A year after Brazil dam breach, the mud has dried but not the tears

4 min

Brumadinho (Brazil) (AFP)

Before saying a prayer for her older sister, Natalia de Oliveira lights a candle and places it next to rosary beads and a photo of her sibling killed in a massive dam collapse in Brazil.

A year after the disaster that unleashed millions of tons of mining waste in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, de Oliveira still hopes Lecilda's body will be found beneath the mud.

Her sister was among 270 people killed in the huge avalanche of toxic sludge that buried houses and swaths of countryside in the mineral-rich region on January 25.

The official death toll is 259, but scores of firefighters are still picking through the dried mud for the bodies of 11 people listed as missing but certainly dead.

Lecilda's is one of them.

"On top of all this tragedy, we were stripped of the dignity of a funeral," says de Oliveira of her sister, who worked in the human resources office of Vale, the Brazilian mining company that owns the dam.

"We do not accept anyone saying that she is one of the missing. We know she was in the dining hall of Vale that Friday at 12:28 pm."

Since the tragedy, de Oliveira has listened to the audio messages that her sister sent her on WhatsApp every morning.

"I feel like she's still saying 'hello' to me. These messages are the only thing that help me get out of bed," she says, weeping.

The two sisters were only a year apart -- 48 and 49 -- and had always lived near each other in Brumadinho, where Vale is the biggest employer.

As she passes their old primary school, Natalia again loses her composure.

"The whole city has been hit. We lost so many childhood friends, it makes us sick," she says.

- 'I want justice' -

Malvina Firmino Nunes is also struggling to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, her son Peterson.

One of her other children called her on that eventful day to tell her that the 35-year-old had been swept away by the mudslide.

In that moment, Nunes says, her life stopped.

The sturdy 62-year-old woman cannot even utter her son's name without crying. She needs medication to sleep.

Nunes is among 4,000 people to have received compensation from Vale for the loss of family members in the catastrophic dam breach.

With her 700,000 reais (about $170,000), Nunes was able to buy a small house. But it is not a property that she wants.

"I only want justice to be done; these white-collar workers are not where they should be, in prison," she says.

State prosecutors on Tuesday charged Vale's ex-president Fabio Schvartsman and 15 others with intentional homicide and environmental offenses over the disaster.

Vale and its German auditor TUV SUD also face environmental charges.

A judge must accept the charges before the cases can go to trial.

Nunes and de Oliveira say they plan to take Vale to court.

"We think that to honor our dead we have to do our part: not accepting that mining kills people," says de Oliveira.

"Vale must learn the lesson."

- 'United by tragedy' -

Talita Oliveira, 16, still bears the scars of one of Brazil's worst industrial accidents.

Trapped in the mud, she owes her survival to firefighters who hauled her aboard a helicopter in a dramatic scene broadcast live on television.

Her legs are disfigured by large scars and she relies on crutches to walk.

"I stayed in the hospital for six months. The pain was very intense, I was taking a lot of morphine," Oliveira recalls.

Despite the 20 drugs she takes every day and the painful physiotherapy sessions, the teenager says she has "recovered well."

"Sometimes I still have nightmares, the images of the moment when they tried to get me out of the mud come back to me," Oliveira says.

"But there are days when I manage to be happy, I sing. I hope to have a future without as much medication, being able to walk normally. Just that would be a perfect life."

Brumadinho is preparing for an influx of people from across the state to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy.

It will not be the first tribute: on the 25th day of every month, relatives of the victims gather at the entrance to the town to pay their respects.

Natalia de Oliveira has not missed a single vigil.

"We are united by tragedy and pain," she says.

"In Brumadinho, we have become a family."