Seismic Waves from Haiti to Brazil

The earthquake in Haiti on January 12 also sent shock waves through Brazil.  The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH)—operating since 2004—is commanded by a Brazilian general, and more than 1,200 Brazilians form the single largest contingent in the force.  The second ranking official in the UN mission in Port-au-Prince was a Brazilian diplomat, Luís Carlos da Costa (60), with four decades of service including some danger zones (Liberia and Kosovo).  He died, buried in the ruins of the mission headquarters.  Most poignantly, Zilda Arns, a physician and the founder of a non-profit to protect children, Pastoral da Criança (Pastoral Care for Children), had just finished speaking in a church in downtown Port-au-Prince when the massive seismic waves rippled through the city, and brought down the cathedral on Dr. Arns and the priests and parishioners around her.

Video shot by Brazilian soldier outside the Sacré Coeur de Tugeau Church moments after the earthquake.

Seventeen Brazilian members of the peacekeeping force died in the ruins in Haiti, most in the MINUSTAH headquarters.  The Brazilian government has pledged to send more troops to Haiti and some $200 million in aid and assistance.  The peacekeeping force should rise to more than 12,000 with the addition of more Brazilian, French, and Chilean troops.  The coverage of the disaster has been prominent in the Brazilian media with a significant number of Brazilian journalists, both print and television, reporting daily.  The Brazilian government is anxious to show a leadership role in this crisis that has caught the attention of the world.  It is striking to see this in depth coverage in the media, especially since the poverty and despair in Haiti rivals even the worst that can be found in the infamous interior of the Brazilian northeast.  These pockets of extreme poverty in the Brazilian interior, however, must seem less daunting when juxtaposed with the scale of Haiti’s misery—more than 80 percent of its nearly 10 million people living on less than $2 a day income.

The death of Zilda Arns brings to a close a long and incredible life.  The thirteenth child of a German-Brazilian family, Arns was born in 1934 in southern Brazil.  At a time when there were almost no female physicians in Brazil, she persuaded her father to let her study medicine and become a doctor.  Her older brother, Paulo Evaristo, helped convince her father.  Now 88, the retired archbishop of São Paulo, Dom Paulo Evaristo, is one of the towering figures of the opposition to military rule in Brazil in the 1970s.  He spearheaded the “Torture, Never Again” project that published the landmark book, Brazil:  Never Again in 1985, documenting the extent of torture in Brazil with the military’s own court records, secretly photocopied and microfilmed over years by cooperating lawyers.

Zilda Arns Neumann, M.D.

In the 1980s, at her brother’s suggestion, Zilda Arns led the Pastoral da Criança.  The organization is simple and direct—it recruits and trains hundreds of thousands of women in the poorest regions of Brazil to give their children a simple mix of sugar, salt, and water to stop diarrhea–and save lives.  The infant mortality rate in these poor areas dropped from more than 120 per 1,000 live births to less than 25 in a very brief period.  The Pastoral, under her leadership, has been a major factor in the steady reduction of infant mortality in Brazil over the past generation.   After the success in Brazil, she took her work around the world in the last two decades, from East Timor to Haiti.  Her work in Haiti in the past few years has helped cut the infant mortality rate drastically.

On her last visit, she arrived in Port-au-Prince on January 11.  On January 12 she spoke to more than 100 priests on the third floor of the Sacré Coeur de Tugeau Church.  She finished her talk at 4:45 p.m. and was speaking with some of the priests who remained in the room.  Within minutes the tremors struck, and the building collapsed–killing Dona Zilda and most of those around her.  At a wake for her on January 15 in Curitiba, President Lula da Silva, the governor of the state of Paraná, the two leading contenders in the upcoming presidential election, and many other dignitaries paid their respects to an exceptional woman who forged an exemplary life helping children around the globe.

President Lula and other dignitaries at Zilda Arns wake


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