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Brazil's forgotten history of imprisoning citizens fleeing drought in concentration camps

Extreme droughts in the South American country in the early 20th century saw the government interning rural peasants fleeing the disaster.

shutterstock_428225872 Shutterstock / In Art Shutterstock / In Art / In Art

EVEN AS NORTHEASTERN Brazil suffers a devastating drought, few remember a grim chapter of past droughts when the government forced mass internment of peasants trying to flee dying farms.

The first was in 1915 and the last time was between 1932 and 1933 when the authorities set up what they called concentration camps – a fairly common term in several countries at the time and yet to be associated with the horrors of Nazi Germany.

The people they forced in were not an enemy, or prisoners of war, or even a targeted ethnic group but rather rural inhabitants desperate for help.

Fearing the peasants would descend in huge numbers from their parched lands into the city of Fortaleza, the government ordered thousands of families incarcerated in camps with little food, unhealthy living conditions, and under guard.

Seven such “concentration camps” were established along the rail line that the farming population was trying to use to reach Fortaleza, capital of the state of Ceara, which today is again suffering from a severe lack of rain.

The authorities promised food and medical help but the unwilling population of the camps dubbed these centers “government corrals”, because they felt they were being treated just like the animals they’d left behind.

The government’s worry was that there’d be a repeat of a flood of 100,000 peasants in 1877 into Fortaleza, which by the 1930s was enjoying an era of modernisation and wealth.

shutterstock_124416454 Fortaleza today Shutterstock / Adam Gregor Shutterstock / Adam Gregor / Adam Gregor

“The concentration camps functioned as a prison,” wrote historian Kenia Sousa Rios in the book “Isolation and power: Fortaleza and the concentration camps in the drought of 1932″.

“Those who were put in could not get out. They were only given permission to leave in order to work on construction of streets or reservoirs or urban projects for Fortaleza, or to be transferred to another camp,” he wrote.

Invisible history

Only a few clues remain to testify to the episode. In Senador Pompeu, a small town about 186 miles from the state capital, there are still the abandoned buildings where guards worked and where food was kept.

The last known survivor of the camps is Carmela Gomez Pinheiro. Although she is 96, the painful memories remain fresh for her.

“Every day four or five people died, including children. They all died of ill-treatment or hunger,” she told AFP.

The hunger was unbearable. The food was disgusting and people started getting bloated.

The tragedy isn’t entirely forgotten. Every year a march is staged in honor of the victims of the drought, a living memorial created in 1982 by an activist Italian priest Father Albino.

The walk ends in what they call “the cemetery of the dam”, where locals say more than 1,000 people from the camps were buried in mass graves. Marking the place today is a cross – and dozens of bottles of water.

© – AFP, 2017

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