In her book Journey Of Ten Thousand Smiles, there was one story that Patricia Keane wanted to include, but the storyline didn’t fit the content. Patricia shared the story with Bernie O’Hara, producer of the Medjugorje Journal, at the recent Medjugorje Retreat in Knock, and Bernie asked her to forward it for inclusion in the December’s edition of the magazine.
We present it again here for you on the eve of the new year.
It was a bleak January day in 2005 when I landed in Dubrovnik. I was on my way to Medjugorje to organise the next lot of administrative work that was involved in building the next twelve houses for families that had been ethnically cleansed from towns such as Tuzla, Vukovar and Kakanj. I phoned Mario Mijatovic to ask him what the weather was like as I knew it had been snowing there. It was late evening, and Mario suggested I stay in Cavtat for the night as there was rock hard ice on the sides of the roads and it was too dangerous to travel in the dark.
It wasn’t the best time of year to be looking for a hotel in the attractive tourist village of Cavtat, but I thought, “surely somewhere will be open”. My first port of call was to Hotel Croatia and to my surprise it was open and full of people. A receptionist called Elvis was attending the desk, and he asked what delegation I was with. “None”, I explained with a curious look. “Should I be with one?” I asked. “No, of course not, but the hotel is usually closed at this time of year, and we’re open to facilitate an international conference.”
I checked into my room and feeling tired and hungry I decided to eat early and then have an early night. I made my way to the dining room, and I was asked for a second time what delegation I was with. “None”, I replied. The hotel Manager asked me the same question, and I explained my predicament. Then four people two males and two females sat a table next to me. A tall, tanned, athletic young man in his thirties turned towards me and introduced himself and his dinner guests. “What delegation are you with?” he asked. I explained that I wasn’t with any delegation that I was on my way to Bosnia-Herzegovina and because of snow on the roads it was safer to stay for the night. “Bosnia-Herzegovina”, he said. “Where are you going there?” Not wanting to engage in too much conversation with the stranger I fobbed him off and told him Mostar. “Is Mostar anywhere near Medjugorje?” “Twenty miles or thereabouts”, I answered. Next question - “Have you ever been there?” I told him I had been a few times. “You’ve been to Medjugorje.” “Yes I have”, and all the while I was thinking would he just eat his dinner and talk to his guests. He ate a mouthful of food and turned to me again. “How many times have you been to Medjugorje?” “Fifty-five times”, and then his eyes misted over, and tears dripped down his face. “Could you help me get to Medjugorje as I promised Our Lady that if I ever had a chance, I would go there to thank her.” Now I thought “I’m in a bad situation - woman on her own being hit on by a stranger.” I didn’t offer to help I have to confess. “This guy is not letting go of this”, I thought as he turned to me again. “Can you help me get there?” Reluctantly I said, “If you really want to get to Medjugorje I will help you.” More tears but bigger ones this time. “I promise you I want to. I cannot leave this part of the world without going to thank Our Lady of Medjugorje.” “Where are you from?” I enquired. “I’m from the capital of El Salvador – San Salvadore.” “You’ve come a long way. Why are you here?” “For the FINA delegation conference.” I had never heard of FINA before, and he explained that FINA or Fédération Internationale de Natation is the international federation recognised by the International Olympic Committee for administering international competition in a water sport. Since I was going to help him get to Medjugorje, I thought I better ask what his name is. “Eduardo Paloma”, and then I introduced myself.
We chatted for the next few minutes about his days as an Olympian Rower and his awards. Before I left the table, I agreed that I would arrange for my friend to collect him from the hotel the following day. I gave him my local number and arranged for Goran to meet me in Colombo’s car park. I was still unsure what this trip was all about and if he would be at the hotel reception ready for collection when Goran arrived. A quick text from Goran confirmed they were on the way.
They arrived late afternoon just before it began to get dark. Getting into my car, Eduardo asked: “Am I safe with you?” I said to myself “well, that’s a good one. Here I am with a 6ft fit and muscular Olympic rower, and he’s asking me if he’s safe with me, and I’m just about to take him up Apparition Hill to thank Our Lady for saving his life.” “Time will reveal all”, I replied smiling.
Arriving at the foot of Apparition Hill I explained that at 5.40 every evening Our Lady is present to the visionaries in Medjugorje and that it would be lovely to be at the spot where she first appeared in 1981. The only problem with that suggestion was that we could barely see the hill as it was covered in snow and it was now almost dusk. Eduardo wanted to be at the statue of Our Lady for the apparition, and we decided to go for it.
“Now Eduardo I want to know why this is so important to you and how did Our Lady save your life?” “I’ll tell you over dinner. Let’s say the rosary first.”
We struggled up the hill slipping and sliding and pulling each other out of the snow. It was the only time that I’ve climbed Apparition Hill and didn’t see a stone or a rock in eighteen years. We knelt in the snow at the time of the apparition and Eduardo offered up his praise and thanks to the Gospa for saving his life. We slid back down the hill, shook the snow off our clothes and went to the evening services in the church.
Finally four hours later Eduardo tells me his story and the following words are his.
“My family and I grow coffee on the lush, fertile hills overlooking the city of San Salvadore. Every month I travel to the capital city of Guatemala – Guatemala City to do business as I’ve done for many years. I’ve known from reading the Salvadorian papers about the horrendous attacks that take place against tourists in Guatemala and many of those tourists are from El Salvador. They are usually robbed, beaten to a pulp and often end up paralysed for the rest of their lives.This is usually perpetrated by corrupt off duty police members who racketeer outside of Guatamala. The women are brutally raped and left to die on the side of the road, and nobody is ever arrested or brought to trial for their crimes. I had wondered if my time would one day come and so it did. I was driving in my car and was about an hour away from Guatemala City when I spotted two black cars in my rear view mirror. I prayed to God to protect me as I knew it was the killer team coming. The first car accelerated and rammed into the back of me, while the second car overtook the first black car and rammed me from the side. After three fast and furious rams, I lost control of the car and was forced to pull over. Four men dressed in black clothing jumped out shouting and screaming. To spare you all the details I was hauled from the car, bludgeoned, kicked to the ground and no part of my body wasn't marked or bleeding. They were looking for money, and I gave them my wallet. The searched the car stripping it down and when they didn’t find anything they battered the car with their batons. When they were done wrecking the car and me, they dragged me to the side of a hill and threw me over the edge. I rolled and rolled until I hit a rock big enough that blocked my body. I roared with pain as I felt every bone in my body was broken. Shaken and crying and in awful pain I slowly got the strength to pull myself up not knowing if my legs were going to hold me up or not. I knew my wrist was broken as it was bent out of shape. Over the next few hours, I crawled up the hill on my hands and knees and made my way back out onto the road. My car was still in the same position. I looked around to see if they had thrown the keys into the scrub, but I didn't find them. In my search, I found my wallet. All my credit cards and money was gone. I noticed the top part of a plastic card sticking out over the top of a pocket in the wallet, and I pulled it out. I looked at the card, and the message on the card read ‘If you knew how much I love you, you would cry tears of joy’. I fell to my knees and kissed the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I was left to die, and Our Lady had saved my life. In those moments on the ground, I promised Gospa that despite not having a clue where Medjugorje was that I would one day go there to say a special thanks to her, and here I am today fullfilling that promise thanks to the first and only true Irish woman I’ve ever met.”
Eduardo rang his bank, and his account had been cleaned out. He decided to tell his story to the Salvadorian papers, and due to his popularity, all the media outlets carried his story. He was determined he was going to make the Guatemalan government listen. Over the next three months, he received 4,000 letters from his fellow countrymen and women detailing the stories of their attacks. He launched a campaign with some friends, and within six months their “If you value your life don’t go to Guatemala campaign” featuring a paraplegic man in a wheelchair, cost the government 40 million dollars loss in revenue.
The prime minister of Guatemala phoned Eduardo asked him to end his campaign as it was hurting their economy so badly. Eduardo asked him if he had seen the hurt that his policemen had caused to his friend in the wheelchair. “When you clean up your police force, and when we can travel safely in your country I’ll call off our campaign”, he told him.
I asked Eduardo where and how did he get the strength from to go public and lead such a campaign. “I knew that Our Lady saved my life for a reason and that I had to honour that by saving the lives of others. Too many young mothers had lost their lives in Guatemala, and other lives had been destroyed by extreme violence. There is no better way to honour what Our Lady did for me than to save the lives of young mothers and fathers.”
When Eduardo flew back to El Salvadore after his trip to Croatia and his short pilgrimage of thanksgiving to Medjugorje he found out, to his amazement - that his mother had been visiting Our Lady in Guadeloupe the same day to give her thanks to her there.
footnote: Rates of crime in Guatemala are very high. An average of 101 murders per week were reported in 2016, making the country's violent crime rate one of the highest in Latin America. In the 1990s Guatemala had four cities feature in Latin America's top ten cities by murder rate: Escuintla (165 per 100,000), Izabal (127), Santa Rosa Cuilapa (111) and Guatemala City (101). According to New Yorker magazine, in 2009, fewer civilians were reported killed in the war zone of Iraq than were shot, stabbed, or beaten to death in Guatemala, and 97% of homicides "remain unsolved."