As the old jeep moves swiftly along the narrow, dirt road through the forests of the Amazon, the sunlight streams down through the thick undergrowth and the eyes of the curious follow the movement of the car.
The situation is becoming difficult and Fr. Ezekiel feels the tension, aware as he is that armed conflict could break out that would affect the families of the peasants most of all. They and their many children.
For some weeks now, a group of families had occupied land on the Katuva ranch, whose property had been illegally occupied by some farmers of the area. The ranchers had set up road blocks with heavily armed guards on the approach roads, thus isolating the peasants.
On the previous day, Fr. Ezekiel, together with the president of the rural union of Cacoal, Adilio de Souza, had visited the nearby community of Road 7. While speaking with those settlers, he had told them they should do something immediately about the case of the peasants on Katuva ranch.
After the meeting, he had agreed with Adilio to go the following day to Katuva to meet the peasants, reassure them and advise them not to make the situation worse.
And so, early in the morning, he left with Adilio and arrived at 11.00am at Katuva Ranch, in the municipality of Aripuanà (Mato Grosso), about 100 Km from Cacoal. Fr. Ezekiel immediately had a meeting with a dozen or so people. He advised the peasants to steer clear of violence and said, among other things: “You must be patient for a few more days. Justice is achieved by peace, not with weapons. If you take up arms, you will come off worse, because the others are too powerful. And that is what the pistoleros want, so that they can wipe you out, under the pretext of legitimate self-defence”.
The meeting was quite short and left Fr. Ezekiel convinced that he had persuaded the farmers to stay calm and not to resort to violence. Afterwards, he and Adilio set out on their fateful return journey only to find the road blocked after a few kilometres by an off-road vehicle.
Before they could realise what was happening, a machine gun and pistols opened fire on the Jeep. The fire was concentrated on Fr. Ezekiel; in fact, he was struck by more than 100 bullets. Adilio was only slightly wounded; years later it came to light that Adilio had worked in collusion with the assassins. He had led the priest to his death.
Hearing the shots, some peasants approached, but could do nothing to help. Fr. Ezekiel was already dead, lying in a pool of blood. One of them left on foot for Cacoal, reaching the town late that night and informed the Fathers at the mission. Having spoken with the Bishop, they decided to go to the place of the shooting, where they arrived three hours later. Fr. Ezekiel was lying fifty metres from the Jeep, his body riddled with bullets and shotgun pellets.
“His shirt and trousers were soaked in blood. His neck had been hit by a close range shot from a rifle. His arms were spread out like Christ on the Cross. His watch was still on his wrist and around his neck there was his coconut chain, a gift from his Surui Indians. His usual sandals were on his feet. The Jeep had not been touched: the keys of the house, the hammock he always took with him to rest in, his personal documents and his camera – nothing was missing”. The purpose of the attack was simply to kill Fr. Ezekiel.
At that moment, someone remembered what Fr. Ezekiel had said a few days before:
“I love you all and I love justice. Let us not approve violence, even if we are treated violently. The Father who is speaking to you has received death threats. Dear brothers, if my life belongs to you, so will my death “.
Ezekiel Ramin was born in Padua, a city in the north of Italy, in 1953. He went to school at a local college. In 1972 he joined the Comboni Missionaries, was ordained priest in 1980 and left for Brazil four years later, assigned to Cacoal in Rondonia, a state in the north-east of the country.
It did not take long for Fr Ezekiel to become aware of the problem of the struggle for land which afflicted the whole region. He found himself in a place of much injustice, due to the lack of agrarian reform. Essentially the situation was one of systematic violence, in which the powerful were increasing their holdings by stealing the land from the indigenous people, after having killed or expelled them.
He once wrote in a letter: “I am on a journey with a faith that creates like the Winter creates Spring. Around me the people are dying while the landowners increase, the poor are humiliated, the police kill the peasants and all the reserves of the Indios are being invaded. Like the Winter, I create Spring. (???? What exactly do you think Fr Ezekiel meant here… do you think I could see the original Spanish or Italian? Could this be rendered – I am called in the Winter to bring forth the spring… through patience. ) My eyes find it hard to see the history of God here on earth.
The Cross is the solidarity of God which assumes the process and its pain, not to make it last forever but to end it. The way He wants to end it, is not by force or dominion but by the way of love. Christ lived and preached this new dimension. The fear of death did not make him desist from his project of love. Love is stronger than death”. His commitment brought him into conflict with the powerful and with the authorities. He received several death threats.
On 25th July 1985 he died at the early age of 32, only 5 years after his ordination.
More than thirty years have passed since the death of Fr. Ezekiel, but, in spite of a government being in place that claims to defend the poor, the situation remains unchanged. Agrarian reform goes very slowly. The landowners, who are 1% of the population, hold 44% of the arable land.
62% of these large ranches are non-productive since the ranchers often find it inconvenient to cultivate it. Whilst this land lies unused, 4.8 million peasants have no access to land. These peasants then resort to deforestation in order to gain land on which to settle, but this brings them into conflict with the Indios. Thus a war between the poor is set up by the systemic injustice.
According to the Pastoral Land Commission of the Catholic Church, in the last five years, there have been 178 deaths caused by land problems. On 9th April 2016, the process for the beatification of Fr. Ezekiel was opened.