Amazon tribe accuses Brazil army of atrocities

Bare Bornaldo Waimiri sits before a microphone as he gives testimony about alleged crimes committed by the Brazilian dictatorship in the 1970s during a hearing on the Waimiri-Atroari reserve in Brazil's Amazon state, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. I lost my father, my mother, my sister and my brother, Bornaldo said.   | Photo Credit: AP

First the helicopters arrived, dropping chemical bombs. Then came armed men in green uniforms who proceeded to slaughter members of an Amazon tribe to make way for a major road.

Bare Bornaldo Waimiri, at the time a teenage member of the Waimiri-Atroari tribe deep in Brazil’s Amazon, said the day of that attack, many years ago, was the last he saw his family alive.

Now elderly, Bornaldo described the horrific scene last week during a historic hearing that put a spotlight on Brazil’s military, which denies attacking the tribe. His testimony underscored the constant tension between development and conservation in Latin America’s largest nation and comes as far-right President Jair Bolsonaro gives a prominent role to the military in his government and ends new indigenous land demarcations in the Amazon.

“I lost my father, my mother, my sister and my brother,” Bornaldo said in a very low voice, wearing shorts and tapping his flip-flops on the ground as two translators put his words into Portuguese.

The hearing took place in a thatched, cone-shaped hut where the Waimiri-Atroari normally hold colorful festivities and long storytelling sessions. For one day last week, it transformed into a gloomy courthouse where six elders told a judge how over many years the 1964-1985 military dictatorship tried to eradicate them with arms, bombs and chemicals.

The Associated Press and one local newspaper were the only media allowed to attend the hearing. Non-tribal members in general are usually forbidden to enter the sprawling reserve that is the size of Israel and straddles the states of Amazonas and Roraima.

Tribe members and prosecutors said it marked the first time a judge was allowed on Waimiri-Atroari lands to hear witnesses tell of several alleged attacks over the years. Leaders said their aim was to deal with the past and avoid future incursions.

“To turn this page, we all have to read the book,” tribal leader Mario Parwe Atroari said.

Most indigenous tribes that allege atrocities during the dictatorship are reluctant to give a full accounting of incidents in urban courthouses because they don’t trust non-indigenous peoples. Some also fear being prosecuted for their own attacks against state agents and missionaries.

While tribesmen nodded during Bornaldo’s testimony, a half-dozen military personnel in uniform stood in silence. Retired Col. Hiram Reis e Silva, dressed in a white collared shirt and jeans, shook his head as the witnesses spoke. Reis e Silva, who said he worked near the reserve after 1982, was at the hearing to represent the military.

“My version of the story is very different,” Reis e Silva told the AP. “There are some exaggerations. We hope truth is re-established.” “I also have several witnesses who are the pioneers of the highway and counter everything (the tribe members say),” Reis e Silva added, though when asked to share contacts with any such person he reclined to.

Before ruling, federal judge Raffaela Cassia de Sousa was expected to wait for forensics, which could include a determination of what chemical may have been used in the bombings witnesses described, and possibly more testimony and pieces of evidence.

There is no final date for a decision.

Federal prosecutors, who accuse the Brazilian state of genocide in their civil suit, said hundreds, if not thousands, of tribe members died between 1968 and 1977, when highway BR-174 was built. The deaths either happened by military strikes or because of diseases that came after the forceful construction of the road through the reserve, prosecutors said.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 6:19:58 AM |

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