Two young mothers stand with a group of fellow Indigenous Brazilians in a park in Boa Vista in northern Brazil.
One of them, speaking in her native Sanöma language, tells the president of the local health council serving the region’s Yanomami Indigenous people that she’s distraught and needs his help. She tells him she can’t go back home without the body of her dead son.
“I came here with my baby, and I need you to help me take him home,” she said through an interpreter, crying.
The mothers’ pleading in late June was captured on video, which has been shared on social media. For more than a month, four mothers of the Sanöma tribe, a subgroup of the Yanomami people, had been looking for their children's bodies in the Roraima state capital. Today, the women are still waiting for resolution — and several of them have contracted the coronavirus.
Three of the mothers had originally traveled to Boa Vista to get treatment for their babies, who were sick with symptoms that resembled the coronavirus. The other child was born prematurely at the hospital and suffered from hydrocephalus. All four of the children died at the hospital. Their bodies disappeared. The mothers, who don’t speak Portuguese, say they did not know where they were taken.
Only after immense public pressure in late June, officials from Indigenous health services under the Ministry of Health said the children had been buried under suspicion of having died from COVID-19, according to official protocol. Officials claimed that the mothers had been notified.
Since then, the body of at least one of the Sanöma children has been returned to his family. It’s unclear when, or if, the bodies of the other babies will be returned home.
“Maybe this will be resolved this month, this year, or next year. But we are fighting for the bodies of these children to be returned to their villages.”
The mothers didn't get any explanation, he said: “Maybe this will be resolved this month, this year, or next year. But we are fighting for the bodies of these children to be returned to their villages.”
This case was particularly explosive because Yanomami funeral rites are extensive and extremely important for the tribe. Families grieve for months. The deceased are often cremated. The ashes are sometimes even consumed in a memorial feast. Without such rituals, there is no closure, neither for the dead or the families.
The events spurred coverage by a prominent journalist, Eliane Brum, and a social media campaign with the viral hashtag in Portuguese #CriançasYanomami, or “Yanomami children.” Indigenous activists demanded answers.
“These children need to be returned to their families,” activist Alice Pataxo said in a video posted on Twitter, which was retweeted almost 9,000 times. “It is not only the Yanomami people who are suffering. But we are all with them.”
Meanwhile, the news outlet Amazonia Real had contracted investigative freelance journalist Emily Costa to try and find the bodies. She spent days at the city’s Campo da Saudade cemetery.
In a video she shared with The World, she walks behind a man in a green uniform through rows of recently filled mass graves. There are no tombstones or identification. It took her nearly a week to find the bodies of the four children. Three had been buried. Another was still being held at the city’s Legal Medical Institute.
Her article was published with the news outlet Amazonia Real late last month. Finally, officials began to respond.
“We have to consider that we are living in the middle of a pandemic with protocols, and we have to be careful. But at the same time we have to find middle ground where culture is also respected. I think it was immense violence against the mothers when they were not communicated with, nor did officials wait for any type of authorization.”
“We have to consider that we are living in the middle of a pandemic with protocols, and we have to be careful. But at the same time we have to find middle ground where culture is also respected,” Costa said. “I think it was immense violence against the mothers when they were not communicated with, nor did officials wait for any type of authorization.”
University of Brasília anthropology professor Sílvia Guimarães has worked with the Sanöma people for 15 years. She wrote to public prosecutors on behalf of the tribe shortly after the babies’ bodies disappeared, and says this case is indicative of the general treatment of Indigenous peoples across the country.
“They treated these women as less than human. And this happens systematically every day,” Guimarães said. “It’s disrespectful, not sharing information. Because these women are open. They understand what COVID-19 is now. But none of that was explained to them. They only learned after chasing after information.”
Guimarães highlighted that as women, the Sanöma mothers were treated with even less respect.
“The weight of the pandemic is even greater on the shoulders of Indigenous women because strategically, they are even more devalued by social inequality and the history of colonization,” Guimarães said. “Women are treated as though they aren’t worth anything. And Indigenous women even less. They probably said, ‘They can’t even speak Portuguese? Why are we going to waste our time trying to explain things to them?’”