In many ways Breno Washington is a typical 15-year-old boy. He has the look of someone whose body grew slightly too quick for him, but he wears it easy anyway, like a pair of good jeans; he likes the Chicago Bulls and sometimes he smokes marijuana with his friends. Unlike most boys his age, however, Breno can never go home. If he does, he says, he will be killed by military police.
We are talking in an empty classroom in Rio de Janeiro’s Lapa neighborhood at the head office of Brazilian NGO São Martinho, which runs various programmes to help street children in the city. Outside, a football match is underway, and whistles and sneaker-squeaks punctuate Breno’s story.
After leaving school in the fifth grade, Breno began sniffing paint thinner. Together with a group of friends, he committed a spate of robberies, until one day about a year ago Breno stole a motorcycle from a neighborhood police officer. “He tried to kill me, so I ran away from the community and started living on the streets,” Breno says through a translator.
One of around 30 street children I met when I joined a group of Peace Boat passengers on a tour of São Martinho’s Lapa facility last week, Breno is justified in his fear of returning home: there is a precedent for police killing street children in Rio.
On a July evening in 1993, nine men – some of whom were off-duty police officers – piled out of two unmarked cars and opened fire on children and teenagers sleeping in the marquis of Rio’s Candelária Church, killing eight in an alleged revenge attack for an earlier skirmish with police.
Leonardo Costa, São Martinho’s head of communications, was 11 years old when the massacre took place, only a few years younger than most of the victims. “I couldn’t imagine that someone could kill a group of young people in the middle of the street,” he said. “Actually, before that time, I didn’t know much about the reality of the street situation. I was like other people in society: used to not looking and not paying attention.”
Before visiting São Martinho’s Lapa facility, the Peace Boat group toured Candelária Church. Passengers breathed incense infused air and admired Joao Zeferino da Costa’s paintings on the domed ceilings. For most, however, the eight simple silhouettes daubed on the paving stones outside the church were more affecting than the ornate décor within.
21-year-old Masuzawa Kazuya stood quietly outside the church looking at the memorial, and then traced his fingers over the cool pavement tiles before catching up with the group.
A culture of impunity has long tainted Brazilian military police, who kill some 2,000 people per year according to Amnesty International. In 2013 Amnesty noted that only three of the nine adults accused of the Candelária massacre were ever convicted; two have since been released from prison and the third is a fugitive.
In contrast, most of the 60-something survivors of the Candelária Massacre have since perished, many by violent means.
Every July 23, São Martinho helps to organize the “Candelária Never More – Parade for Life”, in which street children march through Rio to commemorate their fallen friends. “Candelária was an alarm that told us how important it is to stay sane. We need to think about how to show society that children who live in the streets are equal to their own children,” Leonardo Costa told the Peace Boat group.
In Lapa, 33 Peace Boat passengers and around 30 Brazilian children and teenagers packed into a São Martinho classroom for introductions.
São Martinho gave over 550 children from the street and affected communities access to education, culture, and sports through its centers across Rio in 2012. In the first semester of 2014, the NGO helped close to 800 adolescents get their first experience of work and offered socio-legal support in 45 cases where teenagers had been subjected to sexual violence or rights violations.
However Costa said that most of São Martinho’s work starts with a small group of educators who go into the favelas each morning to look for vulnerable children like Breno Washington, and form a team together with psychologists and social workers. “We need to wake them up before they use drugs,” said Costa.
Rio is home to around 600 favelas, housing about 20% of its inhabitants. In many favelas, inequality, drugs, and social exclusion have given rise to gang violence. A study by Rio City Hall found that around 90% of the street children use drugs, with solvent sniffing common. The recent proliferation of crack-cocaine has made engaging street children in educational activities especially difficult.
São Martinho programme coordinator Valdenei Martins said, “Street children feel like they have everything – liberty, food, drugs; they can do whatever they want. It is very difficult to show them the importance of being in a family for their development, especially if there are drugs and violence at home.”
In addition to working with street children in the favelas, São Martinho engages other NGOs to work with their families where possible, and advocates for the rights of street children in the public domain.
Costa suggested that one of the saddest things to come out of Candelária was that many Brazilians saw the massacre as a good thing – as if the perpetrators were ridding the city of a pestilence.
According to Costa, news media in Brazil often focuses on violence committed by street children but rarely on the social conditions or government policies that lead to it. “When [the media] are talking about good things, they refer to our children as kids, adolescents, or youths; but when they are talking about something wrong, they always use a specific word: menor.”
Menor is equivalent to the English word minor and the use of legalese, Costa said, makes it easier for the public to dehumanize street children.
Currently Brazilian Senator Aloysio Nunes Ferreira is attempting to pass a law allowing youth between 16-18 years old who commit serious crimes in Rio to be tried as adults. But instead of pushing for more stringent penalties for youths who break the law, “We need to fight for a better pedagogic system to reinsert
our youths in the society,” said Costa.
Historically, football has provided a route out of poverty for exceptionally talented youth in Brazil and a one-in-a-million chance for street children to shine.
Pelé, who grew up in the poor Buaru district of São Paulo and trained with a grapefruit as a child because his family could not afford a football, would go on to become one of the most famous Brazilians internationally. However, many had hoped that the 2014 FIFA World Cup would bring broader benefits.
While initiatives such as the Street Child World Cup succeeded in raising international awareness of the plight of street children, São Martinho educator Luiz Carlos Martins said that the government’s heavy handed policies in the run up to the World Cup actually made conditions in Rio more difficult.
“The intervention of the government was too strong,” Martins said through an interpreter. “We needed to venture further and further from the downtown area to find the children, who were trying to evade government authorities.”
According to Martins, street children migrated from the city center to more remote areas to avoid officials who used the excuse of drug addiction to apprehend them and forcibly take them to public shelters.
“The government aimed to identify children in conflict with the law and arrest them until the end of the World Cup to create the impression that street children are not a part of life here,” he said. Some of the children meeting with the Peace Boat group at São Martinho had themselves been approached by police and taken to shelters in the run up to the 2014 World Cup.
Last year in the run up the FIFA World Cup, Miura Shigeharu, coordinator of the Peace Boat’s long-running Peace Ball programme, began a campaign to build a new soccer pitch at São Martinho.
Throughout 2014, Peace Boat raised 2 million yen (approximately US$17,000) for a new five-a-side pitch, which has now been completed.
“The Peace Ball project was started so that children could have a safe environment in which to play the game they loved without having to worry about anything else,” Masagaki Naoto, Peace Ball’s representative on the 86th Voyage said through an interpreter.
São Martinho recently celebrated its 30-year anniversary, and while its longevity helps win trust in the streets, much of its infrastructure is aging.
It is hoped that the new five-a-side football pitch will encourage more street children to come to the center.
On the 86th Voyage’s visit to Lapa, Peace Ball team members and children at São Martinho untied mint green ribbons to officially open the new pitch. “It gave me goose-bumps,” said team member Tohda Kazuma, who had helped to raise funds in Japan for the pitch before coming onboard.
Tomine Kiyoko, 65, who had donated through a crowd-funding platform, said that she was impressed to learn that most of the money collected came from hundreds of small donations.
Since its establishment in 1999, Peace Ball – which fosters cultural exchange through the shared language of football – has delivered about 13,000 balls and other sports supplies to partner organizations around the world.
Before the Peace Ball team returned to the ship, São Martinho’s new pitch played host to a succession of games. Barefooted cariocas jinked around Japanese players in sneakers as spectators cheered from the bleachers.
Takaoka Hiroko, a 66-year-old Peace Boat passenger who joined a tour to São Martinho last year said that many of the youths had asked her to take their photograph. “Perhaps it is because as street children they do not have a way to be recognized in society,” she said. “They were showing off for the photos: it was as if they were saying ‘look at me, I’m real, I’m here, I’m a person.'”
In a break between games, Peace Boat passengers and São Martinho children formed a Roda, or capoeira circle. Japanese and Brazilian partners feigned, bobbed, and swirl-kicked to music played on a berimbau.
Breno Washington, beaded with sweat, was watching the capoeiristas from the bleachers. Before heading back to the ship, I wanted to know whether living on the streets with his life under threat, Breno ever got the chance to think about his future.
“I don’t think about it everyday,” he said through an interpreter, “but I stopped studying in the fifth grade, so I’m considering taking some professional courses that can prepare me for other things.”
Breno has no aspirations to be the next Pelé, but he said that if he could we would like to return to the community in which he grew up. “My dream since I was a child was to become a fireman, because I want to help save lives,” he told me. As the Peace Boat group prepared to leave Lapa, Breno wrote his name carefully in my notebook then loped back onto the pitch to compete in the second half.