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SECURITY-BRAZIL: Oedipus Caught in the Crossfire

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 17 2007 (IPS) - A child mown down by a hail of bullets from a rifle aimed by an unseen gunman is one of the drawings kept on file by psychologist Ricardo Parente, and produced in evidence to support his claim that Freudian theory must be revised when treating cases in the violent shantytowns of Brazil.

Children here are victims of an urban war, in which Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex and other psychoanalytical concepts do not follow their normal patterns.

Parente practices at the child psychology clinic belonging to the non-governmental Women’s Union for the Improvement of “Roupa Suja” district, in Rocinha, a crowded “favela” (shantytown) that is home to 200,000 people.

This community, one of numerous favelas clinging to the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro and one of the largest in Latin America, has not experienced a police raid for at least six months, nor have there been any conflicts between rival drug trafficking gangs.

But its children bear the scars of war, on their bodies as well as in their drawings, which depict war between police and drug traffickers, or between different criminal gangs. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) calls this “urban violence,” but residents in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro call it “urban war.” That is how they experience it.

“The violence makes a difference in the lives of these children, and completely alters their day-to-day experiences,” Parente told IPS.

The psychologist, who works with children and adolescents referred by the Women’s Union, said he had treated a girl from the favela who had been sleeping at home, and woke up with a burn on her hand. “It was a bullet that went right through her,” he said.

Who fired the shot remains unknown to this day. She was a collateral victim of a shoot-out, hit by a stray bullet.

According to official figures, stray bullets wounded or killed at least one person a day in Rio de Janeiro in January.

As a psychologist, Parente knows that the psychic traces of the bullet will endure longer than the scar itself, and not only in the victim. “The girl’s younger brother was right beside her, and he saw the blood on the armchair,” Parente said.

Although no rule is valid for everyone, these children will often “be afraid to relate to others of their age, be more introverted, more timid, will sometimes have symptoms of depression, or emotional limitations; at other times they may be aggressive. These are the defences they create as a consequence of the violence,” he explained.

When the police occupied a favela of 65,000 people called the “Complexo do Alemao” in May, the consequences of the war – a term that is not accepted by the government of Rio de Janeiro – became clearer.

UNICEF emphasised that the continuous battles between police and drug traffickers meant that from May 2 onwards, children could not attend their schools and were transferred to others, where thousands of pupils share classrooms in four daily shifts lasting only two hours and 15 minutes each.

Attacks on children are unacceptable, and schools should be safe environments for those who are learning to grow, said Ann M. Veneran, executive director of UNICEF.

Parente agrees, but as someone familiar with treating children at risk, he ventures to dig deeper into the causes that are creating a new generation that is fearful, repressed and limited in the expression of emotions.

“What I think is very serious and affects children here is not only the violence itself, in the shape of an invasion or a shoot-out, but also the fact that families are restricting their children’s freedom to go out, in case they should meet with drug traffickers or be hit by stray bullets,” the psychoanalyst said.

In the case of this urban war, where drug traffickers are sometimes better armed than the police, the government can no longer turn a blind eye, said Brazilian Public Security secretary Luiz Fernando Correa.

“This is a time when there is a serious historical accumulation of neglect by the state and society. Organised crime was allowed to acquire too much fire power. It is painful, but it is true,” Correa said at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Association.

Painful, and very difficult to solve within the four walls of a children’s psychoanalytic clinic in a favela.

“I treated a mother who was so terrified by her surroundings that she shut up her children, aged seven and nine, in the house for two or three days at a time. Where is the freedom of those children to play spontaneously, which is so important for their emotional development?” Parente asks.

The analyst, who also treats children and adults in the residential southern district of Rio de Janeiro, wonders whether new parameters are not needed within psychoanalytic theory to deal with the situation in the favelas.

In the favelas “the construction of the Oedipus complex in the nuclear family with a mother and a father seems rather irrelevant,” Parente says.

“These situations produce another set of experiences, another way of living. A child from a nuclear family, with a father and mother, grandfather, uncles – even though in upper-income communities things may not be so prevalent any more – lives in an environment completely different to that of children in the favelas, where many of them don’t have a father,” he said.

“So where does that leave the Oedipus complex? What construction can be made of the father, the mother, prohibition, what are the limits, what construction can be made?” the psychologist asked.

Parente accepts that the interpretation of symbols is culturally conditioned. A middle-class child, accustomed to peaceful surroundings, sees a skull and crossbones as a symbol of a pirate film (like the Hollywood blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean”) while to a child in a favela it is an image of terror, a symbol of the ultimate bogeyman: the “caveirao”.

“I learned something of the language of symbols from the children’s drawings,” Parente said.

“When I began to work here as a psychologist, a child drew a ‘caveirao’. I didn’t know what it was, and then I found out it was an armoured vehicle that the police use when they invade the favelas,” he said.

“It turns up in their games,” added Parente, referring to the symbol of two skulls that identifies the feared police vehicle.

Sociologists have a different angle. Most of the victims of Rio’s urban war are young people, according to the Security Studies Unit of the Cándido Mendes Faculty in Rio de Janeiro.

They can be found among the innocent bystanders or among the drug traffickers, who co-opt them as “soldiers.” In the drug rings they have the chance to rise up from nowhere, to wear a world-renowned brand of sports shoes, to earn respect and a salary they can live on, says Silvia Ramos, a sociologist at that study centre.

This is nothing new, for several studies have found that most victims of Rio de Janeiro’s violence are young and, specifically, black, living in the poorest areas of the city.

This is a direct result of the absence of the state in the favelas, which the government is proposing to change by means of a controversial policy.

“We cannot avoid telling future generations that much of what we are experiencing now is the result of neglect by previous governments,” Correa said.

In the preschool centre of the Women’s Union for the Improvement of Roupa Suja, five children under four are dancing and singing to the beat of a children’s song, miles away from the war that is going on between adults in the streets.

They sing and imitate dance steps from a song by national entertainment star Xuxa, and pose for the journalists who are photographing the scene. Perhaps they will be part of that future generation which will not suffer from neglect.

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