DEVEREUX (Blue) 'While my heart beats, I have to do what I think I can do – that is, help those who are less fortunate'
Sean was shot dead on January 2 1993. Sean, who was 28 when he was murdered, had spent nearly five years helping the poorest of Africa’s youths. Sean who grew up in England, trained as a Geography teacher before deciding to follow his calling to help children in Africa. Sean whose father was a BA pilot had been fortunate to travel a lot with his family during summer holidays and it may have been his visits to Africa that inspired his decision to go.
He had worked first in the West African republic of Liberia, then briefly in Sierra Leone and for the last half year of his life, in famine-stricken and turbulent Somalia. Sean was aware that he was moving in dangerous waters, but he did not hesitate, his father Dermot remembers his saying “While my heart beats, I have to do what I think I can do – that is, help those who are less fortunate”.
In Liberia he was savagely beaten by soldiers when he confronted one on them attempting to steal food meant for the refugees. On another occasion he was imprisoned for pleading for the release of a teenager who had rushed up to him in tears. The youth had been his student in a bush school, run the Salesians, and was later drafted into the army as a child-soldier. In 1990, the civil war forced the closing of our schools including the Don Bosco school where Sean had taught and Sean joined the UN refugee program. People were being massacred, normal food supplies had been cut off, and homes and shops were being destroyed. As the fighting reached its height, Sean and other relief workers were ordered out of the country. UNICEF invited him to work for them. As a Salesian Co-operator who had promised to live the spirit of Don Brosco in everyday life, Sean accepted the challenge at once. Somalis was a test of Sean as well as of the world. From the frying pan of Liberia’s civil war he headed with optimism into the fire of Somalia with its anarchy, famine and live-by-the-gun environment. In Somalia, UNICEF assigned him to organise relief for the starving, with particular concern for the children. His point of operation was Kismayu, the stronghold of one of the many warlords who had made the lives of so many people seem hopeless. Kismayu was truly a hot spot. Once, Sean had to be evacuated because of the tumultuous conditions. But he was soon back in Kismayu to continue his service to others.
On the night of Saturday, January 2, Sean was shot in the back by a lone gunman while he was walking near the UNICEF compound in Kisamayu. He was the first foreigner slain in Somalia since the arrival of the US led military force the previous month to assure delivery of food to the hungry. There was speculation as to why he was singled out. Some recalled that recently Sean had told the media of eyewitness reports he had received of a massacre of scores of people on the day before the U.S. Marines landed in Somalia. Dermot Devereux and Father Brian agreed that Sean’s outspokenness about conditions might have led to his death. At the Requiem Mass in Sean’s parish church in England Father Brian delivered the homily. He referred to a favourite saying in Don Bosco about the need for saints in shirtsleeves – people who do not face evil and suffering with fatalism and indifference, but who roll up their sleeves, and get down to work to make things better.
Sean was remembered in Somalia too. Three and a half weeks after Sean’s murder, foreign forces completed rebuilding the bridge over the Juba River at Bur Koy, north of Kismayu. The reconstructed bridge made it possible to deliver food to families who had been isolated on the other side. There was an international ceremony attended by the American envoy, Robert B. Oakley and Brigadier General Lawson Magruder of the United States Army. The ribbon was cut by the local representative of a major clan leader. The rebuilt bridge was formally dedicated to Sean Devereux. UN Secretary General, Dr Boutrus-Boutrus Ghali said of Sean: “In adverse, and often dangerous circumstances Sean showed complete dedication to his work. His colleagues admired his energy, his courage, and his compassion. Sean was an exemplary staff member and gave his life serving others, in the true spirit of the United Nations, Sean was a real solider of Peace.”