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ROME, Italy — When 79-year-old Sister Bernadetta Boggian, of the Saverian order, called Father Mario Pulcini on Sunday afternoon to tell him that she had just discovered two of her elderly colleagues brutally raped and murdered in their convent in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, she had no idea she would face the same fate just nine hours later.

Instead, the elderly nun guided Father Pulcini through the carnage, past the pools of blood, first to Sister Lucia Pulici, 82, who was lying on the floor with her throat cut, and then to Sister Olga Raschietti, 75, whose head had been smashed with a rock.

“The police came. They took the bodies to the morgue and the four remaining sisters went to their rooms to rest,” Pulcini told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, adding that witnesses saw a man running away from the scene with a knife in his hand. “I insisted that they not spend the night in the convent, but they wouldn’t listen to me.”

Around 2 o’clock Monday morning, the priest, who lived with the male missionaries just 40 meters away, got another call from the convent.

“I was awake, trying to write the details of the brutal double homicide for my superiors, when a sister called to say, ‘The murderer is still here,’” he said, explaining that the nun had heard noises and she and two other sisters were hiding in their rooms.

Pulcini had locked the front door of the convent, but now he found it open. “By then, Bernadetta was in her room, dead,” he said. She had been raped and beaten before being decapitated. Apparently the man who fled had not been alone. An accomplice had stayed behind.

What could provoke such extraordinary brutality? For once, religious and ethnic motives may not have played a role. Instead, a more primal fury may have driven the killers. The mission’s main goal was to provide support to children, female victims of domestic violence, and the mentally ill. According to local press reports, the motive was not likely a botched burglary, as is being reported in Italy, since money and valuable religious artifacts made of silver were not taken from the house. Detectives in Burundi reportedly have questioned at least three men whose wives were cared for and protected by the nuns after incidents of domestic violence and who may have killed the nuns out of revenge.

The three nuns were no strangers to working in Africa’s difficult, sometimes hostile environments. According to the diocese of Parma, Italy, where the Savarian order is based, they had all faced challenges working in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the 1970s and 1980s.

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