18 DECEMBER 2002

Haiti: On the edge of town, dozens of boys congregate below a statue of Jesus. It's their home as they scratch out lives on the town's littered streets, which are noisy with trucks and motorcycles.

Homeless Youth

Forced from their homes by poverty and broken families, the children load and sweep buses for meager tips. They don't attend school, their clothes are ragged, and fellow citizens largely regard them as a nuisance. "I don't know my age," said a barefoot Jean-Claude George, who has the body of a 10-year-old but the gaze of a man who has known years of suffering. "I've been on the street a long time."

Like others among the children who sleep on buses or near the white statue, Jean-Claude fled an abusive home in the countryside for this town on Haiti's southern coast, 100 miles from Port-au-Prince, the capital. He earns small change on the buses to pay for food and shoes, but the sandals often disappear in the company he keeps. "The other kids keep an eye on me all night," he said. "Once I go to sleep, they steal them."

Street children struggle in cities around the globe, from Sao Paolo to Bombay. But in this Caribbean nation, the Western Hemisphere's poorest, the problem of homelessness among children is especially severe. Some experts say the situation has worsened in recent years amid Haiti's political turmoil. Thousands of children wander the cities, looking for odd jobs, begging or stealing to eat. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest, has tried to make children's issues a cornerstone of his presidency, but government efforts have failed to bring the children off the streets.

In 1986, before he was president, Mr. Aristide founded the Family is Life orphanage. His political involvement eventually made it a target for opponents. In 1991, the same year he was ousted in a coup, five children died in a suspicious fire at the facility. In 1992, some children were wounded when Aristide opponents stormed the building and began shooting. The orphanage eventually closed in 1999 amid protests by orphans, who said promises of jobs weren't kept.

Dominique Esperant, the former regional head of the Social Affairs Ministry in Les Cayes, hopes to put street children back on the political agenda. "Everyone seems to think the best way to deal with this is to kick these kids out of town," Mr. Esperant said. "I believe they can become good citizens like anyone else, if someone is there to help them out." Frustrated by a lack of government funds, Mr. Esperant is trying to raise money independently to start a center to house street children. He meets with the children below the statue of Jesus, drawing a crowd as he writes their names on a list. At last count, the list had 57 names.

"There is no work back home," said Lesene Souverain, 17, who says he left home when he was 9 because his parents couldn't pay for school. "At least on the streets, there are people who can help me." In the nearby hills, deforested land is turning into desert. Curls of smoke rise as farmers use remaining trees to make charcoal for cooking. Mr. Esperant says most of Les Cayes' street children come from this wasteland. "They don't have any arable land to plant anymore," he said. "So they came to the city to look for life, to look for a way to survive."

Child labor is common, even for those who stay at home. Boys in Les Cayes sell crackers and muffins from trays on their heads. In Port-au-Prince, some young girls work as prostitutes to augment family earnings. Sometimes, poor parents give away children to be servants for better-off families. It's widely accepted in Haiti to keep a child servant, or "restavek" Creole French for "stays with." The children often are mistreated, and human rights groups criticize the practice as child slavery. Abuse drives many restaveks to the streets.

In Les Cayes, many people express little pity for the children, calling them "grapiyay," or hustlers. Jean-Claude's young face, like those of others, bears scars. He said he won't return to the home where his father beat him. "I'd rather stay with the guys," he said. "They're practically my family."
By Ian James

Brazilian Street Children Born to Die

Sandro do Nascimento, 21, black, broke and high on dope, never stood a chance, even before he stepped off the bus he had hijacked in Rio de Janeiro to negotiate with police. Despite a daily diet of violence, even Brazilian (news - web sites) television viewers were shocked on June 12, 2000, when they saw Nascimento's pregnant hostage, 20-year-old art teacher Geisa Goncalves, shot to death in a bungled rescue attempt by police. Sandro then suffocated in the back of a police car as he was rushed to a hospital after the hostage drama that riveted the country for hours on live television.

Two-and-a-half years later, the blood-chilling drama re-emerged in a courtroom case and in cinema halls in Brazil's main cities. On Wednesday, three military policemen accused of killing the hostage-taker were acquitted by a public jury in a Rio de Janeiro court after a trial lasting less than a day. Defense lawyers showed extracts from a documentary film of the bus hijacking to prove that Sandro was drugged, violent and provoked his own death by struggling violently and forcing the policemen to restrain him.

"As he wouldn't give up, it was he who suffocated himself," said lawyer Clovis Sahione, adding, "Society must choose between bandits and heroes." But for film director Jose Padilha, 35, whose documentary "Onibus 174" is being screened in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil's two largest and most violent cities, the tragedy highlights government and police failures.

In a world map of violence, Brazil has the second highest murder rate after war-torn Colombia with 27 deaths per 100,000 people -- with more than 50 per 100,000 in Rio and Sao Paulo. Nearly two million Brazilians died violently between 1980-2001, according to the government statistics institute IBGE. That is 8-1/2 times the number of Americans and Vietnamese killed during the Vietnam war. Poverty breeds violence from an early age as poor children flee urban slums and struggle to survive on the streets of Rio and other big city centers.

"The state doesn't know how to handle street children and that makes them violent," said Padilha. The film lasting just over two hours was cut from 27 hours of TV footage -- longer than the trial itself -- and tries to show that Sandro was human and explain what made him violent. "It shows the facts ... it doesn't say who is right or wrong ... it left me feeling partly responsible," said Cristina dos Santos, a 30-year-old musician who saw the film in Rio. The grim reality is difficult to digest.

"Kids are thrown into jails where they rub shoulders with killers and drugs dealers. They are treated violently and become violent and the state can't handle them," said Padilha, whose film was voted by the public as best documentary in the recent Rio International Film Festival. Sandro took to the streets at the age of 6, shortly after his mother was knifed to death in the bar she ran. His father had been murdered earlier. Sandro drifted into drugs and prison, his short life remorselessly spiraling toward its dramatic climax. Police say Goncalves died from Sandro's bullets, but the film leaves it open as to who fired the deadly shot. An elite police trooper missed when he tried to gun down Sandro at point-blank range and many argue he could have shot the hostage.

Social worker Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, who knew Sandro well, is sure he was not dangerous. "Sandro was never going to kill anyone," said De Mello, who has been looking after street kids for two decades. "But he had robbed someone and had to be punished for that." After robbing someone that day, Sandro jumped on the bus to try to escape but it was stopped and encircled by police and the media in the smart Botanical Gardens neighborhood of south Rio.

De Mello befriended Sandro after Rio's 1993 infamous Candelaria massacre. Sandro was one of the survivors when plain clothes policemen opened fire on 72 children outside one of Rio's landmark churches, killing eight of them as part of a drive to "clean up" the city. "Every day there are violent robberies. No one would have noticed if it had happened in a poor area," De Mello said. Padilha said that the siege became a media circus. "A bus is a big box surrounded by glass ... like a goldfish bowl," he said, adding that TV cameramen swarmed all round it. Exasperated, Sandro shouted through the bus window, "This isn't a movie, it's for real." Sandro, who had been an "invisible" -- one of hordes of street children who hustle for money and whom motorists pretend not to see as they wait at traffic lights in Brazil -- was finally in the media spotlight.

During the siege Sandro stuck a gun in a woman's mouth and forced another to write in lipstick "He has a pact with the devil," on a bus window and then pretended to shoot her. The terrified woman, Janaina Lopes Neves, a 26-year-old administrator, said she thought she was going to die. "Sandro was very agitated and out of control. but I forgive him now as he had had a miserable life," she told Reuters.

Academics were dismayed by the court's decision. "It's another demonstration of police impunity," said Julita Lengruber, Director of the Center for Security Studies at Rio de Janeiro's Candido Mendes University. But film director Padilha pointed out that the public tried to lynch Sandro at the end of the bus hijacking. "Either way he didn't stand a chance."
By Peter Blackburn



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