Where Death Squads Hunt Stray Children

JONATHAN POWER

October 25, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER

STOCKHOLM. — Stockholm--The Sunday sermon by Pope John Paul II in Salvador, Brazil, last weekend was a necessary jolt to the callous, of whom there seem to be rather too many in Brazil.

Why, the pope wanted to know, are there so many small children living on the streets in Brazil? And how could a society tolerate these children being murdered by death squads in the pay of businessmen wanting to clean up their neighborhoods?

In Sao Paulo, Latin America's largest metropolis, only 15 years ago you could count the number of street children on a couple of pair of hands. A nun took me to show where they hung out at night, and we asked them why they had no home. Invariably, the answer was the same -- because the new man in their mother's life didn't want them around. He had too many mouths to feed with his own children.

Even then the story seemed incomprehensible: a nether world of sadism and cruelty, the kind that 150 years ago persuaded Charles Dickens to write ''Oliver Twist'' and Victor Hugo to write ''Les Miserables.''

But what I saw was nothing. Over 15 years, the cancer has mushroomed. There are now thousands in every Brazilian town:

As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed

So it spreads

And above the packed and pestilential town

death looked down.

In Dugue de Caxias, one of Rio de Janeiro's most miserable suburbs, the local Catholic Church shows a list of children murdered nearby, more than 100. A church worker, Wolmer Nascimento, told the London-based Anti-Slavery Society, ''I've stopped crying. I got tired. I discovered that after every complaint of murder the hostility towards us was even more violent.''

But surely this wretched disease must have more to do with aggregate economic and social pressures than the natural disposition of men? The Brazilian male has always been chauvinist. What has changed is the degree to which the ruthless pursuit of material gain and the swings and roundabouts of Brazil's fast-paced growth and equally rapid recessions have jerked society away from its natural moorings.

Brazilian public opinion, despite appearances to the contrary, is not entirely impervious to sorrow. One outspoken voice is Emerson Kapaz, chairman of the Brazilian association of toy manufacturers. ''After reading a UNICEF report on the situation of Brazil's children,'' he observed, ''we felt we just couldn't go on selling toys when half of the child population was going hungry.''

The toy manufacturers have set up a foundation to mobilize public opinion, and they sponsored a survey of street children by journalist Gilberto Dimenstein.

His book is a terrifying account of children murdered, tortured and imprisoned in rat-infested cells. In Brasilia, a young paraplegic with a catheter was thrown on the cold cement floor of a prison cell. In Recife, pregnant teen-age girl prostitutes were kicked in the stomach to induce abortions.

If child abuse were just Brazil's problem it would be bad enough. It isn't. According to the Anti-Slavery Society there are 200 million ''child slaves'' around the world. In Tamil Nadu, India, there are 45,000 children, some of them only 4 or 5 years old, at work in the fireworks and match industry. In Bangkok, according to the Thai Center for the Protection of Children's Rights, there are some 800,000 girl prostitutes between the ages of 12 and 15. Between January and March every year, children are sold near Bangkok's main railway station.

The 19th-century philosopher and champion of civil liberty, John Stuart Mill, wrote that human rights ''were only meant to apply to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children.'' A hundred years later, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly on November 20, 1989. Article 32 outlaws child labor. Article 34 outlaws sexual exploitation. Article 35 outlaws trafficking in children. But then we like to believe a century does make a difference.

Just a year ago, at the World's Children Summit in New York, organized by UNICEF, 71 heads of state signed the convention. Today, according to Swedish sources -- Sweden was the convention's original sponsor -- 98 countries have ratified it and more ratify every month.

Washington, however, has made it clear that the U.S. for one is not going to. The convention's strictures on capital punishment conflict with America's continuing practice of executing children who were under 18 at the time of the crime. (According to Amnesty International, only four countries in the world still do this.)

Brazil has ratified it, a cynical or courageous gesture, depending on one's viewpoint. Ratification means that a country has chosen to be held up to a standard of conduct. Brazil should now get the press it deserves.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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