The incandescent sun, suspended alone in the sky, shot its rays at our backs like a silent war tank. An eagle dared to fly, indifferent to the arid surroundings and to the fact that it was forbidden to roam freely in that sky. Suddenly a check point appeared in the horizon, with armed soldiers, all of them teenagers, pointing their rifles in our direction. They were very hostile, and inspected our car license and our permission to circulate in that area, where the language is that of hate and blood. One of them asks: “What are you doing here? Are you looking for death?” We were in Palestine, trying to enter a zone where the war never ends.
Months later, that same hot sun immobilized my nerves and made me sweat due to the tension when, in a vehicle that was not armored, I crossed a place called the Gaza Strip, but one located in the Maré Complex, that encompasses several favelas in the city of Rio de Janeiro. I was going to the favela Nova Holanda, where there is a social project named Vida Real. As a journalist and a writer, for more than ten years I have been going to regions riddled with poverty in Rio de Janeiro and its surroundings, taking what I believe to be the most powerful antidote against human degradation: dreams and literature. There I was, as in Palestine, to show the fantasy that I borrowed from books, trying to prove that my mission is a mission of peace.
The car was stopped by four adolescents, all armed and shirtless. I needed to go through another check point, this time one imposed by the drug dealers of the favela. The boys had two rifles hanging from their shoulders, a revolver in their belts and, crossing their backs, several ammunition clips. They had in their eyes the same expression as the young soldiers from across the globe: they were tired, hostile and cold. In those wax faces, melting in the sun, I could see the same question that I heard in the ex-Holy Land: “What are you doing here? Are you looking for death?”
Warriors of the words, us writers know that all rhetoric is useless when facing the eloquence of blood. Whether in Brazil, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, Colombia or Haiti, our task is to humanize the story that we create and participate in simultaneously.
The Gaza Strip is the same, be it in Maré or in Palestine: when it gets dark, in the silence between the narrow streets, the fear of the soldiers pulsates, whether they are wearing uniforms or not. In both places, horror drives a war tank, known as “big skull” in the Rio favela. The sudden invasions, the bombs, the non-stop shootings, the terrorists in uniforms or half-naked, the neighbors who are enemies, everything and everyone taking part in a fight that’s almost the same: a fight for the dominance of the territory and that uses the insane force of unlimited violence.
The Brazilian boys are taught early on to know hate, recklessness and contempt for life. They don’t strap bombs to their bodies but, when they carry their guns, they become the bombs themselves, ready to die and to kill, caring little for their most valuable gift: their own existence.
Touching statements given by kids show that, in emergency situations, the writer searches for a moral role, a role in which he or she will rescue values, of which the most important is the freedom to dream of a better life.
“If I live, I want to become a lawyer. I want to be important like the people who pass on the highway near here, locked in cars with black windows,” said to me a Brazilian boy called Jefferson, who lives in Maré and, despite his 14 years of age, doesn’t doubt that he won’t last long: his father and his brother were killed by drug dealers in the favela opposite where he lives.
Jefferson, João and Yara, from the Rio Gaza, have the same expression as Ahmed, Yasin and Zarifa, who live in occupied Palestine. They have apathy in their eyes, as if they were covered by a membrane of conformity with the situation they were born into, one that hasn’t changed for generations. These children were born like their parents and grandparents: with the amoral acceptance that war is normal.
“It’s no use. The adults don’t want peace,” insisted Yasin, who lives in Bethlehem, in Palestine, and speaks perfect English.
”I’ve lost five family members in the war of the traffic. My father died when the drug dealers and the cops were shooting at each other in 1998. I wish there were no bad guys here,” said João, as jaded as a person narrating someone else’s story.
“My mother was shot because she was passing through when the soldiers invaded a prison in Jericho. That’s when I learned to hate,” said Ahmed coldly.
There and here, these children seek a gap in the walls of their shacks and ruins to breathe the air of hope and perhaps learn how to dream. In all war zones in the world, the feelings are basically the same.
In Palestine, I was invited by the Tamer Institute and had the opportunity to get to know the work they do, spreading libraries to all corners of that land devastated by war, trying to save kids that are victims of the fratricide hate between two peoples with the same Biblical origin. They use books to give faith in life back to their young readers, showing them that the fight against the sufferings of those who are hurting can (and should) begin in the soul.
I got to know both realities, the one in Rio and the one in Palestine, and have established a connection of pain between these worlds: in both of them, the most efficient remedy, one that has only positive effects, is the same: the book.
Shirine is 8 and lives in Ramallah. She said: “Yesterday, the Israeli soldiers arrived in my street shooting everything and everybody with their machine guns. Everybody in my family was working, and I was alone in the house. I cried and cried. I was so afraid. My neighbor was killed. I want peace, less violence in the world.”
Ramon is a 12-year-old Brazilian boy who lives in Maré and wrote to me:
“Yesterday, the police invaded the favela. Bullets flew everywhere. The family that lived next door to me was killed. I don’t want to be afraid. What would I do to change this place? I would take away all guns and all drugs. When I grow up, I want to be the owner of a chocolate factory.”
The Palestine girl Marwa Hazin, who is 10, told me that her dream is “just like anybody else’s here: peace.” And asked: “why to they blow up our houses? What did the kids like me do to deserve this?”
In the Gaza Strip of Maré, where the 15-year-old Pedro lives, I heard the universal lament of the young victims of war: “My brother worked for drug dealers in Belford Roxo. He died when he was my age. My greatest dream is to be a soccer player. I don’t know what I would do to change to world. All I want is peace!”
All these children and teenagers are being treated with books, and many have at least recuperated their innocent smiles. If the children who hold machine guns, deal drugs and prostitute themselves had the opportunity to learn the magic of dreams from books, the violence that is so close to us, whether in the big cities or in war zones, could quickly become less insupportable. With a small part of the money that is spent to fight this fury epidemic we could build thousands of libraries or houses of knowledge, where boys and girls could find their right to have an imaginary world, where their (possible) dreams can be born. Words are very powerful weapons, and a preventive weapon. They lead to reflection. Culture and education aren’t abstract things. They are concrete and fundamental, able to establish real conditions for a dignified life for citizens of any country.
In spite of the expressions that are vague when imagining the future, I stubbornly insist in the lessons of magic, that take us to enchanted lands, with Aladdin and his lamp, magic flying carpets, fairies and winged animals. We can’t destroy our ability to think and thereby feed the drug economy, like in the Gazas where they train suicidal soldiers for war, which is never holy enough to destroy childhood. Let us arm these children with paper, pen and books before it is too late. All over the world, they all demand and deserve a normal life.
PS: Jefferson, who would’ve liked to become a lawyer, was right in his ominous prediction: a month ago he was assassinated while working for drug dealers.
( Article published in the newspaper O Globo - in March 2009 )