August Dutch documentary maker Marijn Poels travelled together with Dutch photographer Jan Janssen to Rio de Janeiro for a documentary about street children, focussing on the preparations for the World Cup Football in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. His experiences combined with studying official papers inspired him to write this article.
Rio de Janeiro – It is late afternoon. I am walking the sandy streets of a favela against the “Attero Sanitário de Jardim Gramacho”, a garbage dump in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. Here twenty thousand people live in slums surrounded by waste. Here the irony of the name Carioca becomes clear; it is the name of cheerful music and a dance, but at the same time it is the name for an inhabitant of Rio de Janeiro. This district of Rio does not have any sanitation or clean water. The slums have been built with cardboard, plastic and wood from the dump. Above the huts a black cloud develops, originating from fermented waste burst into flames. Like a layer of fog the smoke travels through the streets. The smell of decaying meat, fruit and burnt plastic triggers my nose unpleasantly. Every five minutes large trucks filled with waste roar past the slums. Playfully children follow a truck which dumps its load of waste from Rio de Janeiro onto the rubbish heap.
The area, just like many other favelas in Rio, is dominated by the drugs mafia and armed militia. For decades favelas have not been officially acknowledged by the government, resulting in the presence of drugs gangs and militia. Corrupt policemen are being bribed by the mafia with large sums of money that give the gangs dominance over the district. Desperation rules. Children in the favelas are being recruited by the mafia to serve as cannon fodder working for organised crime. Fatinha Pereira da Silva, living in Rio, prohibits that we use our camera. The last few days there has been many shootings in the district between rivalling mobs and the situation is tense. Fatinha runs a small school in the favela to keep the children out of the hands of the militia..
Together with her and the Belgian social worker Jan Daniëls we enter one of the dumps. Numerous black vultures glide above the smouldering garbage, peering at delicacies. In front of me two large pigs are digging in the plastic with their noses and a scrawny dog has half a vulture carcass between its jaws. Four inhabitants turn over the heaps of garbage looking for edible fruit, meat or useful materials. Every turn brings the black birds closer. Man versus vulture. At the edge of the waste there are slums housing families. A crate with second hand fruit saved from the waste is in front of one of the slums. In the background the chimneys of oil refinery Reduc are burning. It is hard to imagine that I am only half an hour's drive away from Copacabana. Despite the risks I take out my camera and start to film.
I ended up here because seven days ago, together with street workers from the social organization AMAR, I went looking for street children. In front of the central station, in the centre of Rio, we found a group of fifteen street children among which the fifteen year old Alek. He fled the favela by the garbage dump because he received death threats from the drugs mob in the district.
Living on the streets, Alek tried to earn money as a shoe polisher to support his family. The group of street children, ages from eight to fifteen, reacts dazed. Many of them inhale thinner from a plastic bottle, a cheap intoxicating substance. A cigarette with crack circulates amongst the youngsters. Two meters further a child lies groaning on his side. His name is Luis Fernandes. He was a victim of police violence tonight. The severe wounds to the back of his head tell the story.
‘One policeman repeatedly beat the back of the boy’s head with the grip of a revolver,’ Alek says. ‘The man threatened to put a bullet through his brain the next time he would meet him on the street.’ He defended Luis that night. Both boys survived. ‘But often these encounters between street children and police are fatal,’ social worker Jan Daniëls adds.
‘Rio de Janeiro wants to get rid of visible poverty in the streets,’ the Belgian social worker explains. ‘Especially now that the region attracts the world media due to the World Cup football in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 coming up. The government leaves no stone unturned to make the tourists and investors feel safe during these world events. They want to cleanse the city of street poverty. The city council has adopted a brutal strategy of repression resulting in arrests of street children, putting them in youth prisons. The police often wage war against the kids with fully automatic guns, truncheons, tear gas and shock weapons’.
For this purpose the city council founded a special service named “choque de ordem”, discipline shock. Armed militaries drive in black armoured cars; intimidating white skulls on the side of the cars make them recognisable. Street occupants are forced to leave, their blankets and mattresses are burnt. Their food is taken away and in the evenings serious violence is being used. During these military operations street children often disappear for good.
A striking example was the preparation of the United Nations Rio+20 conference about sustainable development in July 2012 in Rio de Janeiro. Between February and May 2012 the government arrested 4,000 street children as part of the social cleansing. Several NGOs in Rio reacted and demanded a parliamentary hearing to explain what happened to the 4,000 children. The government did not reply. Fact is that during Rio+20 nearly no street children were visible to the political world leaders. For a short while the city posed as a thriving metropolis.
According to the Brazilian youth law reintegration of the arrested street children should take place. In reality this is not the case. Even a reliable and transparent monitoring of this youth law is lacking.
On August 14th of this year the IBGE, the demographic institute of Brazil, published shocking figures. Only in the federal state Rio de Janeiro 90,000 people disappeared during two decades. Their bodies have never been found. More than half of the disappearances are minors. The institute registers four murdered children per day in Rio, plus eight disappearances. Each day twelve children disappear from the face of the earth without an explanation from the government.
The majority of the lost children are black and live in poverty in favelas or on the streets. This is reported by the OAB (Order of Lawyers in Brazil) in a recently published article. Between 2001 and 2011 more than 10,000 victims shot by the police were recorded in the police statistics of Rio de Janeiro, under the denominator “offered resistance”. In reality these are executions, writes the OAB.
Several hours after I met Alek, I have an appointment at the children’s rights centre Cedeca with Dayse Silva De Carvalho. She is a 43 year old mother who wants to make an important testimony. She lives in the favela Cantagalo. Her son Andreu (17) was a street boy. He tried to earn money on the streets for his family. The police took him in together with a friend for questioning on suspicion of theft. The boy was systematically being tortured in a cell by six guards. The last torture session lasted 22 hours after which he died as a result of his injuries.
The youth prison informed the family that he died due to a fall from the prison wall while trying to escape. His friend who survived told another story. Dayse took action and together with some NGOs she opened his grave to give her son an official post mortem. The report was more in consistence with the testimony of his friend than with the official story from prison. Feet, legs, arms, rib cage and neck vertebra were broken. Apparently he was stabbed several times with an ice pick and guards hit him with a jute bag filled with stones. The case became quite big and cartoonist Carlos Latuff published a cartoon about it in a liberal Brazilian paper. However, the case petered out and according to the affected mother the guards still work at the youth prison.
Dayse still fights for her rights, but several times she has been threatened, she says. ‘Only recently a policeman entered my house threateningly to tell me to stop my activism against the police. If not, I might end up with a stray bullet through my head. I will not be frightened and I will keep fighting for my son’s justice,’ the mother adds courageously.
Jan Daniëls fears that the human rights violations against street children will become worse in anticipation of the World Cup. ‘Some months before the sports event the city will stop at nothing to cleanse the street view from visible poverty. I am afraid this will not be done peacefully. The youth prisons where the children are being held are no transparent organizations. Nobody knows what happens inside.’ The World Cup will definitely be held in Brazil. ‘There is no plan-B,’ FIFA General Secretary Jerone Valcke said during a recently organized press conference. This statement increased the pressure for Brazil.
In February 2013 Rio de Janeiro stated clearly that sports evens are not meant for the poorer classes of Rio. Apart from the fact that many unfavourable favelas have been demolished, in February the police violently cleared the old Indian museum. The ruins, which lawfully belong to the indigenous people and which are located next to the world famous Maraceña stadium, are a gadfly to the city council. Here they planned a shopping centre and a parking lot. Women and children were harmed with pepper spray and the Indians were driven from their territory with sonic weapons. Thus, Brazil became the first country in the world that used sonic weapons against their own inhabitants.
Prices in the city are rising sky high, human rights are badly violated. Their own population is driven away or liquidated in the name of national sports. The city and the nation prostitute themselves and fly like the big vultures in the world’s spotlights.
On the way back to our accommodation we drive alongside Copacabana. I watch the hundreds of tourists who gather wonderfully tanned on the yellow beaches. Lured by political propaganda they stroll the boulevard unawares. Because behind the curtains of the city blood flows in name of Copacabana, Christ and the Olympics. And thus, the sports lover will buy a ticket for the World Cup, unaware that every ticket holds the blood of a Carioca.