Monique Hébrard

The Cemetery of the seven monks of Tibhirine


The silhouete of the seven Trappist monks is engraved in the darkness of the night of 26/27th March, 1996. This final image of the magnificent film of Xavier Beauvois leaves us in uncertainty: were they hostages in some unknown location? Had they been assassinated? If so, where were their bodies? Everyone knows how difficult it is to mourn when the bodies of the victimes of an air crash or a crime have ot been recovered.

The darkness of uncertainty was lifted – into a terrifying clarity – only on 30th May when their bodies were found, and then only seven severed heads. The remains of the seven monks rest now in the cemetery of the monastery of Our Lady of the Atlas where they had lived. Thousands of people from every land come there to pray. Christians, but increasingly also young Muslims attempting to find some meaning.

I was deeply haunted by this place without ever having gone there, and so I leapt at the opportunity to go these on the occasion of the beatification on 8th December, 2018, of the nineteen martyrs of those ‘black years’ of the Algerian civil war which had cost thousands of lives.

Crossing the threshhold of the monastery one descends through the trees, passing the springs which provide water for the farming. Then one reaches a clearing decorated by lavender and rose-bushes, impeccably maintained by Youssef and Samir who are still in charge of the farm. Seven plaques with seven names, in the order of their entering the monastery, the first being Brother Luc, the doctor who so well incarnated universal fraternity by his care of any who presented themselves, the villagers but also the wounded of the GIA.

The gardeners are with us. Their care for this freshly-raked earth of which they are the custodians expressed their faithful love and respect for the spot, bathed in silence and surrounded by emotion, but also a profound peace and mystery. ‘Tibhirine’ means ‘garden’, garden of paradise, tilled with love, amid fruit-trees. A garden of olives, a place of suffering and death. As a prayer, groups often read the testament of Christian de Chergé, a penetrating message of brotherhood and communion, proclaiming that Life and Love are stronger than devastating hatred. It is not easy to emerge from the silence of this spiritual journey as one climbs up again to the ground above.

When we were at Tibhirine it was Advent. In the chapel, situated in the storage-house of the old winery, the crib had already been set up, and seven figures awaited the arrival of the Saviour.