Millionairess rescues Brazil's slum children

Phil Davison meets a woman saving youngsters from death or degradation
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Rio de Janeiro - Joseph was not yet cold. But he was certainly dead. The women in surrounding shanty huts, who smoked and clutched babies as they peered in at his body, had seen enough dead people to know the difference.

So had Yvonne Bezerra di Mello, a 48-year-old millionaire's-wife, turned angel-of-mercy, who was making her daily visit to Rio's homeless street children. "There's one or two dead almost every day. Children, babies. Life and death means nothing here," she told me. The neighbours wanted her to get rid of the body. Rio's slum dwellers are not keen on going to the police and the sentiment is reciprocated.

Joseph was not a child. He appeared to be in his thirties and, by all accounts, was one of many Fagin-like males who dominate groups of orphaned street children. Neighbours said they had seen ragged boys as young as six living in his hut. They had disappeared earlier that morning, presumably after finding him dead.

No one knew his second name or whether he had a family. They knew only that he wore his frizzy hair in a bun, sold his body and probably those of his boy companions to men by day and sniffed glue or drank sugarcane alcohol in hut number SMH 120 by night. One of these vices seems to have killed him.

It was just another day at the "office" for Dr Bezerra, a philology graduate from the Sorbonne whose husband, Alvaro, is president of the Brazilian Hotel Association, a member of the family that owns the giant Othon hotel chain and one of Brazil's wealthiest men.

Two years ago, after police executed seven street children outside Rio's Candelaria church just to get them off the streets, she put away her jewels, gave up her coffee mornings and dedicated most of her days to helping street children survive.

Every weekday morning, around 8am, her chauffeur, nicknamed Ayrton because of the way he weaves through Rio traffic, takes her from her luxury penthouse on Flamengo beach to a shanty settlement known as Coqueirinho (Little Palm) beneath concrete flyovers in the poor Sao Cristovao district. On the way, she stops to pick up coffee, cocoa, bread, butter, beans, cheese and rice.

At the shanty town she is rushed by children who clutch at her legs and climb to stroke and smell her clean, well-groomed hair.

On the day I accompanied her, the first order of the day was Joseph's body. She told his neighbours she would call the police on her way out. The neighbours replied that they would move out of the area until the police had gone. Nobody wanted to deal with the police, whom they blame for nightly killings in Rio's favelas (slums).

"He'll be buried in a communal grave without a name, almost as if he never existed," Dr Bezerra said. "In a way he didn't. These people barely exist. They have no hope. All we can do is help them survive another day."

Dr Bezerra and three friends set up the Centre for the Defence and Rights of Children and Teenagers with four main concerns in mind: First, the murder of street children, which they say continues almost nightly, one or two at a time, to avoid attracting the publicity of the 1993 Candelaria massacre, and often carried out by off-duty policemen hired by businessmen who see the children as social undesirables. Dr Bezerra estimates there are 4,000 street children in Rio de Janeiro and tens of thousands nation-wide.

Their second concern is child prostitution, involving both girls and boys, sometimes no more than five years old.

The third is forced child labour, estimated to involve up to 7 million Brazilians between the ages of 10 and 17.

The fourth is the kidnapping of street children, usually carried out for prostitution or child labour. It's a kind of modern "white slave" trade, usually involving light-skinned girls aged 11 or 12 who sometimes surface more than 1,000 miles from their homes.

Describing herself as an unarmed guerrilla - "the changes we need in Brazil require that kind of action, not words" - Dr Bezerra said no killers of street children had ever been convicted: "The three policemen detained for the 1993 Candelaria massacre have never been tried. Five others involved were never picked up. The killing has continued, with 1,500 street children aged between 11 and 17 murdered last year, often as they slept, in Rio, Sao Paulo, all around the country.

"The people who do this, or hire the gunmen, do not see these kids as human. They see them more like animals. They think they're just 'putting them down'."

On 23 July 1993, a policeman approached a group of children sleeping outside the downtown Candelaria church with what appeared to be a bowl of soup. But he pulled a gun from the bowl and opened fire. Several other police officers appeared and did the same, according to witnesses.

After the massacre, many, if not most businessmen and workers in the area, said the killings were justified, blaming the children for robberies. Nine months later, an advertisement in a newspaper in the town of Londrina, apparently financed by businessmen, carried the headline: "Kill a Child Criminal." The editor said it was aimed only at intimidating street children after they were blamed for robberies, including that of the editor's bicycle.

As for child prostitution, the Brazilian President, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, this month launched a campaign against it, partly due to Dr Bezerra's pressure: "Cardoso was very upset by what I was saying. I'd become a real pain in the ass.

"I'd told him denouncing things was not enough. It's no good telling people to call emergency number 190 to denounce a child brothel when that same number is inundated by callers complaining that their cat's stuck up a tree.

"Besides, even if the police take action, they'll close the whorehouse but who looks after the girls? Some girls sell their bodies in the streets to survive. Others are exploited in their homes. Brazilian women in the slums change their partners regularly. When the latest partner tires of the old lag, he turns to the daughter of seven or eight. To him she's much more tasty.

"Prostitution among little boys is probably worse," Dr Bezerra said. "We've had boys as young as five with venereal diseases or Aids. The girls will sell themselves for two or three dollars, the boys for one. One of the problems is that street boys tend to have only homosexual relationships among themselves until they're around 13. So they start prostituting themselves early."

President Cardoso said recently that forced child labour affects 3 million children aged between 10 and 14. The government's National Statistics Office cites a figure of 7 million, or around 10 per cent of the workforce, but that figure includes children up to 17.

In most Brazilian states, one in seven children between 10 and 13 is forced to work, according to a leading sociologist, Herbert de Souza, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign against poverty: "In some northern states, that figure is nearly one-in-three. The structure of slavery from our colonial past remains intact."

Dr Bezerra said a spate of kidnappings of children in Rio was partly to find child labour but mostly for prostitution. "My group is currently searching for 26 missing girls aged between 9 and 12, kidnapped between their shanty homes and shops. They're usually mulatto [mixed race] girls, sold mostly to coffee farmers and wealthy landowners. They want virgins because of the increasing incidence of Aids," she said.

"We found one girl, Samantha, aged 12, 550 miles from here, after someone recognised a picture we'd put on television. She'd been abused and addicted to drugs, including heroin. One of the problems now is getting her and her mother to re-adapt to each other after the new life she has lived."

In the tiny hut she has turned into kitchen, school and community centre, beneath a motorway flyover at Coqueirinho, Dr Bezerra sat cross-legged to teach "her" children, mostly black, of their roots. Some had come running to her. Others she had to fetch from alcoholic mothers who kept them padlocked in the family hut.

On the nearby kerb, Ayrton, the driver, was doubling as a doctor. Sitting on the back of Dr Bezerra's car, he poured disinfectant over the gory stumps of two of a screaming middle-aged woman's fingers. Badly cut also on the face, she had been attacked by her partner.

"These kids' inborn image of themselves is one of slaves," Dr Bezerra said, as a couple of dozen children clutched mugs of cocoa and buttered bread rolls. "I teach them that they came from Africa, a land where their ancestors were kings and queens. When a man has no pride in his ancestors he has nothing. I tell them that they helped build this country, that they have rights."

As she read to them, she cuddled six-year-old Filipi. "When we found he had syphilis, we discovered he'd been raped by a man six months ago," she said. "They yearn for affection. That's all we can give them.We can't even give them hope."