After Brazil mudslides, grief and faith among the ruins
Every day, Alex Sandro Condé leaves the shelter where he has been staying since deadly landslides devastated his poor, mountainside neighborhood and seeks out others who have suffered loss. He doesn’t have to look hard.
Condé can’t even walk a block without stopping to place his hand on someone’s shoulder and offer a hug, a kind word, spiritual counsel. That’s how great the grief is in Alto da Serra — Sierra Heights in English — which he had called home for all his 42 years and considered “the best place on Earth.”
A devout evangelical Christian, Condé sees it as his divine mission to be strong in the aftermath of the disaster so others can lean on him. He says God directed him to offer comfort, compassion and assistance to others and, fortified by his faith and Scripture, help heal the stricken community.
“‘Whomever you see needing help, you go help. I’m keeping you on your feet,’” Condé said he was told by God, who “is giving me the right words to bring encouragement to every person who needs it.”
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One day about a week after the Feb. 15 landslides that killed more than 200 people citywide, he was walking through the streets when he came across a shirtless man, whom he knew. They had lost a common friend, and Condé threw his arms around him. For a time, they rested their heads on each other’s shoulders.
Across the street, Condé spotted another man, Adalto da Silva. On the day of the slide, Da Silva had been with his 21-year-old son when the mud caught them; the son was swept away. Downhill, Da Silva’s wife had tried to keep their 6-year-old daughter safe between her legs, he said; their bodies were found in the mud, still in that embrace.
Condé sat Da Silva down on a chair, then knelt before him and held his shoulders. They spoke for a long period, staring into one another’s eyes, and Condé told him he felt his pain. Da Silva cried.
There’s always someone else in need of comfort: The Feb. 15 slides destroyed dozens of homes in Sierra Heights.
Condé is tireless, a man always in motion. Staying busy keeps him from being idle, which would mean dwelling on his own grief.
Before the disaster he worked at a silk-screening shop with childhood friend Thiago das Graças, whom he considered closer than a brother. Also employed there were his actual brother, Ivan, and Condé’s eldest son, Kaíque, 18, working his first job and happily saving up for a car.
They were all together at the shop the day that 10 inches of rain drenched Petropolis in just three hours, the most intense downpour in 90 years of record-keeping. When the rain eased a little, Condé made a dash for home. Kaíque stayed behind, watching soccer on his phone with his uncle.
At home, Condé heard a rumble like thunder and then a roar, louder and closer. The metal roof started rattling, and he rushed outside. A wall of dirt was careening toward him carrying tree trunks, rocks, roofing and rebar. Condé crouched and braced himself, thinking, “I’m going to die buried.”
But the torrent passed by, mere feet from the house. What moments ago had been a dense cluster of multistory homes was now a broad, muddy gash strewn with wreckage. Condé sprinted to the workshop and found it, too, had been swallowed.
Searchers pulled Kaíque’s body from the mud two days later, and Condé threw himself into serving others.
That included daily visits to another shelter where a friend who was severely injured by the slide was staying.
On a recent day, sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall, the friend could barely move his legs. Blood blotted a bandage on his head. Condé helped him into a wheelchair so he could be brought to the bathroom.
“Every day I come here to help,” Condé said. “I can’t stay in the shelter [where his family is]. There, I’ll start remembering my son.”
Only returning at night, walking alone, did he allow himself to access the pain, and he recalled three passersby once saw him weeping. Approaching the shelter, he took deep breaths to steady himself, then went inside to be with his family.
When the morgue called to say Kaíque’s body had been cleared for release, Condé caught a ride there to meet his wife, Gabriela. Friends called out condolences as the car drove past heavy machinery still digging out areas buried by the slide.
He scrolled through photos on his phone of Sierra Heights residents who were lost: Ms. Selma who had practically raised neighborhood boys of his generation. Solange and Eli, who hosted barbecues. His brother, his best friend.
Arriving at the morgue, Condé reassured his bereft sister-in-law that Kaíque had obeyed God’s commandments and thus been granted salvation. He shared the same thoughts with the funeral service representative while making burial arrangements.
“I believe his faith, his prayers and his will to help his fellow man left helpless like him has kept him strong,” the representative, Elisângela Gomes, said later. “There wasn’t anyone as confident in God as Mr. Alex.”
At the cemetery, Condé remained collected as he carried the coffin to a steep hillside of sparse grass and fresh graves. Lowering Kaíque’s body into the ground, he turned away and squeezed his eyes shut. He put his arm around his wife’s shoulder, and they stood in reverence for a few minutes. He thanked Kaíque for the time they had together.
The following night, at a friend’s house, Condé felt God’s presence and wept unabashedly — “to wash the soul,” he said.
Condé took his younger son, 14-year-old Piter, back to Sierra Heights one last time. He wanted the boy to see the landslide’s aftermath and where Kaíque had died.
They came across a woman lugging a mattress, and Condé put a hand on her arm. Those who are baptized will be saved, he told the woman, and urged her to look to God for strength.
“My God is keeping me on my feet. He ... is very strong,” Condé told her. “And who am I to question God’s sovereignty? Me, a mere mortal, who he put here, and I’m going to complain or question what he did? What the believer needs to have is certainty of salvation.”
Then Condé shouldered the woman’s mattress and carried her burden down the hill.
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