I arrive in Complexo do Alemao, a group of favelas in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro, and it’s late at night. I am driven through the dark winding streets, and my first impression is, unavoidably, ‘there are a lot of police with machine guns here’. I knew to expect that; my research is focused on the ‘pacification’ (Unidade de Policia Pacificadora, or UPP) project here, and how it is affecting local NGOs and social movements. But I realise that I never anticipated quite how many police there would be, and in such a small space. They stand idly in groups, chatting or looking at their phones, others patrol the streets with their machine guns and pistols held as if ready to use, passing children playing and adults drinking at bars. Indeed for the most part, the police seem to go completely ignored by the residents. As for me, I already feel a little bit unsettled; a little on edge.
I arrive at a small house which goes by the name Barraco#55; it’s a local NGO which hosts artists, researchers, students; really anyone who is interested in learning about the favela. The front door is a little way down an alley (beco) and there’s a police officer posted on the corner, holding a big gun. I walk past him without looking at him, but I feel I can feel his eyes on me as I pass.
Later I head up to the terrace and stare across the view of the local neighbourhood. On one side I see more of the favela, the lights of the landscape are uneven and spread across the hillside disjointedly. On the other side, I can see much further across the landscape of Rio de Janeiro: it’s a clear night and I can even make out Christ the Redeemer in the far distance. It’s a warm evening and it’s quite breathtaking.
The next morning, I have my first venture out around the favela. I’m taken round by a man called Raul who lives nearby, and a Kenyan called Sam who’s been here since Carnival. We make a couple of stops at places I think might be relevant to my research, including the local Residents Association in Nova Brasilia. Here the street is busy with people shopping and a speaker blares loudly from overhead. My Portuguese still isn’t good enough to understand everything, but I’m sure something is said about human rights.
I start to notice the many posters throughout the favela, mostly in bright blue and yellow, with a multiplicity of politicians’ smiling faces staring down at passers-by. The Presidential election is coming up soon, along with various other elections at different levels of government. I ask Raul to tell me who one of the people is; he doesn’t know. ‘There are too many to know’, he says, and by the looks of it I can’t help but agree.
I see a lot of graffiti relating to the security and the UPP in particular. Some I notice:
UPP para quem? / “UPP for who?”
Paz ou ficcao / “Peace or fiction”
UPP mataram innocente / “UPP kill the innocent”
I wonder why, given the amount of money spent on introducing the UPP project, this blatant anti-government rhetoric is not dealt with; I mean, why the graffiti is not bleached out. When I ask a young man, Fernando, he explains to me, “it wouldn’t work; they would just be repainted.” I want to take photos of all the graffiti but I’m warned against it, particularly in sight of the police; I guess it’s not good to be seen as siding against them.
I start to get a lot of warnings. Don’t go out at night alone. Avoid the alleys completely. Don’t talk to, or even really acknowledge, the police. Always remember to lock the front door. And keep my head low while I’m on the terrace; in case of a bala perdida (stray bullet).
And I start to realise that being hit by one of these balas perdidias seems to be the biggest risk here. That risk, it seems to me, is spoken about with a sense of helplessness. In April, a woman was killed coming out of her front door; later someone jokes to me that “nobody knows who will be the next chosen one.” Another resident tells the story of a funk party that ‘went bad’ a couple of years ago, during which a friend was killed. That friend had nothing to do with the drug traffic, he explains, but “the bullet doesn’t choose”.
And despite the intention of the UPP to put an end the drug traffic, it’s soon very clear that there are still traffickers operating inside the favela. Sam tells me about a time he was walking down an unfamiliar side-street, and came across a group of young boys holding guns, running towards him. He gets out of their way, and they carry on past him, even thanking him. As it turns out, they were fleeing from the police. I ask him if he was afraid and he shakes his head: “They don’t care about you.” If anything, he tells me, he is more scared of the UPP: “I look like a suspect!”
But as the first weeks pass by, I become more familiar with the neighbourhood and confident to go out alone. I play pool at the local bar and ping pong with the kids down the street (I lose at both). To begin with, I’m the only guest at Barraco#55; one of the founders, Ellen, explains that the negative media Complexo do Alemao has been experiencing recently is deterring guests from staying. This means, she continues, that Barraco will need new ways to finance their activities, other ways to spread knowledge about the favela and to exchange with the outside. To enable this, they recently bought a really nice, blue Kombi, which they are using to take art/music from Complexo to other neighbourhoods, and I’m lucky enough to join them on their first trip out to a park in the Flamengo neighbourhood. The Kombi attracts a lot of attention.
Anyway, I hear gunshots out the window fairly frequently, but eventually I stop noticing it, or stop worrying at least. You become accustomed to it, I suppose a little like living under an airport. It becomes, for want of a better word, ‘normal’. Yet invariably when people from outside the favela learn that I am staying in Complexo, they look shocked and ask “are you not scared to live there?” And, in all honestly, despite the presence of the police, and the warnings I receive, the answer is no. Because as is obvious to anyone living here, life in Complexo isn’t terrifying, is not defined by violence.
After just a few weeks I have taught maths to some (very sweet) children, had an African dance lesson, been to a local churrasco, played with a local band, attended a church service next door, and been to various meetings/ events held by local NGOs, and a party or two as well. Always I’m welcomed warmly, and feel taken care of. There really is plenty going on.
And it’s this perception of Complexo do Alemao as some kind of lawless no-man’s-land that many of the NGOs that I encounter are trying to alter, in one way or another. I feel this is a worthy cause because there is, of course – and as I continue to learn – much more to the place and to the people.
Read more about Barraco#55 here: https://www.facebook.com/barraco55