This family was forced to flee a bloody war in Africa and 50 years on they made an emotional return to support their fellow missionaries
A documentary on BBC tomorrow will reveal the dramatic story of how the McAllisters, from Belfast, survived a violent rebellion in Congo in the mid-Sixties. Una Brankin reports.
All eyes will be on Congo next year, when Co Down superstar Jamie Dornan plays an army commander who leads an Irish UN battalion into a siege in the troubled African country. The Netflix movie is based on a true story from 1961, but an even more dramatic one, arguably, is the subject of a powerful and moving new television documentary.
A Deadly Mission Belfast To Congo spotlights Belfast-born missionary, Bob McAllister, his late wife, Alma, and their three children, who were violently attacked and held captive in the Orientale province during the rebellion and international hostage crisis of 1964.
The one-hour film, which includes archive footage from the time, follows 90-year-old Bob and his children, Bill and Ruth - 50 years on - as they make the emotional journey to Congo to join Bob's second son, David, head of a humanitarian relief agency in the country, to remember their fellow missionaries slaughtered by the Simba rebels.
While this remarkable story is told in documentary form, it was actually childhood memories of Hollywood westerns that helped save Bob's life when he was gunned down with a fellow missionary at their compound on November 24, 1964.
"The rebel groups had been going around the villages, massacring people," Bob recalls. "A lot of them were marijuana dealers, doped up and trigger-happy. The American rescuers had come and told us there were 18 seats reserved for us on the last plane out, but I said, 'We have to pray'.
"The Americans said we were crazy and told us to run, but we said we'd stay. I remember the plane going by overhead."
Knowing the rebel groups were on their way, Bob and his US colleague, Hector McMillan, gathered the women and children into a building on the compound and stood guard. Half a century on, from the comfort of his armchair in an Armagh city sheltered-housing apartment, Bob is calm as he recalls what happens next.
"When they came, they shot Hector first and he was killed right away. I said, 'You have shot my best friend', then they shot me, too. I was only grazed in the head by a bullet, but I fell down and played dead, because I remembered that's what you did when you were playing Cowboys and Indians. I just lay there and held my breath as best I could until they passed us by and went into the forest."
Astonishingly, Bob says he didn't feel any fear.
"I was never afraid. I was cautious and careful, and defended the kids as best I could," he says, looking across the room at his son, Bill, who remembers the attack vividly. Along with the rest of his family and Hector's family, Bill survived the gunfire inside by also playing dead.
"We had broken into family groups and I remembered the bible verses about Daniel being protected from the lions. Simba is the Swahili for lion, and I thought that was cool; that we would be protected, too," Bill tells me, an American inflection from his Stateside travels.
"I remember being in the room and hitting the dirt as they opened fire.
"There were many automatic rifle shots and shrapnel flying everywhere. Hector's son, Paul, was hit in the hip and the eye. Dad became a surrogate to him and his five brothers. They loved him. There's a bond that will always be there."
When the shooting ended, Alma risked her life to go outside and help the men. Shortly afterwards, American paratroopers arrived to lead them to an airlift, commanding them to bring no baggage and no dead bodies, including Hector's.
"I was so scared and excited at the same time," Bill admits. "My knees were knocking. Daddy was wounded and I remember this American major arriving and giving me a Hershey bar, and saying, 'You're safe now kid'. I'll never forget his kindness in the middle of all that brutality.
"Then, when my sister, Ruth, was organising her flight over from Nashville last year to film the documentary, my wife, Sabine, asked her to bring a Hershey bar for me. She got what it meant to me at the time."
It's evident that Bill, head of the Tear Fund charity in Congo, was emotionally scarred by the attack. His faith has been sorely tested many times since.
"That day ran deep. The full impact didn't arise until much later. I was a kid of 13 and I didn't understand why Hector wasn't protected. How does God throw the dice?
"It's a continuing crisis in Congo and I have seen worse - eight women beheaded in front of their children, for instance. Women raped with extreme, violent brutality. Evil. The occult still has a very strong hold there. I have cried in the night and told God, 'I don't like you any more'. What I am told in response is, 'Just stick with it'."
The 1964 shooting wasn't the first time the McAllisters' lives came under threat in Congo. The family was forced to leave the country after it achieved independence from its Belgian colonisers in 1960.
"We lost our earthly possessions three times over with rebellions," says Bob. "I mean everything, all our household equipment and bedding and kitchen stuff; lost in rebellions and we had nothing."
Bill recalls arriving at the airport for the family's first evacuation in 1960, when, heartbreakingly, they had to leave Bob behind.
"It was like an old Hollywood film at the airport," Bill remembers. "There were rows and rows of cars, and people running around trying to get their kids onto the last airplanes going out. Suitcases were being thrown around and there was a lot of shouting and screaming, but dad was pushing and trying to get us onto an airplane.
"And when we took off from Stanleyville, we saw Dad, a wee dot away down below, and he was waving at us. He got us out, but he and a lot of other male missionaries stayed behind. Then, for six months we didn't hear anything and we thought he had been killed, and we went back to Northern Ireland."
Men weren't allowed to leave the country at that time, but eventually Bob managed to escape from the country into Uganda, and on into Kenya and back home. Undeterred from the experience, the McAllisters and other missionaries returned to Congo to continue their work.
Ruth Reynard, Bob and Alma's Nashville-based daughter, describes her mother as the bravest woman she has ever known.
"My mum was a nurse and she worried an awful lot that we would get ill, so it wasn't easy for her," Ruth recalls. "And so I can say that she was brave because she overcame a lot of her own fears and insecurities about being in a country like Congo."
Alma's bravery ran to killing snakes and to venturing into the forest at night to help the pregnant wives of the rebel forces surrounding their compound, outside the city of Stanleyville, on the Congo River.
As Bob explains, "African ladies, when they were nearly ready to give birth, slipped out of their shacks in the forest, round the back of our compound in the dead of night, with no torches, to get Alma's help.
"One night, this rebel leader came and demanded that Alma go and deliver his wife's baby. She had four born dead in a row before this one, and he said, 'If the baby dies, you die'.
"Well, Alma did the delivery in a tent full of Simbas with guns and knives, and that baby, to me, felt dead. There were no signs of life at all the start, but we prayed, and then it began to wriggle. I don't know if that was a miracle or not, but it meant we didn't get shot there and then."
As for killing snakes, Alma had it down to a fine art.
"You don't hit a snake on the head - you break its back in the middle with a stick to immobilise it, then cut its head off," explains Bob. "My wife always had a big stick at hand just in case. One time, a snake crawled up the handle of the pram and she beat it off. And I got a big poisonous Black Mamba one at the end of a stick and everybody squealed and ran out!"
Just as Bill lost a close friend in Hector in 1964, Alma was devastated by the murder in 1965 of the former Sunday school teacher, Ruby Gray, from Dromara. Ruby had followed Alma to Congo to work as a missionary nurse. During the rebellion, she was speared and thrown to the crocodiles in the Congo River.
In tomorrow night's BBC1 NI documentary, Bob and his family visit Hector's burial place and the scene of Ruby's murder, where a church is being built to commemorate the sacrifice she and others made for their faith.
The one person missing is Alma, who passed away in 2007 after more than 40 years as a missionary. "If mum was here now, she would be giving you cups of tea until they were pouring out of your ears," says Bill, to his father's amusement.
After their Congo mission, Bob, Alma, Billy, David and Ruth spent 10 years speaking at various meetings and church services in Ireland, UK, Europe and the US. They sang together and recorded several albums as The McAllister Family.
Their ministry touched thousands of people around the world - people would come to see the family singing together and, each time, the story of 1964 would be told in memory of those friends who died there.
Today, Bob still misses Congo and hopes the documentary will attract new missionaries to the continent.
"I was preaching in Markethill the other day and talking about the missionary work, and a wee boy of 10 came up to me afterwards," he says. "He said, 'I enjoyed your preaching very much'. I said, 'That's good, are you going to be a preacher when you grow up'?
"'No,' he says. 'I'm going to be a missionary'. That was music to my old ears."
- A Deadly Mission Belfast To Congo airs on BBC1 NI tomorrow night at 9pm.
A compelling tale worth telling...
- In 1964, the African state of Congo was making headlines around the world as a rebellion swept across the country and the first international hostage crisis of its kind reached a dramatic conclusion
- Caught up in the eye of the storm were the McAllisters, a missionary family from Belfast
- A Deadly Mission Belfast To Congo, on BBC1 NI tomorrow night, tells the story of how Bob McAllister, his late wife, Alma, and their three children came to be in Congo, their captivity and dramatic rescues
- After narrowly escaping death in 1964, the McAllisters were once again airlifted out of the Congo and returned again in 1965
- Last year, 50 years on from the rebellion, Bob and his children, Bill and Ruth, made the journey to Congo to join his second son, David, who works for a humanitarian relief agency in the country, to remember the missionaries martyred by the Simbas
- A TV crew followed them on that emotional trip as they paid their respects and shared memories with each other of the time
- Jane Magowan, producer and director with Erica Starling Productions, says: "There aren't many men of Bob's age who would make an 800km journey through one of the most dangerous countries in Africa, but Bob McAllister is one such man. His stamina and energy are remarkable and his family's story is truly compelling. They shared their story with honesty and humility and are also able to see humour and hope in even the most dangerous places."