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Our Mercedes Benz GD290 – A Car with a Story to Tell!
Monday, 28 May 2018 Written by Valerie Ken

Mercedes Benz GD290

This is a remarkable story about a vehicle with a real history…… If this sturdy, well built, well-loved Mercedes Benz GD290 could speak, it would be a story to be told time and time again... Let me see if I can do the story justice...

As some of you may recall, in 1994 a horrific genocide took place in Rwanda, a tiny country in the heart of Africa. From April 7th to the end of July people of the Tutsi tribe, as well as many sympathizing Hutus were targeted and killed by those using clubs and machetes and hoes. In the midst of this unspeakable violence and terror, there was a Croatian Roman Catholic priest, fra Vjeko Curic, living in Rwanda – a man who knew no fear and who remained in the country, determined to help as many people as he could to survive the slaughter that was happening.

Mercedes Benz GD290

Fra Vjeko had arrived to Rwanda many years earlier, in 1983 as a young man, aged 26 years. He started up a Franciscan friary in the village of Kivumu in the district of what was then known as Gitarama. As a priest in the Franciscan order, fra Vjeko devoted himself to serving the needs of the poorest of the poor and was much loved by all who knew him. He had mastered the local language of Kinyarwanda perfectly and worked very hard, living among the people of the community.

Vjeko Ćurić

When war in Rwanda broke out, many people gathered together in camps where they hoped they would be safe. The conditions were deplorable but they could not leave these camps, even to find food, because if they did, they risked certain death. Fra Vjeko took great chances to help these people. He began to go to neighbouring Burundi, making many, many trips where he brought back beans, posho (a white cornmeal), rice and cassava supplied by aid organizations to feed the displaced persons in these camps. Many locations became havens of refuge for this minority tribe, the Tutsi, who were targeted to be killed. In the Southern Province of Rwanda, places like Butare, Gikongoro. Ruhango and Kabgayi camps were set up, with each one holding around 40,000 people. Fra Vjeko tried to help all these people in any way he could. As well, he hid people in his vehicle, taking them to safety out of country whenever he could manage. He did it by bluffing and bribing – anything that would work to save them. (Father Vjeko Curic)

Fra Vjeko was in touch with one organization called Catholic Relief Services in Burundi. When they saw what he was doing in Rwanda, he was offered the gift of the Mercedes Benz GD290 jeep, but only on the condition that he would bring members of the CRS organization into Rwanda so they could witness first hand the atrocities that were being committed. He agreed to this and that is how the Mercedes Benz came to be in Rwanda.

The jeep was outfitted with a large antenna that connected to a satellite phone, allowing fra Vjeko communication with the outside world. At one point, in late July, fra Vjeko used the Mercedes jeep to drive Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome, to several locations in Rwanda. The Cardinal had been sent by Pope Jean Paul II to meet with the two sides to try to bring some kind of peace to stop the horrible massacres that were happening. But this was to no avail. Sadly, by the time the genocide was ended, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

The reconstruction of ravaged Rwanda was a huge task. Now Fra Vjeko valiantly tried to help as many people as possible, regardless of tribe. He worked tirelessly to restore some kind of normalcy to the lives of those who had suffered so greatly. To travel the great distances he needed to cover in order to bring assistance to the needy, he had to keep the Mercedes in good running condition. To do this, he often asked another friar, fra Ivica Peric (a Bosnian Croat), who was working in Uganda at the time, to take the Mercedes to the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where there was a garage capable of servicing the vehicle.

During the time of the genocide and in the aftermath, fra Vjeko’s own life was in grave danger… much so that a German friend gave him a bullet proof vest to wear. No doubt fra Vjeko saw the worst of what had happened in Rwanda. Nevertheless, he stayed on and tried to help with rebuilding the country. He had dreams of constructing a school where young people would learn a skill in order to give them a future.

But tragically, before that could become a reality, at the age of 41 years, he was killed. It happened in the very car that he had used to save so many lives. One night, January 31, 1998, he was in the car in Kigali with two persons that he knew (we suspect this because he was not wearing his bullet-proof vest at the time). It appears that one held him back while the other fired eight shots into his body. This all happened in front of the Holy Family Church. The car rolled into a nearby ditch and the killers escaped. (his death)

His body is now buried beneath a marble slab in the church he had built in Kivumu, which was his request – to not leave Rwanda.

Mercedes Benz GD290

What happened to the car? Well... immediately after the death of fra Vjeko, it was taken over by the Diocese. Sadly, it was driven by seemingly poor drivers and was not well maintained. Eventually, it was no longer running and sat idle for at least three years. What a great misfortune for a car that had such a noble history!

So... fast forward another few years, and in 2003 fra Ivica Peric was sent from Uganda to Rwanda to take up the work where fra Vjkeo had left off. Today, in the village of Kivumu, Fra Ivica runs Padri Vjeko Centre, this very large, very successful trade school, which was named in honor of the man who did so much for the people of Rwanda.

When fra Ivica first arrived to Rwanda, he knew where the Mercedes was being kept. In 2012, after a great deal of negotiating, he managed to buy back the jeep from the Diocese for the sum of 3,000,000 Rwf (Rwandan francs) - about $5,000 at the time. To restore the vehicle to a driving state, he sent for a mechanic from Uganda to work alongside a local Rwandan mechanic (who, in fact, to this day, does all repairs on the Mercedes). The car was constantly overheating and thinking the engine needed to be replaced, one was sent from Germany. After installing it and finding the same problem, it was discovered that it was simply a wiring connection, costing all of $6 in local wages to replace! And now the old engine is being safely stored at the Kivumu friary in case it should ever be needed.

As the years have gone on, the well-built Mercedes Benz GD290 has given great service to Padri Vjeko Centre. It is well maintained by Emmanuel, a self-taught mechanic from nearby Gitarama town (now known as Muhanga). The seals around the windows and doors have long since become brittle and broken away, and the trim over the wheel wells has been lost. The headlights and side view mirrors have been replaced many times over. But the Mercedes runs like a charm and now sports two Calgary Stampeder logos – the white horses – on its rear door... (grin).

Mercedes Benz GD290

Since the engine was replaced in 2012, the vehicle has logged over 100,000 km. It continues to make frequent trips to Uganda, to Burundi and Congo, as well as all over Rwanda as the need arises! This Mercedes Benz gets 100 km per 10 liters of fuel and every 3,000 km, the air filter has to be cleaned because of all the African dust it takes in, as well as the oil and diesel filters replaced.

What a vehicle and what a history! It continues to serve with honour, with two bullet holes remaining in the door on the driver’s side... a sad reminder of the tragic death of a really good man, fra Vjeko Curic, who once drove this car to help others survive.

Mercedes Benz GD290

Mercedes Benz GD290

Father Vjeko Center

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