Roberto Bardella, 52, and his cousin Rino Polato, 59, were motorbike trip partners from Italy. The two men had already taken several trips a few years prior in Chile and Argentina. Their latest trip to Brazil would end quite differently.
On the feast of the Immaculate Conception in December 2016 in Brazil (summertime in that country), the two men stopped their bikes at the statue of Christ the Redeemer, intending to travel on to the beach. But their GPS mistakenly led them through a slum guarded by drug traffickers. A group of about 12 teens, including one who was very young, fired several shots in Roberto’s direction.
His cousin Rino would end up kidnapped for several hours, thrown into the trunk of a car with Roberto’s dead body in the back seat. Rino would escape unharmed, but in shock.
Here are the words of the cousin who miraculously survived, according to Italian newspapers:
“The slum is synonymous with danger. We would have stopped to change course, but there was no time.”
A car came up alongside the bikes and Roberto fell to the ground: “He was going very slowly. I thought maybe it was an accident.” But when Rino called out to him, Roberto did not answer. He was dead, killed because he was mistaken for a policeman, probably because of the GoPro camera on his helmet.
“There were 10 kids. I was screaming, I said we were tourists, we are Italian tourists, and they surrounded me and loaded me in the car. At that point I understood what awaited me: I was the witness of a murder, so I had to disappear.”
The following hours before his release were dramatic, with a possible death sentence hanging in the air and the corpse of his cousin in the back seat.
Rino’s surprising reaction
But the words that really hit home are not the description of the killing and kidnapping. They are Rino’s words of forgiveness.
In his response, we see that the aptitude for forgiveness is cultivated, grows over a lifetime, and matures as a virtue with the help of grace and good example. People told him to forget, to escape as far as possible from those horrible people, even to put them far away from his thoughts and memory.
And he answered: “Bad people? In the eyes of those 15 teens, I didn’t see malice, only the signs of lives devastated by drugs, hopelessness.”
Already on the plane, he began to read the messages of the many Brazilians who asked for pardon, showing him love and solidarity, promising their prayers.
Roberto’s widow decides to help
Claudia, a widow at the hands of strangers whom she’s never met, followed Rino’s lead.
“Hate does not lead anywhere,” she said. But helping kids who grow up in a violent environment, deprived of a horizon of meaning and easy prey to the area’s powerful criminals, brings hope and builds up the good. It is a wall, small but strong, against evil.
And so, while the investigation continues, Rino and Claudia say they want to help the children of those slums.
“Even just a small thing. We don’t need to think big, we don’t have the tools or the skills. A turning point can also come through small changes,” they said. They struggled to find a program to support. Only several months later did they discover the name of Milli de Giacomi, a woman who founded Progredir Onlus in the Brazilian slums to offer alternatives to drugs and violence.
Now a center that was on the verge of closure is booked with events, initiatives, and guests. And it has a new name: “Roberto’s Journey.” Perhaps the cousins’ journey was not so much cut short, but unexpectedly diverted to its final destination, which we can also hurry along with our prayers.
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