Ex-PMB priest tells how he stood his ground

2016-10-12 11:23
Father Graham Pugin from Pietermaritzburg seen bleeding after he was shot with a rubber bullet during the Wits #FeesMustFall student protests on Monday.

Father Graham Pugin from Pietermaritzburg seen bleeding after he was shot with a rubber bullet during the Wits #FeesMustFall student protests on Monday. (Supplied)

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“I am bent, not broken.”

A Pietermaritzburg priest caught up in the Fees Must Fall protest at Wits University on Monday made the sign of the cross as a police riot vehicle bore down on him.

Later, as Father Graham Pugin stood his ground at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church — situated next to Wits University in Braamfontein — to protect the students who had sought refuge there, police fired rubber bullets at him, wounding him in the face. Pugin, an Alexandra High Old Boy who is now based in Johannesburg, said the church had provided a safe and sacred place.

Speaking to The Witness on Tuesday, he said the church had two entrances, one gate interleading into the Wits University campus, which is usually opened on weekends only; and another gate facing the main road, Jan Smuts Avenue.

The chaos began around midday when gunshots were heard around the Braamfontein area. Pugin said he did what he usually does when there is unrest around the university.

“I opened the gate facing the road to allow students into the church premises because they were being shot at by police. We had a lot of frightened students seeking sanctuary in the church,” said Pugin. He explained that he did not allow students carrying sticks and stones onto the church premises.

While police were shooting, Pugin said he stood at the church gates insisting that students were allowed onto the church property provided that they were unarmed. “I had actually changed into my white robes to make it abundantly clear who I was; I did not want anybody feeling I was hiding [that I am a priest],” said Pugin.

He explained that the police came to the church three times seeking students who had fled onto the premises.

In the first incident, he said he was standing at the gate and students were running onto the premises when he felt a rubber bullet hit him on his calf.

“It was not serious, but left a clear mark on my white garment. The students expressed their gratitude and appreciation and thanked me for protecting them. I was frightened, but okay,” said Pugin.

In the second incident, he said he was still standing at the gate when he saw a “very tall” police vehicle speeding down the street towards him. “I stood at the gate as I was not going to allow them to enter and shoot the students sheltered here in the church. The vehicle came to a halt very close, probably two metres away from me. It was so close, it felt like 14 cm away. I signed a cross, then they reversed and left,” said Pugin.

He said a few minutes later another large police vehicle drove by very slowly shooting deliberately past him at students who were running into the church premises. They fired shots around him and one hit his face. He started bleeding instantly and his white garment was spattered with blood. “When I was walking away from the scene I could feel this bloody mess in my mouth and I was desperately trying to work out if I had any teeth left,” he recalled. His lip was mended by a plastic surgeon on Monday and a facial surgeon confirmed he had no broken bones or teeth.

Father Pugin said he will certainly continue to keep his church gates open to students fleeing from police. “I am bent, not broken,” he said repeatedly. “I am not easily bullied. I certainly believe in free quality education. It is desirable and certainly possible,” he said.

He added that he does not agree with the method used by students to achieve it but added government is not doing what they can.

“Now universities and authorities are caught in an impossible situation,” said Pugin.

Read more on:    #feesmustfall  |  pietermaritzburg

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