Looking in from the main road, one cannot see the destruction and horror that sleeps within the concrete structures of the favela of Santo Amaro. Once a small fishing community on stilts, the arrival of concrete and roofing came together with the terror of urban violence, trafficking, prostitution, child labour and violent armed gangs.
I wander into the community with the social worker of the Hope and Life centre. Laughing children pick their way through the muddy streets, laughing and screaming. Young boys on motorbikes ride by looking around anxiously.
We came to our first home visit, a small tumbling concrete structure with a small market at its front. Although a fantastic source of livelihood, the fruits bring even more mosquitoes into the small dark den. We bang on the door and a young boy appears, completely naked. He is alone, one of the “locked in kids”. He is not even two years old and has a piece of wood in his mouth.
Monica bangs again and after fifteen minutes his mother appears, opens the door and her young son runs into the street. She doesn’t even blink, her eyes are gazing straight passed us. She is only in her twenties but looks in her fifties, tired eyes, dark circles, a bruised and battered body. She goes to lie down without a word.
Monica’s mother arrives loaded with goods which she has been trying to sell. She tuts as she enters the room, the animosity is clear, she supports three children in her small room, her daughter is addicted to crack cocaine.
If it wasn’t for the Hope and Life centre, the other two brothers would also be on the streets or subjected to the terrors of their mother’s mood swings, the drug traffickers, the threats and the sexual abuse.
We move on, passing the corner shops, the “prostitution house”, the school and a much degraded football pitch until we arrive at Gabrielle’s home. Gabrielle is only 29 and she has five children to feed. Born in Santo Amaro, Gabrielle soon entered into the terrors of urban violence, pot turned to cocaine and cocaine turned to crack, a vicious degrading drug that can kill the youth of Brazil within a year. She was heavily involved in the drugs trade. She once had long silky hair: that was until one of the drug traffickers cut it off to threaten her. “Next time it will be your neck” they warned, her children had heard this too. Guys and knives have become part of their existence; they only know crime, drugs and the horror of urban violence.
Due to the severity of this situation, the Hope and Life centre removed the children from Gabrielle’s care last year, placing them in a children’s home. They supported Gabrielle as she sought treatment in a rehabilitation centre. She has now been clean for over ten months and the centre is helping to pay her rent as she starts to build her life again. With many mouths to feed and no secure job, Gabrielle is often seen returning from the sea, where she hunts for sea fish to sell at the market; too often accompanied by her young children. But the Hope and Life centre has provided a solace from harsh labour practices and a peaceful environment where therapy and psychological support can help them start to forget the horrors they have already lived.
Anna-mai Estrella, Executive Director