Solidarity, now or never

Solidarity, now or never!

Over the past months of April and May, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the martyrdom of Joaquim Vallmajó, Missionary of Africa in Rwanda from January 1966 to April 1994.

In his native land there were tributes, talks, projection of documentaries and, above all, great admiration for his person. His martyrdom-murder has left an endless number of questions in the air that not only concern him but also thousands of other people who lived through that terrifying and inexplicable catastrophe that occurred between October 1990 and December 1998. A piece of history, which should cover the double genocide of a single people with two different faces, depending on where you look from and the time in which it took place.

Joaquim Vallmajó lived these events intensely until April 26, 1994, when the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) military came to arrest him in Kageyo.

What we are interested in is his decision to stay and to give his life to the service of the people he loved with so much passion. Joaquim responded positively to the question that every missionary asks himself when faced with an extremely serious conflict situation: am I going or am I staying? This decision was not taken beforehand, and even less imposed on him. This decision needs discernment. The final decision is first and foremost up to each individual, even if it is influenced by many factors, some of which are of community and social nature.

As for Quim – such was his nickname in his family – he had made up his mind during the last two years. In June 1992, after rescuing some Rwandan novices who had been trapped in an area of insecurity, and after witnessing the departure of some confreres to the capital, he wrote in sorrow: “The fearful missionaries have fled the area, but those of us who have understood that we have married a people, we are still here !

Solidarity, now or never. From that moment on, there has only been one line of conduct for him, which led him to commit himself entirely to activities in the service of a multitude of refugees and displaced persons, wandering from one place to another, carrying their most indispensable belongings on their heads.

It is not our purpose here to narrate the vicissitudes and sufferings of the many people Quim accompanied and for whom he worked so hard for weeks and months. We are only trying to guess and recompose the martyr’s offering of his life. Martyrdom is, above all, a great gift from God. One does not desire or seek it oneself, but one accepts and welcomes it when the time comes. We seek the reason for his choice between life and death; the reason for risking everything for him in the face of the immense socio-political and military tragedy that was clearly upon him. Quim was an expert in the area and in the ways in which he called “political disasters, both on one side and the other”. He, for his part, had had good and poor relations with both sides. In carrying out his projects he had only one objective: to improve the living conditions of all the people, especially the poorest.

From his many letters to family and friends, we have extracted a few paragraphs that indicate his willingness to go all the way. They are written with a pen, rushing and without hesitation, on thin sheets of airmail paper. We now have filed them away as if they were his will. They are engraved as if on parchment, to last for ever…

In October 1992, Quim is in a critical situation; he is very tired physically, has to deal with critics for his humanitarian emergency management and cannot find any confrere to continue in his ways.

Angry and hurt, at the end of a hard day at the wheel of his truck, a child, crossing the road, shouted at him: “Komera, Padiri”, that is, “Courage, Father”. Quim confesses that “he fell off his horse like St. Paul saying ‘it was you, Lord, once more’.”

In December 1993, taking advantage of a trip to Europe to contact various organizations and ask for help, he stopped in his homeland to spend Christmas at home and greet family and friends.

When he said goodbye to the Bishop of Girona, he gave him to understand that “it was very probable that they would not see each other any more”. He also left some friends a lot of slides about “the exodus” and the camps, telling them that they would serve them more than himself.

The events of 1994 began to precipitate in February. Quim, with a prophetic vision, exclaimed: “We are headed for civil war as in Burundi! A month later, he reflects his pain and indignation with the regimes, and renews his commitment to the most disinherited. He wrote a long and risky letter. Among other very harsh things, he says: “Power goes crazy and absolute power goes absolutely crazy. I am afraid of the madmen in power…”

On April 6, the night of the attack on the presidential plane, he was caught in Kageyo, at the convent of some religious friends. There he was confined until the end. He took advantage of the time to make a spiritual retreat and visit the surroundings. Sister Marie Pascale of Byumba, 7 km away, left a few sentences in her diary, an expression of his last wish. He had told her: “I am staying even if I have to die. We know that missionary life involves this. Our Founder, Charles Lavigerie, sent his first missionaries and said to them: ‘Go, go, you already have a visa for martyrdom’.” Twice, both the day before his arrest and the day before his martyrdom, UN soldiers came to evacuate him, but he refused to leave his people. He was really looking forward to returning to his parish to see what the situation was like. He had kept in his pocket the keys of the church and of the stores.

When, in the early afternoon of April 26, RPF soldiers came to announce that their chiefs wanted to see him and talk to him, he must have felt an extraordinary inner strength. First, he reassured the nuns by saying, “I’ll be right back,” and then, as he got into the truck, he made a magnificent sign of the cross on himself. And… no one else ever saw him or knew anything sure and precise about what happened to him. A few months later, a fellow seminarian indicated the true reason for Quim’s martyrdom: “I was always convinced that for Quim the gospel that does not pass through Calvary and the cross does not lead to resurrection.” That is why, even today, his clear missionary vision continues to captivate us: “Solidarity, now or never!”

Josep Frigola, M.Afr.

Taken from the Spanish Magazine “Africana” nr. 199 of December 2019

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