Jan 19 2011
Rafael Correia da Silva celebrated his 23rd birthday this week. He pulled on a pair of mudcaked wellingtons, filled his backpack with bottles of water and set off into the jungle to search for survivors of one of the worst natural disasters in Brazilian history.
Nearly a week after more than 700 people were killed in violent landslide and floods, hundreds of volunteer rescue workers such as Silva, a capoeira instructor from Teresópolis, are still trawling Rio’s remote countryside for victims.
Mostly, they are finding bodies – bloated, decomposing cadavers floating in rivers, buried under mounds of mud, sometimes wedged into trees.
“I’m enjoying it — it’s a good way to spend my birthday,” said Silva, a towering martial-arts expert better known by the nickname tattooed onto his right forearm: “Jiraiya, The Incredible Ninja.”
With the midday sun blazing down on Esperança, a village about 25km from Teresópolis, Silva’s five-man rescue team headed for Campanha, one of the 20-odd areas still isolated, with the help of Valmeri Souza, 49, a local farmer.
They scrambled across crumbling hillsides, heaps of red earth and through dense Atlantic rainforest. Anxious glances were exchanged after Souza found fresh jaguar tracks in the jungle floor. A knife was drawn.
Ninety minutes on, the group paused for lunch at a riverside clearing. Surrounded by broken car bumpers, toilet seats, women’s underwear and empty oil barrels – all dragged downriver by the floods – they tucked into a meal of bananas and biscuits, washed down with mineral water.
“We’re eating lunch on top of a cemetery,” said Vinicius Amorim, 20, a paramedic and volunteer.
The local newspaper, O Diario de Teresópolis, has begun publishing daily, full-page lists of the deceased – with or without names. One entry read: “Dark-skinned female, 50; dark-skinned female six; white female, seven months.”
The rescuers, however, refuse to abandon hope. “My intention is always to come looking for lives,” said Thiago Bessa, 26, a professional mountaineer who was wearing bright orange overalls to draw the attention of passing rescue helicopters.
“If there are people up there they are stranded, hungry and thirsty. If we don’t do this kind of work, they will be stranded for a long time.”
Bereaved locals have attacked authorities for not responding quickly enough to the disaster.
“How long will we tolerate governments like these?” asked Jackson Vasconcelos, from the Diario de Teresópolis. “Now is a time for the silence of pain, but also for the shout of revolt.”
But many rescuers, while privately furious with the pace of government intervention, prefer action to recrimination.
After nearly three hours hacking their way through dense rainforest and wading through a swamp, the group grew despondent. Reaching a murky river separating them from their target, they realized it was too wide to cross. Bessa lit a yellow-tipped cigarette.
Just as the deflated group prepared to retreat, however, spirits rose. “Look,” Bessa shouted, motioning towards two white dots across the river, almost invisible through the undergrowth. “People!”
Manoel and Antonio, two brothers, with their wives and children, had been stranded since last Wednesday. Minutes later a Squirrel helicopter belonging to São Paulo’s military police swept down and landed on a sand-bank.
Souza plunged into the brown waters to give the helicopter team the coordinates of the stranded victims’ homes. “God willing, they will get them out,” he said.
As the group trudged back through the jungle towards their next mission, Silva’s birthday commemorations began with a round of applause and a barrage of irreverent jokes.
“We Brazilians never lose our sense of humour,” beamed Souza. “Jokes are all we have left – we’ve lost everything else.”
- Brazil landslides: Survivors give terrifying accounts of disaster (guardian.co.uk)
- Many still missing in Brazil floods; criticism grows (reuters.com)
- Following Brazil floods, desperation, criticism grow (msnbc.msn.com)