Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Religion

BOLIVIA: Dying, to Help Others Live

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Jan 31 2008 (IPS) - Italian aid worker Morris Bertozzi drowned in Bolivia trying to help a local woman cross a flooded river, just as he had worked for the last 11 years helping street children in the grip of alcohol, drugs and crime cross the bridge to a new life.

Bertozzi was one more victim of the furious rivers rushing through the city of La Paz as a result of an unusually heavy rainy season attributed to the La Niña weather phenomenon.

Since the seasonal rains began two months ago, some 45 people have been killed, and crops, roads and homes have been destroyed throughout the country.

A government emergency operations centre run by the military is offering help to families left isolated by the floods.

Last Friday evening, the 36-year-old Bertozzi was swept away by a flash flood as he was trying to help a woman cross a smaller river near the Sant’Aquilina drug rehabilitation centre where he worked in the highlands district of Lipari, 25 km south of La Paz. His car was also carried off by the flood.

The next day, local residents searched for Bertozzi’s body, believing it would be in the wreck of the car, which had been carried several hundred metres downstream. But his corpse was found five km further down.

“He died helping,” faithful to his principles, his wife Alejandra Costas told IPS.

Bertozzi was sent to La Paz in 1996 at the age of 25 by the Comunidad Papa Juan XXIII, a Roman Catholic organisation that helps street children, drug addicts and prostitutes in 27 countries of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

He came to Bolivia for an eight-month stint working as a volunteer in one of the group’s substance abuse rehabilitation centres.

But two children changed the direction of his life when they described to him, crying, what it was like to sleep under bridges, sift through garbage for food, and be ignored by society.

The young Italian volunteer saw the distressing stories of these two children as the call of two angels who set him on a path to help restore human dignity among street children and others without hope, said Costas.

“He started out helping, with a small bucket in his hand and a few loaves of bread,” Verónica Hernaiz, administrator of the Sant’Aquilina Hogar, told IPS. The rehabilitation centre, which also offers social and labour reinsertion programmes, was built on Bertozzi’s initiative in the country’s impoverished highlands, near the river that ended up taking his life.

A deep love for Bolivia prompted Bertozzi to spearhead the founding of the Luz del Niño rehabilitation centre in the poor La Paz neighbourhood of Munaypata in 1997, and a year later the Sant’Aquilina Hogar opened its doors.

After undergoing rehabilitation, the teenage residents of the homes have the opportunity to learn how to cook Italian dishes like pizza, spaghetti and lasagne, which are served in a restaurant run by the organisation.

“Don’t forget, the poor are the children of God,” was a phrase frequently repeated by Bertozzi, who was “a faithful servant of Jesus,” said Hernaiz.

On the grounds of the Sant’Aquilina Hogar, lit up by bright sunlight, a rare treat after so many days of rain, the teenage residents continue their work in the stables, the pigsties and the kitchen. But there is a palpable sense of loss.

Yovana and Óscar, two adolescents who were brought in off the street, remember when the young Italian man would push through the brush surrounding the spot where they slept under a bridge in a La Paz neighbourhood, ignoring their hostility while offering hot milk and bread.

The two youngsters admitted that they at first treated the kind young blond man with distrust, but said they eventually accepted his invitation to abandon the violent world of drugs and alcohol that they inhabited.

Their time on the streets left them with scars on their arms from the self-harm they used to engage in, an increasingly common behaviour among troubled youngsters, who cut themselves, according to experts, to seek a kind of relief from unbearable psychological or emotional situations.

Óscar openly described to IPS his past on the streets, when he panhandled and robbed to survive. He said he had “several specialties” when it came to stealing.

But with a newborn baby in their arms, the young couple now envision a better future for themselves. Yovana remembers Bertozzi’s advice: “Change for the sake of your little son; the doors of this home will always be open for your recovery.”

“He was a father to the poor and to the children on the streets,” said Hernaiz.

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