Swiss teenager Manuela Riedo was brutally murdered in Galway six years ago, yet her grief-stricken parents continue to return to Ireland and to the scene of her death. They talk to Emily Hourican about the flaws within the Irish judicial system, why they can't forgive the killer of their only child and how the people of Galway have helped them with their pain
The violent death of a child is an event so wrong in nature that any parent would be excused for shielding themselves. For drawing a veil over traumatic details, avoiding places too associated with the death, taking what comfort can be found in ignorance.
Hans-Peter and Arlette Riedo have chosen to do the exact opposite. When I meet them in a hotel in central Galway, it is their 10th visit to the city where their 17-year-old daughter, their only child, Manuela, was raped and murdered on October 8th, 2007.
Because she never left the city where she was to have stayed for just two weeks, they come back, year after year. At home in Bern, her bedroom is just as it was, with the photo album in which she had written "Ireland", ready for the photos she would take. Her parents have those photos, but will not stick them in. "That would have been her job," says her mother, Arlette.
Manuela, a girl with a smile as broad and bright as a beam of light, had left home just two days earlier for the very first time. She planned to go to San Diego for a year later on, to perfect her English, and Galway was a kind of trial run, an opportunity for her to take her first steps away from the warm, loving nucleus of family she had grown up in. She came with a group of students, and was enrolled in English classes that were due to start on October 9. The afternoon of the eighth, she texted her mother: "It's raining but everything is super." Later that evening, Manuela walked into town alone, from her host family's house in Renmore, taking a popular short-cut, the Line. There she encountered Gerald Barry, who had a history of violence, had repeatedly attacked his former girlfriend, culminating in her getting a protection order against him, and had raped a French student just seven weeks before he killed Manuela. He raped her, then strangled her, pressing down so hard on her neck that the slim gold chain she wore, with two crosses, bit a pattern into her neck. The vivid future she had planned for herself ended in that moment.
"She was like a baby in a fairytale," is how Hans-Peter describes Manuela in A Claddagh From Manuela, the documentary about her death and the aftermath, to be shown next Sunday as part of the Would You Believe? series on RTE1. And indeed, the old photos and film footage show a child who shines with delight and affection. "We enjoyed being a family," Hans-Peter adds, a remark all the more touching in its understatement; clearly, together they made up a kind of magic circle of three. "She was very advanced for her age," Hans-Peter proudly says of his daughter. "She planned way ahead and knew exactly what she wanted. She got that from Arlette."
So why on earth would they ever come back to the city where this beloved child met a most terrible end? "First, because we have friends here," says Arlette, "and secondly, this is where Manuela was alive for the last time, and to us it is like a magnet. We want to come here, to be close to that place where she was alive. We feel she is still here."
"We have the grave at home, where her mortal remains are," Hans-Peter agrees; "but her spirit is here." Is it a quiet spirit, I ask? "I'm still looking for that," says Arlette.
We talk through an interpreter, but there is none of the distance such a process can involve. Both Hans-Peter and Arlette laugh and smile often, reaching out for hugs and to clasp hands, but in repose, their faces are set in lines of sadness. Hans is quieter, Arlette more outgoing, but both have a similar strength and quiet steel. Perhaps it's a family thing, as well as husband and wife, they are first cousins.
"Manuela was a mixture between the two of us, so we feel we know what she would have enjoyed if she was here," Arlette tries to explain. "When here, we are experiencing what she would have experienced. At home, there are reminders but they are sad reminders, the past. Here, it's more oriented towards the future, particularly thanks to the Foundation: it's about looking forward, helping other people. Life is going on here, in Manuela's name. At home, she is starting to be forgotten. Everyday life moves on; it's normal," she shrugs slightly. Normal, yes, but heart-breaking too.
"In Switzerland, when we talk about Manuela with people who knew her," Hans-Peter continues, "there is a sadness because those people are grieving too. Here, people know us. They know Manuela through what we tell them. They didn't know her personally, so it's not as sad when we talk about her. Also, Irish people tend to approach us. In Switzerland, people don't do that. They don't want to bother us, which can leave you feeling quite lonely. Here, people come up to us in the town, people we have never met."
It is this impulse, of ordinary Galway people to reach out and speak to the Riedos, to try and atone for the tragedy that happened on their patch but through no fault of theirs, that accounts for Hans-Peter and Arlette's continued visits. In the weeks and months following Manuela's death, they received an outpouring of letters and parcels from people across Ireland. They began to meet some of the people who had been profoundly touched by the tragedy. Sam Beardon, the sculptor and jeweller who found Manuela's body, and says he felt darkness in his life for many months afterwards; Tom Connell, a local farmer who carved a wooden cross and placed it close to where her body was found, so moved was he by the appalling violence; Eoin Durkin, who speaks a bit of German and works with the Foundation; the garda liaison officers assigned to the case, and who travelled with Manuela's coffin back to Bern. All these people and many more have become friends, transcending language and cultural barriers, and the residual shame felt by many of them at Ireland's failure to protect Manuela.
"We don't blame Galway, or anyone in Galway," Hans-Peter is quick to say. "If we blame anyone, it's the judicial system that made a mistake, and the guy who did it of course. Our family in Switzerland don't understand that. They say, 'why do you keep going to Galway? That is a bad place.' But what if it had happened in Bern? Would we have to move, to leave there?"
"You need to continue to look for light somewhere, a positive glimmer of life," is Arlette's conviction. "Many people don't manage to find that. If you can find the light, you're very lucky. It's a long and difficult path to get there. There are good phases, where you feel you're making progress, then something happens, and it feels as if you have to start again from scratch."
The Manuela Riedo Foundation is very much part of the light. Each year, the people of Galway raise money, mainly through music gigs, which goes to the Foundation, some €140,000 so far, and is then donated to organisations such as the Rape Crisis Centre, to help treat and prevent sexual violence. The first concert happened just a few months after the court case, at which Barry was sentenced to life in prison for his crime. "At that gig, everyone was crying, there was no need for words. Things were still very raw," says Hans-Peter. Since then, each time they have come back to Galway, they have made new friends.
However, there is another reason for the consistency of their return. That is, by their presence, to remind the judicial system and the State, that there is a wrong still outstanding. "A lot of people don't understand why we come back. My mother says 'leave it, you're driving yourself crazy'." says Arlette, "but that's the way I am. I want to know. We're stubborn about certain things." She shrugs. "We're not angry, but be honest with us." It is, for both of them, the bottom line. And they feel that full honesty and openness is still denied, largely through what seems an insensitive and inadequate legal system.
"There are pages missing in our book. There are still things we don't know. We have the story, but pages are missing," says Hans-Peter, quietly, but with resolution. No interpreter was provided during the trial, they were told it was too expensive, and the system didn't readily permit such a thing and so neither Hans-Peter nor Arlette understood most of what was being said. They could tell when something upsetting was revealed, because people around them would start to cry, but that was all. They claim they were promised the court documents once the trial was finished, but these have since been refused, on the basis that they are not the victims in the case, and only victims have the right to see the reports. "We just accepted it. Now, we would say something, but at the time, it was all so new, so overwhelming, we just went along," says Arlette. "The judicial system has failed us. We have always tried to be positive about the country. More and more, we feel anger. This is another reason why we keep coming back, to show that we are not going to go away. We still want to see the court documents, we are still writing letters."
And they will continue to do so. "I want to know, for closure, I need to know everything about my daughter," says Arlette. This need is also what makes her regret not coming to Galway immediately they were given the terrible news.
"We didn't come to Ireland, we waited for Manuela to come home to us. At the time, I didn't see the point in coming to Galway, I thought, 'what am I going to do? Talk to my dead daughter and tell her everything is going to be OK?'
"Looking back, I regret that. I should have come. I feel I am lacking that image of my daughter when she was just dead.
"I'm missing the picture of my daughter the way she was when she just died. In hindsight, there is this negative thing of the missing picture. The first few times, I kept looking for something, obsessively. Now, I'm letting go of that."
On each visit, they walk through the Line, where Manuela walked, then to the place where her body was found, where Tom Connell's shrine is, then into town. "It's very important, we know every stone of the way at this stage," says Hans-Peter. Does it change for them, as the years pass, this pilgrimage? "We felt our life was over. Now, we feel we've come a certain distance, and things are changing."
Both are religious, and continue to feel the presence of God in their lives, "although we lost our faith a little bit", says Hans-Peter. "God forgot our daughter." Neither can they countenance the notion of forgiveness for Barry. "It is impossible," says Arlette. "He is a human being, but a human being like that doesn't deserve to be forgiven. As a Catholic, I know I should forgive, but I can't. If he came in here crawling on the ground, asking for water, I would look at him and say 'die'. It is cruel maybe, but that's how I feel. We have met people who said, 'he is a human, he had a weak moment'. I am religious, but there is a point where it stops."
"He might have had a weak moment, we have pain for the rest of our lives," says Hans-Peter.
So will they continue to come to Galway? "We've come in all different seasons, there are just four months in which we have never visited, so we will come at least until we have seen every month," says Hans-Peter. Arlette adds: "Manuela had a large circle of friends from school, from ice hockey and dance club she went to. She would have made a few good friends here too. Now, we have them instead."
A Claddagh From Manuela will be broadcast on RTE1 as part of the Would You Believe? Series, Sunday February 9th, 10pm