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Centennial of a War Stirs a Nation

Brazilians examine troubling questions that linger from a battle between 'two Brazils': the urban, modern south and the rural, superstitious north.

By Jack EpsteinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 2, 1997


It's difficult to imagine that 100 years ago this desolate mountain valley was the site of the bloodiest war ever fought on Brazilian soil.

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Goats forage for food among sagebrush and cactus. Long-legged waterfowl soar over a man-made lake, where fishermen cast their nets from crude boats. But within this recently opened historical park in the northern state of Bahia, signs point the way to "Cutthroat Valley."

There, shards of human bone still lie at the surface of a mass grave containing the remains of some 20,000 men, women, and children - victims of a massacre that ended the War of Canudos.

That final battle, on Oct. 5, 1897, ended the conflict between the Brazilian Army and a charismatic religious leader and his community of faithful.

The Brazilian government thought Antnio Conselheiro was a threat to the national order. It launched four separate military campaigns against him in the drought-plagued region called the serto.

For generations, most Brazilians have portrayed Conselheiro and his followers as religious fanatics who caused their own deaths. Typically, the conflict is depicted as a battle between two Brazils - the modern, urban, sophisticated south and the archaic, rural, superstitious north.

Yet as the centennial of the war is celebrated across the nation - in seminars, lectures, 13 new books, 4 music CDs, photo exhibits, and a $6 million movie that will open Oct. 3 - those views are being challenged as never before and go to the core of Brazilian identity.

Some sociologists describe Brazil as "Bel-India." They compare the industrialized south and its modern skylines and automobile plants to Belgium, and the impoverished northeast - to its parched earth and desperate farmers - with India.

Now, just as Brazil is implementing free-market reforms and attracting billions in foreign investment, Canudos has become a disturbing reminder of the past and the dangerous inequities between north and south.

"Canudos is important because it's the story of Brazil's historically excluded and a reminder that the northeast remains on the same path of poverty," says Prof. Muniz Sodr, head of the communications department at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. "It's also a reminder that widespread poverty can still cause local revolts."

"Canudos caused a profound mark - a wound," said a recent cover story in Veja, Brazil's leading newsmagazine. "Antonio Conselheiro became a central figure in one of the most tragic and mistaken episodes of nationality, in which Brazil confronted Brazil and crashed head on into itself."

Most of the rethinking over Canudos centers around the 1902 epic work "Os Sertes" ("The Arid Region," but translated in English as "Rebellion in the Backlands"). The book is often referred to as the "Bible of Brazilian nationality." It was written by Euclides da Cunha, a journalist who covered the war for a Sao Paulo newspaper and was deeply haunted by the massacre.

Culture clash

Da Cunha deftly described the clash between the two cultures. He noted that inhabitants of the developed south tended to be of European descent while people of the north were mostly mestizo, black, or Indian. He perceived that southerners were virtual foreigners when they traveled to the serto. The book also described sertao conditions, which shocked many southern readers.

The serto is an immense arid backlands in Brazil's northeast region covered with sagebrush, cactus, and prickly, stunted trees called caatinga. Droughts devastate the region an average of once every decade and sudden, heavy rainstorms cause widespread flooding and soil erosion.

The isolated backlands and shortage of priests produced many "holy men," who combined Indian, Portuguese, and African folk cultures to practice a unique brand of Roman Catholicism. Most recently, thousands attended the funeral of Friar Damiao, an Italian-born monk who died in June and was worshipped as a miracle worker. Like Conselheiro, Damiao wandered the backlands in his habit and sandals, preaching strict adherence to the Bible's teachings.

During Conselheiro's day, northeast inhabitants often died of starvation. Life expectancy did not exceed 27 years. Priests preached that droughts reflected God's wrath.

Canudos, however, was a serto from another world. Conselheiro preached self-sufficiency and labeled local landowners exploiters.

He designed cisterns to hold water, and warehouses were built to store grain to avoid hunger. Residents were encouraged to send their children to school - almost unheard of in other rural towns - and taxes and government offices were banned. Prostitution, alcohol, and flirting by young women were prohibited.