On May 2, 2002, Colombian rebels known as the FARC massacred 78 people – including 48 children, several pregnant women and a newborn – in what's known as the worst assault by the Marxist group on civilians in the last decade.
During the attack, FARC soldiers and militia troops engaged in a firefight in the streets of Bojaya, some 380 kilometers northeast of the capital city of Bogota. Around 400 civilians, mostly women and children, sought refuge in the local St. Paul the Apostle parish.
Ten years after the tragedy, newspaper El Colombiano interviewed Father Antun Ramos, who saved dozens from death, and Sister Maria del Carmen, who helped those in the parish who were wounded.
Church pastor, Fr. Ramos, helped keep the people calm by telling them stories and praying with them.
“I thought of the movie, Life is Beautiful, in which a father teaches his son that the war is a game, and I tried to apply that. I told them to join hands and to pray. We shared some stories, and for a time, they forgot about the bullets that were flying around them,” the priest recalled.
“But the stories were interrupted by the exploding rockets launched from the other side of town,” El Colombiano reported. “The first landed on a home at 10am. The second landed behind the school but did not explode.”
“Outside, one of the guerrillas warned the commander leading the attack, who went by the alias ‘Silver,’ that the militias were on the move and that there were people in the church.”
But “Silver” ignored him and ordered the other rocket to be fired, according to the paper. At 11am, it crashed through the roof the church and exploded, killing 78 people, including 48 children.
Fr. Antun recalled that after the explosion, “I told everyone to leave because they were going to kill us all. One woman said they would leave if I went out first, so I held a white flag and went out first. They shouted that they were civilians as they came out, and the rebels held their fire.”
According to El Colombiano, guerrillas fired a fourth rocket that landed behind the home of the Augustinian Missionary Sisters, which the militias tried to enter.
“With her tiny body and small arms, Sister Maria del Carmen Garzon mustered the strength she didn’t have and blocked the door together with the other sisters,” the paper said.
“From inside they told the militia fighters they could not come in, 'because we had 130 civilians who were not a part of the conflict and that would be endangered.'”
When she returned to the hallway, the nun found several people dying on the floor.
“We began to care for them,” Sister Maria del Carmen recalled. “We did what we could because the people were running from one end to the other trying to dodge the bullets that were flying through the air. It was very hard. We felt helpless knowing that so many people needed aid.”