Conceição crossed the Concentration Camp very quickly. Sometimes a voice would stall:
“Mistress, a little handout…”
She would take a nickel out of her purse and pass by, in a light step, running away from the promiscuity and stench of the camp.
What a cost, to go through that filthy trap of filthy people, of old cans and dirty rags!
This is an excerpt from Brazilian social critic and novelist Rachel de Queiroz’s first book Os Quinze. Published in 1930 and later translated in English as The Fifteen, it refers to the year 1915 when thousands of people fleeing a drought in the interior of the state of Ceará, in northeastern Brazil, were placed in a concentration camp on the outskirts of the state capital, Fortaleza.
Though little discussed today, in 1915 and again in 1932, eight concentration camps were built in the countryside of Ceará. Today, the rescue of the meaning and memory of such camps is more than a necessity. The camps of Ceará remind us how easily human beings who were considered undesirable could be discarded and isolated to avoid “infecting” the rest of the population and causing discomfort to the elites.
The stated aim in erecting these camps, or as they were known at the time, “poverty corrals,” was to prevent workers from poor regions from moving to the city, a phenomenon of great proportions throughout the Brazilian Northeast in the 20th century. Rural exodus was the result of the misery and abandonment, as millions of Brazilians—facing a scenario of malnutrition, hunger, and even death by thirst and starvation—were forced to give up everything in order to try a better life in the big urban centers.
But the retirante, as these people were called, were not seen as dignified human beings, nor even as a social problem that needed a solution. Instead, they were seen as a problem to be eliminated or, at best, hidden from the urban elites.
The genesis of the concentration camps lay in the Great Drought of 1877–78, the largest and most devastating drought in Brazilian history. It caused the deaths of between 400,000 and 500,000 people in northeastern Brazil—a massive impact for a country whose first census, in 1872, counted a population of just under 10 million.
The Great Drought forced mass migrations from rural to urban areas. All over Ceará, there were shortages of food and essentials and a surge in diseases such as smallpox. At least 100,000 retirantes arrived in Fortaleza, more than triple the local population of the capital at the time, overwhelming it.
In 1915, when another devastating cycle of drought hit, state authorities in Ceará were not willing to see history repeat itself. Instead, they resolved to prevent the arrival of those who trying to flee rural areas, and to remove those who had already reached the city center. The governor of the state, Col. Benjamin Liberato Barroso, created the first concentration camp in the so-called Alagadiço, a region on the outskirts of the capital Fortaleza.
Desperate retirantes sought to reach the capital by train—or even by foot following the railway line. Once they arrived in the capital, they were rounded up and sent to the camp, with the promise of work and, without any other option, they followed the orders. Those who had made it to the city center before the camp was set up, about 3,000 people, also ended up being removed to the Alagadiço where at least 8,000 people were crowded in makeshift tents living in less-than-ideal sanitary conditions.
The Alagadiço camp was dismantled in 1916 with the end of the drought, having largely succeeded in preventing the influx of thousands of people into the capital’s streets. The number of deaths resulting from the terrible living conditions in the camp is unknown, but the camp served as a model for the others that were organized from 1932 onward.
In 1932, with yet another major drought, seven more camps in Ceará followed the “success” of the initial venture. Two opened on the outskirts of Fortaleza, and others—at Crato, Senator Pompeu, Ipu, Cariús and Quixeramobim—lined the routes of the two main railroads that crossed the state.
These sites were strategic points on the migration routes of the people now known as flagelados da seca (“those plagued by drought”).
The purpose of the camps and their locations was to prevent people from reaching the capital, but they also were used as justification of “modernization” and “beautification” of the city based on the idea of social Darwinism or the “survival of the fittest,” meaning that certain people were innately better than others, and the deep-rooted prejudice that rural populations would be lazy and less productive, and thus, responsible for their own situation.
This time it was not the state, but the central government, which took charge of creating the camps. In a speech in Fortaleza in 1933, the dictator Getúlio Vargas praised the creation of the camps, where, according to him, 1 million people were being “served” and receiving government assistance.
In reality, the camps were created not to provide help to those in need, but to make the problem disappear from the cities—or at least to hide it for a while. By controlling entire populations, the local government aimed to avoid not only social upheaval, as in the Great Drought, but also social revolts such as the one that happened in Bahia between 1896 and 1897, known as the War of Canudos.
As with the Great Drought, reports about what was happening in Ceará in the 1930s were largely ignored by the Brazilian and foreign press. Inside the concentration camps, though, the picture was grim. Women and men were separated and could not leave except to perform forced labor on road and dam construction, under strong police escort. In many cases, their hair was shaved. The rules were strict, and those who disobeyed them were imprisoned in jails on site. The unsanitary conditions of the camps and the lack of food led to the deaths of thousands of retirantes.
In 1932 alone, it was estimated that more than 73,000 people were confined to these camps in inhuman conditions. The number of dead is unknown. In one camp, Senator Pompeu, it is estimated that at least 2,000 people died and were buried in mass graves. The total death toll for all of the camps may be as high as 12,000.
The inhumane treatment given to those seeking only to survive was not an exception and was not restricted to the years of great droughts. For retirantes who did manage to migrate, they were used as cheap, disposable labor, whether they fled toward the rich cities of the southeast, the rubber plantations of the north, the gold mines of Serra Pelada, or the construction jobs of Brasilia, today’s Brazilian capital.
By the second half of the 20th century, concentration camps were no longer fashionable. Even the military regime of 1965-1985 that tortured and killed hundreds of people did not set up camps. The idea of placing thousands of people in forced isolation in spaces with dubious sanitary conditions and without any legal process had been tainted by Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags.
Thus, when the greatest drought of the 20th century in Ceará occurred, between 1978 and 1984, camps were no longer a viable option. The government delivered food donations, but did little more to mitigate the worst effects of hunger and rural exodus.
At first, legacies of the camps were recorded in great books of Brazilian literature dedicated to analyzing, reporting, and romanticizing the consequences and the background of the drought in the Brazilian Northeast. Among them include Graciliano Ramos in Vidas Secas (literally Dry Lives), José do Patrocínio in Os Retirantes (Drought Refugees), Euclides da Cunha in Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands), and De Queiroz’s O Quinze, which deals specifically with the concentration camps. This vast literature on the subject, which became known as the “Cycle of Droughts,” had been of immense relevance during the nationalist discourse prompted by the Vargas regime. The drought was also eternalized in the 1944 painting “Os Retirantes” by Candido Portinari.
Still, there’s a Brazilian saying that goes, “What the eyes don’t see, the heart doesn’t feel.” Today, Northeast’s countryside continues to have development rates below the Brazilian average, periodic droughts are still common and a considerable part of the population depends on government aid to survive—which shows that the lessons of the past have not been learned.
There is scant physical evidence left of the camps, themselves, which were designed as mostly temporary structures, to testify to what happened there. Only in the small town of Senator Pompeu do the masonry structures still stand. Originally constructed by Norton Griffiths & Company to build a dam in the region in the 1920s, the buildings were abandoned for years until they were used for the camps, then abandoned again.
A year ago, Senador Pompeu’s town government turned the ruins of the concentration camp and its cemetery into a historical heritage site. There are plans to preserve the camp’s grounds, a way to the horrors of drought and the crimes committed there by the state—but testimony alone is not enough to prevent past mistakes from being made again.