In a thatched hut customarily used for festivities, members of the Waimiri-Atroari tribe in Brazil’s Amazon told a non-indigenous judge last week how hundreds in their community were slaughtered by the Braziilian military decades ago – all so a highway could be run through their land.
The hut was transformed into a gloomy courthouse where six elders told a judge how, over the years of a 1964-1985 military dictatorship, the army tried wipe out the community with arms, bombs and chemicals.
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 now, he could not say – was the last time he saw his family alive.
Bornaldo described the horrific scene last week during a historic hearing that put a spotlight on Brazil’s military – which still denies attacking the tribe. Bornaldo’s testimony underscored the tension between development and conservation in Latin America’s largest nation, and comes as current 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 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, which 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 declined 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.
The witnesses said they don’t know the dates of the alleged attacks. The Waimiri-Atroari do not measure time in conventional months and years, and instead talk of events in relation to their phase in life.
Prosecutors said they believe that the attack Bornaldo witnessed took place after 1974, the year the aggressions intensified. The massacre he saw was one of numerous attacks during the construction of a portion of the road that connects the cities of Manaus and Boa Vista, according to prosecutors and tribesmen testifying.
All six tribe members testifying said the aggressions came from the Brazilian army while it oversaw the construction of 75 miles across the Waimiri-Atroari reserve.
At the time, military leaders said the tribe was impeding government employees from building the road. But the military has never acknowledged a role in attacking the tribe.
“Documents of that time show the military dictatorship considered the indigenous a hurdle to development and that their presence in areas of government interest could not stop construction works,” said journalist Rubens Valente, who attended the hearing and is the author of a book on the relationship between Brazil’s authoritarian regime and indigenous tribes.
During last week’s hearing, the government’s lawyers suggested in their questions that miners or local criminals were behind the attacks – assertions that tribal members rejected.
In explaining their own use of violence, Waimiri-Atroari said they were just defending their territory. According to Valente’s book, which prosecutors cite, at least 26 people, including construction workers, government liaisons with indigenous groups and members of religious missions, were killed during the construction of the road.
Compared to South American countries like Chile and Argentina, Brazil has done little to uncover atrocities at the hands of the military, particularly against indigenous peoples. The allegations of the Waimiri-Atroari pose a challenge to Brazil’s armed forces, who say their regime only cracked down on adversaries that pushed for a socialist revolution.
Slender and low-voiced Dawuna Elzo Atroari said he witnessed a blitzkrieg style attack against the tribe in a different incident than the one Bornaldo described. “Before this road we lived well and in peace, we were healthy,” he said, his hands shaking. “After the road, people died and we were threatened.”
“I had a gun pointed to my ear,” he recounted.
Wildlife is abundant in the region, with sloths, monkeys and jaguars frequently appearing. Bayous filled with fly-attracting pink flowers can be seen from the road. Not far from it, the trees become leafier and taller.
The Waimiri-Atroari close off the road with a massive chain each day at 6 p.m., to protect wildlife and the tribe itself. It only reopens at 6 a.m.
The testimony of the elders, all youngsters during the construction of the road, are key in the suit demanding the state pay the tribe $13 million in damages, issue an official apology in a ceremony on Waimiri-Atroari land, build a museum to remember the atrocities and mention human rights violations against them in public school books.
In 2014, a Brazilian truth commission said more than 8,000 members of indigenous tribes could have been killed at the hands of authoritarian regimes between 1946 and 1988, the vast majority during the 1964-1985 dictatorship.
Prosecutors estimate the number of Waimiri-Atroari victims between 600 and 3,000.
As the hearing went on and tribe members repeatedly accused the Brazilian military of slaughter, news emerged that had eerie parallels with the past: Brazil’s federal government announced plans to build an energy line through the Waimiri-Atroari reserve, a move that politicians and military leaders have been pushing for since the construction of the BR-174.
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Bolsonaro, who frequently praises the dictatorship and promises to open the Amazon to more development, deemed the energy line connecting the grid of the state of Roraima to the rest of Brazil’s a matter of national security. The decision would allow him to avoid consulting the Waimiri-Atroari, as the law demands. Brazil now buys energy from crisis-ridden Venezuela to supply the isolated Northern state.
If the $600 million energy project goes forward in June as Bolsonaro pledged, there will be more deforestation in the Waimiri-Atroari lands with the installation of dozens of towers. A legal battle is expected.
Regardless of what happens, Parwe, one of the tribe leaders, said he was happy future generations would learn more about the Waimiri-Atroari.
“Everyone should know what happened here so it never happens again,” Parwe said in a firm voice, standing next to the judge and looking at the military personnel in attendance.
This story was based on an Associated Press report.