllister, now 91, began his working life as an iron turner in Belfast’s shipyards until God’s Word directed him to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1952.

The McAllister family from Northern Ireland who have formed a lifelong bond with DR Congo

The McAllister family from Northern Ireland who have formed a lifelong bond with DR Congo

Bob, a soldier during WWI, and his wife Alma, a midwife, were members of the Bethany Congregation in Agnes Street (now Immanuel Presbyterian Church). Their bible studies led them to missionary work and God directed them to the Congo.

They arrived, both aged 28, not long after getting married. Bob said: “We knew we’d be living in a mud hut and so we were. We knew it would be hot and so it was. I went down with sunstroke early on.

“We were living in the jungle. There was a small mission station, that was the beginning of things.

“It took us about nine months to learn the Congo version of the Swahili language and we started preaching. My wife was able to do medical work even before we got the language. We hitch hiked through the forest roads to different vehicles to get out and preach.”

David said he had an idyllic childhood growing up in the jungle

David said he had an idyllic childhood growing up in the jungle

He added: “There was no hardship about leaving Northern Ireland. My wife, she was an orphan, and my mother was dead and my father was living in the States. I was living with my granny and my wife was living with her aunt and uncle.”

When asked about home comforts he said: “When you’re raised in Belfast and you go abroad you always miss your Irish fry, but we adjusted to South African food very quickly.”

Within eight years the family grew to five with the arrival of Billy, then David, then Ruth.

Bob said his happiest memories of the Congo were those early days when his family were growing up, his wife was delivering vital midwifery services and he was preaching the gospel out in the villages.

“Sometimes there was a wee mud church to preach in, sometimes there was none, you just preached under a tree,” he recalled.

“We did a lot of preaching at night times. There was always a fire, they never let it go out.

“It was a very dangerous place. We were always prayerfully seeking the Lord’s help.

“You never knew what would happen, every day people were being shot and butchered with bush knives. It was all around us.

“Still we never felt like coming home. We had a calling for the Congo and we put our best into it and stayed there happily.”

Dark times were to follow however in 1964 when his family was among a group of missionaries held hostage by rebels. At the time his children were 12, 10 and four.

“We believed the Lord looked after us,” said Bob. “We’d no fear. Our wee daughter was just four years of age and she said, ‘Daddy, are they going to kill us? and I said, ‘I don’t know, just keep praying’ and so we did.”

He continued: “We had been held under house arrest for four months when we heard on the radio the order for the rebels to kill all the white people.

“The rebels were beaten, the Belgian paratroopers had arrived to rescue us, so they were told to kill us that morning.

“They lined us up and had guns to our heads but they just couldn’t shoot. There was a gun pointing at every face but they couldn’t pull the triggers. They put the guns down and told us to get back into the house.

“On second thoughts they realised they hadn’t killed anybody from our group so they took the only two men left – a Canadian missionary called Hector McMillan and myself. The rest of the men were still in prison.

“They took us out for execution leaving the women and the children in the house. McMillan and I were marched to where they were going to shoot us outside. Suddenly we heard shooting in the house.”

Back in the house was his son David, then 10. Now a missionary following in his father’s footsteps, he said: “I recall every second of it. It happened in slow motion.

“The rebels would come in to the house from time to time, sometimes they were friendly, sometimes they were very mean. It was a very savage regime.

“As a 10-year-old boy you’re afraid but also mesmerised. Many times they would line us up, shoot their guns into the air and tell us to be good people. Afterwards I’d be running around picking up the empty cartridges.

“That particular morning we knew what was going to happen because we could heard the announcement on the rebels’ radio.

“Being lined up and knowing that you’re going to be killed in the next second, I remember looking at the gun and wondering about the mechanics of it, how you got it cocked, how you got it loaded. Young boys are kind of silly that way.”

Having survived the firing squad, David was back in the house as he watched his father led away to be executed.

“I remember after they’d taken dad out, one of the rebels came back in with an automatic machine gun and started shooting at the women and children all around him in the sitting room.

“Dad was an old GI from World War Two, I remember he’d told us if anything happens hit the dirt so you’re harder to hit.

“We hit the deck when the shooting started. For some reason, none of us cried or screamed. It was very quiet.”

Amazing no one was killed in the volley of gun fire, though two of the young people were wounded.

David said: “One of the children was 18 months old, right up to children of 17. Even the two who were wounded didn’t cry out so I think the rebel thought he’d killed 19 people with his burst of gunfire.

“It was just after that we heard shots outside.”

Bob explained what was happening in the forest as the shooting took place inside the compound. He said: “We were being marched down the forest trail and McMillan stopped to see what could be done about the shooting at the house.

“They shot him and he fell to the ground just beside me.

“I said to them, ‘You’ve shot one of my best friends’.

“They opened up fire on me but the bullets aimed at me didn’t hit me. One grazed my forehead. I threw myself down to the ground and pretended to be dead.

“They went on their way, thinking I was dead, because they were running for their own safety into the jungle.

“My wife, being the only medical missionary, came out to see if she could help us, she’d seen the two bodies on the ground. My wife shouted over to me, ‘Bob, are you alright?’ I said ‘Yes, where’s Hector?’ and she said, ‘He’s with the Lord’.

“We picked up the body and took it back to his wife, she was in the house with her six sons.”

David said: “That day was when it started to sink in for me as a 10-year-old that this was a serious situation.”

Asides from the rebellion, David said he had amazing upbringing he had in the forest villages with his brother Billy and sister Ruth.

He said: “All our friends were Congolese and we’d go into the deep forest every day, into the streams and rivers.

“It was idyllic. In the evenings you had the campfires and the jungle music. During the day, the whole forest was your playground. Playing hide and seek, waiting for your friends to find you and you’d look up and there was a big chimpanzee looking at you.

“I remember in the morning waking up and seeing elephants tracks in the garden where mum was trying to grow flowers and her saying in her wee Belfast accent, ‘Auch Bobby, they’re trampling my flowers, do something about it’. Like dad was going to be able to stop the elephants.”

He added: “Although dad was an evangelist he was also a great engineer and mechanic, so when they weren’t hunting, he’d be training the Congalese men in brickmaking and laying so they could build medical units for mum to do her midwifery in.

“We had a very happy childhood until independence and the rebellion came along and then all hell broke loose.”

Of the group of evangelists the McAllister family was part of in Congo, 13 missionaries and six children were killed during the rebellion.

Less than a year after being rescued, the family returned to the same place where they’d been held hostage.

David described the scene upon their return: “While we were back in Ireland many of the locals were still living in the forest and many of them died of starvation.

“When we got back I saw a young boy of 12 who was a walking skeleton. Talking to them and asking where ‘so and so’ was was very sad. Finding out kids we’d grown up with had died in the forest, that had a huge impact on my life.

“The people who were still there were so happy we had come back. They said to mum and dad, ‘You must really love us because you brought your kids back’.

The family remained in Congo until 1969 when they returned to Northern Ireland to put their children through further education.

Bob and Alma retired to Canada and the USA to live with their daughter Ruth, her husband, and their children, but returned to Congo again to help out during an outbreak of cholera.

They came back to Northern Ireland for good in 2001 and settled in Armagh.

Alma sadly passed away in 2007. Her husband said her claim to fame was “in 30 years as a midwife in the jungle she never lost a patient”.

Bob said he was extremely proud his three children got doctorates and went on to “make a difference”.

David is Tearfund’s Director in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while Billy heads a programme called Congo Initiative. Ruth is also an evangelist who awaits her opportunity to bring God’s word to the Congo.

David, now 62, said: “Congo did not happen by chance for me. I could see the bigger picture that God must have for me, being born there and growing up there, and experiencing the troubles and happy times there.”

Bob McAllister’s last visit to DR Congo was for the commemoration of 50th anniversary of the rebellion in 2014.

His return to the country was featured in a documentary which he hopes has been viewed by The Queen herself.

When he met Prince William and Kate at the Royal Garden Party in Hillsborough in 2016, the Royal couple were fascinated by his story.

He said: “I asked Kate if she’d seen the documentary. She said she hadn’t so I gave her a copy out of my pocket. I pulled out a second one and said could you kindly give that to Her Majesty The Queen. She said, ‘I certainly will’. I’d loved to think she’s seen it.”

His son David, who still lives in DR Congo, said: “The story of this old missionary man called McAllister has been well told around the campfires. He was almost like a rock star when he returned.

“Every church he’d go into was packed out. Even in his old age and his dotage he still came back because he has a heart for the people.”

Of his most recent visit Bob said: “When the rebels were in control back in 1964 they told said they were taking over the country and they were going to burn all the churches.

“They did burn the mud churches, but now, in the places where the missionaries were murdered by the rebels, there are brand new churches made of brick with permanent roofs. There are more churches now than ever before.

“There’s murders, there’s shootings, there’s riots and immorality, bribery and corruption, but the church in Congo is really strong.

“Spiritually it’s been a success. Africans are taking full responsibility. They’re not dependent on missionaries. We’ve worked ourselves out of a job which is the aim of any missionary.”

The family’s story featured in a highly-acclaimed documentary – A Deadly Mission: from Belfast to Congo – and is also the subject of a book – The Line Of Fire.

Bob and his sons David and Billy will take part in a special event this Saturday at 7.30pm in Carnmoney Church, Newtownabbey when they will tell their story of hope and horror in the Congo.