Violent death claims survivors of Brazil's child massacres

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The Independent US

Seven years ago, off-duty policemen shot and killed eight street children living outside one of Rio's landmarks. The indiscriminate killing, which became known as the Candelaria Massacre, drew condemnation from all over the world.

Seven years ago, off-duty policemen shot and killed eight street children living outside one of Rio's landmarks. The indiscriminate killing, which became known as the Candelaria Massacre, drew condemnation from all over the world.

Tales of Brazilian police shooting unwanted street children for kicks filled the media, prompting the international community to donate millions of pounds in aid.

But despite the publicity, money and countless pledges of support, the children of Candelaria were quickly forgotten. Most of them have since died in violent circumstances.

About 70 children lived rough in front of Candelaria Cathedral at the time of the shooting. Of the 62 who survived, 44 are dead, and most never made it to their twenties.

Most Brazilians felt revulsion when news of the Candelaria Massacre broke. Once again, their country was portrayed as a corrupt, lawless place where the innocent were victimised by those in power.

But surprisingly, the nation failed to provide long-term support for those who survived.While Brazil has done much over the years to reduce the number of youngsters living rough - the high-profile Candelaria kids, bizarrely, were left to fend for themselves.

Most of the 44 have died anonymously, having become involved in Rio's drug trade. Killed in street brawls or at the hands of drug dealers, they never managed to escape the poverty that originally forced them on to the streets. Some died of disease - several of Aids-related illnesses - while others were killed in shoot-outs with police, having fallen into a life of petty crime.

Cristina Leonardo, a lawyer for the Candelaria children, believes the social projects established immediately after the massacre were inadequate because the country soon lost interest in the survivors.

"At the beginning, when the media's attention was at its height, a lot of people helped these children. But as soon as interest began to wane, the projects collapsed as there was no real political will, so most of the children ended up back on the streets," she said.

One of them was Sandro do Nascimento. In June, the 21-year-old became the 44th Candelaria child to die in the past seven years.

Like many fellow street children, Nascimento was not given a stable home after the 1993 shooting. Abandoned by his mother when he was three, he had spent most of his life on the streets. He made money through crime and forgot his woes through drugs.

Despite attempts to introduce some normality into his life by settling down with a girlfriend, it became almost inevitable that Nascimento would die young. But few would have expected him to live out his final hours on nationaltelevision.

After he committed a petty theft, Nascimento jumped on a bus to escape detection. The police were alerted and raced after him. High on drugs, the youngster hijacked the bus and held the passengers hostage for four hours. Local televisionfilmed Nascimento forcing female passengers to write messages in red lipstick on the windows of the bus. One read: "He has a pact with the devil."

Agreeing to negotiate, Nascimento got out of the bus holding a female hostage at gunpoint. But instead of calming him down, nervous officers opened fire and, in reaction, he shot dead the young women.

In the mêlée that followed, the police managed to overpower him. The young man was then bundled into a van where officers suffocated him to death.

Yvonne Bezerra de Mello is one of the few charity workers who helped the Candelaria children after the massacre. She is not surprised by Nascimento's violent end, or indeed the other 43 deaths.

"A lot of money was sent to help these children get a better life but they never saw any of it. More than 300 organisations claimed to be helping street children but in reality only four did anything practical," she said. "That's why so many of the Candelaria survivors have died, because they weren't given the support to improve their lives."

Of all the children living outside Candelaria Cathedral at the time of the attack, only eight were older than 15, while the rest were aged between 5 and 14.

Ms de Mello believes that their impressionable young age was one reason they easily slipped backed into a life of drugs and crime.

Tieta, 26, a homosexual who used to dress up in women's clothes, was a mother figure to the younger kids living outside the cathedral.

"A few of us have managed to get a new life but we did so by ourselves," he said. "Being a child of Candelaria carries a lot of stigma. I never tell anyone that I lived there."

Tieta, who uses his street nickname for fear of identification, is one of only four Candelaria children to have reformed their lives. He now works collecting discarded paper for recycling, in downtown Rio. Earning around £90 a month, he lives in a makeshift wooden shack that makes houses in the neighbouring slum look luxurious.

Of the other Candelaria children still alive, three are sleeping rough, 10 are in prison or in juvenile detention centres and another has been adopted and is living in Switzerland.

One of them, an 18-year-old girl called Elisabet, is married and has two children. She lives with her grandmother in one of Rio's many shantytowns. But her former street friend, Thiago, 15, is dying of Aids. Fabio da Silva - or Baby as he was known - sporadically lived outside Candelaria.

Unlike the majority of the Candelaria children, Baby is among the few to have made something of his life. The 23-year-old says his comparatively solid family background is one reason he has been able to carve out a new life.

"Most of the children in Candelaria didn't even know who their parents were," he said. "I didn't get on with mine but at least I had some. Many people made promises to us after the massacre but few of them did anything."

Baby, who started living on the streets just after his eighth birthday, has found hope through music. Immediately after the massacre, Ms de Mello put him in contact with a local samba school where he became the cleaner and learnt to play instruments.

"The massacre changed my life because I saw how easy it was to die," he said. "At the samba school I learnt about harmony and composition. My music has given me a purpose in life." He lives in a rented room and dreams of becoming a player in one of Rio's top samba bands. He accepts that these dizzying heights are a long way off but says he is determined to struggle on.

"Samba taught me to live again," he said. "I've been lucky enough to rebuild my life. I just hope my example can help the others who survived to have dreams of their own."

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