The meeting doesn’t start off well. A couple of people, one drunk at the bar and the other just returning from mass see us with cameras hanging around our necks, pen and paper in hand and get annoyed on seeing the lens point their way. An argument erupts, fortunately resolved by the two Italian volunteers who are with us. We are in Belford Roxo, a neighbourhood North-East of Rio de Janeiro in an area known as the Baixada Fluminense. It consists of an area of about 44,000 square kilometers with around three million inhabitants. Sadly, it is known for being controlled by two parallel factions of drug traffickers and extermination groups commanded by the military police. In Belford Roxo there are 44,000 inhabitants and in 2002 the death rate was 85 people for every 100,000.
As soon as we arrive we are warned that there are a few rules to respect, for example the ten o’clock curfew and to be discreet when asking questions, even if we are accompanied by a religious group. We come to know through word of mouth about the presumed link between the ex-mayor and the extermination groups, and the involvement of his successor (his wife) after he was assassinated in an attempted robbery. It is not just these extermination groups who – as with the mafia in Italy – demand money in exchange for protection and commit executions when they come to know of a robbery or if someone from the public asks for help. Some areas are controlled through drug trafficking that are operated by factions such as the ADA (Amigos dos Amigos), CV (Comando Vermelho) and the TC (Terceiro Comando). In this state of confusion and impunity the government manages to do very little and we become direct witnesses to the effective use of funds from the project Fome Zero (roughly translated as the ‘No Hunger’ campaign).
A desolate image is created by the parallel forces that have replaced the state, often due to historical reasons. The Baixada consists of thirteen districts including those of Nova Iguaçu and Queimados, known for the massacre of 31st March 2005 in which 29 people were killed “accidentally” by members of the military police. Before the Second World War the Baixada Fluminense was a thriving region producing oranges that were exported to Europe across the Atlantic. During the Second World War the orange market fell drastically and the state decided to intervene, dividing the territory into purchasable lots at low prices. The old and new proprietors of the land and the assassin squads hired by the land owners had a brutal confrontation, and the systematic executions linked firstly to the division of the land then to the management of power began. Even the corruption within the military police seems to have historical reasons. This organization was in fact created by the government in 1967 with explicit aims to repress.
This was the introduction that was presented to us and that is also expressed through mass media and various studies conducted by the UERJ (State University of Rio de Janeiro), in collaboration with some NGO’s. We dived into this world a little wary but with plenty of curiosity, helped along the way by Italian volunteers and Italian and Brazilian religious groups.
A few priests and deacons work in this area coming from the Don Ottorino Zanon community near Vicenza, Italy, and for many years they have been present in the Baixada with and extraordinary passion and energy. They work together with some other Italian deacons and volunteers like Simone Petracchi, a Florentine who runs a theatre course and some Brazilian nuns organized by Tânia Maria Cordeiro. The Salesian nuns are supported by the Italian NGO “Vides” that sends appropriately prepared volunteers from Italy, and it is they who take Lorenzo (the photographer) and I to visit various social projects. With their help we are introduced to various houses and allowed a deeper vision into life in this small suburb. We are also informed about a protest movement for a house and a piece of land that pushed around two hundred people to live in overcrowded conditions on a hill near the centre of the city. The aim of the Italian religious groups is mostly that of creating opportunities, and on getting people used to relying on their own work, getting through life on their own account. Vito shows us some handmade products made by men and women of the religious community linked to the parish church. The idea was his own, but it was the group that brought the idea to life. He shows us hair bands, bags made of a long zip that is often seen being sold on Copacabana beach, and some bible covers made from coffee filters. He is a delightful man; it’s nice to hear him speak. We go to accompany him on one of his visits to the site of the Movimento Dos Trabalhadores Desempregados, roughly translated as the Organized Unemployed in English. We find ourselves on a small hill at the top of the district called Jardim Barra Vermelho that not long ago was known as “Quebra Coco” (literally meaning ‘broken coconut’, coconut being a metaphor for the head). It was famous for being one of the most violent areas that was also run by drug traffickers, but has now been reconstructed by the council who built 1,500 houses, replacing the wooden shacks that were there before. On the site, however, there are still a few wooden shacks where some families still live in small rooms. Protests began about a year and a half ago when the number of houses built did not correspond to those that had been promised. Many of the campers and squatters left difficult family situations to take part in the protests hoping to gain a victory. They are now given assistance by religious communities and some members of the federal government linked to the Sem Terra movement. They continue fighting whilst living among the dirt, confirming however that they are free men who are trying to maintain their rights. Rege Célia is part of the management team.
“We occupied this territory in August 2004, and after a year and a half of fighting we are practically without drinking water. We are fighting for a house and a piece of land, although even a piece of land would be enough – with that we could build a house ourselves. Our settlement is called Carlos Lamarca after a Brazilian sergeant who, during the dictatorship, switched to the opposition and resisted the regime. He was persecuted and killed while his wife escaped and fled to Cuba. Each one of us here has suffered through extremely difficult personal problems – I have recently gone through a painful separation – other people have escaped from violent homes and some have come here with their families in the hope of building themselves a house one day. Our movement is called the MTD and in the south of Brazil it is connected with the MST, the Sem Terra that fights for the equal share of cultivated land. Our battle, my friend, is against the government – the traffickers respect us and even though we are surrounded by rival factions like the ADA and the CV, we have never encountered any problems.”
Rege Célia begins to talk of the ex-mayor: “I don’t care about how famous he became, to me he was a good person that opened up job opportunities for many people. I was president of the Residents Association in the Iterlandia district; I knew him, he was brave and often went to places where drugs were sold. He listened to everyone and tried his best to help. Personally, I think they killed him because he knew too much.”
Among the campers is a man named Vernaldo, 51, who lives with his family and his 82 year old blind father in law, Manuel, 72 years old and Maria, 56 years old. Before they lived in Nova Iguaçu, where they paid rent in a house, but had to move due to Manuel’s medical bills. Manuel is from Paraíba in the North of Brazil and traveled to São Paulo in 1962. He tells us that even in this day and age in the North people often go two or three months without the possibility of getting a job, often due to the extremely humid climate.
“At least between Rio and São Paulo I never went hungry. Where I come from rice, corn and beans are grown in January, when normally it rains a lot. If it doesn’t rain nothing grows and the population goes hungry. For a long time I worked in the São Cristóvão fair in Rio de Janeiro, often for Italian and Portuguese people.”
Marcus Vinicius – father of the family – is dressing himself smartly because he is about to go and work in Copacabana. He will be part of the security team of the tennis court on the beach, in which the Brazilian tennis player Guga will be promoting a sporting project to help poor children. Marcus Vinicius will earn thirty Reais, from which he will have to subtract the cost of two return bus and train tickets: four tickets in all for a three and half hour journey in total.
Tânia Maria Cordeiro talks to us about her job with the Salesians in Belford Roxo: “There were three of us to start with in 1998 and we spent two years following the parish and studying the social environment. The parish project was the only option for social integration. All the children run the risk of falling into drug trafficking or prostitution and we try to follow the teaching of Don Bosco in helping educate these children, focusing primarily on the parish. However, many of the children have suffered sexual abuse, some have psychological problems, and we try to respond to this with affection and care. We also receive financial help from the State, and we are part of the Fome Zero campaign, as you can see from the children’s t-shirts.
The problems in Belford Roxo are practically innumerous, from the lack of food to the precarious health situation, from the open sewers to the corrupt politicians, from the need for jobs and structure to the violence and to a culture that isn’t built on working but on idleness. Many people, often too many, cling on to the help given to them from the State subsidies and don’t think about trying to live off their own backs.”
We visit a few houses with Albertina and Maria Aparecida, two local nurses. We come up close to the most common diseases in Belford Roxo. “We have many cases of people with heart problems, diabetes, TB and worms. These diseases are caused due to various factors, although mostly because of a poor diet lacking in meat and fruit, and the water hygiene is in an awful condition. Many people drink unfiltered water here. There are also cases of HIV but we cannot do much research as many of the HIV victims are members of gangs. We also find people who have contracted HIV through a sexual abuse.”
Aside from the troubles in Belford Roxo our interviewees find it isn’t all bad. Very few suggest to us that they want to leave and many are fighting to improve the situation there. For many the circumstances are already becoming far easier than they have been. Before leaving, the Parish Priest Dom Manuel – seeing our anxiety on getting on the bus with various rolls of camera film and photographic equipment – tells us not to worry and adds:
“Rio de Janeiro is much more dangerous and violent than the Baixada. If you’ve survived Rio then the Baixada can’t scare you.”
Translated by Sofia Lisowski
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