After Brazil mudslides, grief and faith among the ruins

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Alex Sandro Conde, 42, looks from his home at the devastation caused by a landslide at Morro da Oficina, a hillside part of Alto da Serra, Petropolis, Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. Conde lost his son Kaique, 18, when the place where they both worked was destroyed by a landslide after heavy rains last Tuesday. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

PETROPOLIS – 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 the Lord. “God is giving me the right words to bring encouragement to every person who needs it.”

One day about a week after the landslide, 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 the man. 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 hurrying down the mountain with his 21-year-old son when the mud caught them; the son slipped away and was swept to his death. 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 and killed more than 200 people citywide.

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Condé is tireless, a man always in motion. There's so much to do, not only consoling the bereaved but also finding a new home for his family. Staying busy keeps him from being idle, which would mean dwelling on his own grief.

One of Condé's childhood friends was Thiago das Graças. They were closer than brothers, though they must have looked like an odd duo: Thiago was 6 feet tall, bearded and beefy, while Condé is short and wiry, weighing in at just 125 pounds. Das Graças raised birds and taught Condé the hobby.

They labored side by side at a workshop silk-screening designs onto T-shirts. Also employed there were Condé's actual brother, Ivan — the two had been mending their strained relationship — 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 dumped on Petropolis in just three hours, the most intense downpour in 90 years of recordkeeping.

They saw on social media that parts of the city had flooded, but when the rain eased a little, Condé made a dash for home. Kaíque stayed behind, watching soccer on his phone with his uncle. Shortly before Condé arrived, rain resumed falling with nightmarish intensity.

“I’d never felt any rain on my body like that,” he said. “You could see something different was happening.”

Minutes later, Condé heard a rumble like distant thunder and then a roar, far louder and closer. The brick home's metal roof started rattling, and he rushed outside. A wall of dirt was careening toward him carrying tree trunks, rocks, roofing and rebar.

He tried to dip back inside, but the door — on which Kaíque long ago painted the words “JESUS 100%” — was jammed. Condé crouched and braced himself, thinking, “I’m going to die buried.”

Seconds later, silence. He stood and saw the torrent had passed 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. He sprinted to the workshop and found it, too, had been swallowed.

Condé phoned his wife, Gabriela, who was with their younger boy, 14-year-old Piter, at the bus terminal. People there were standing on seats to keep clear of floodwaters. Condé told her not to come home — their eldest son was dead.

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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. He was covered with wounds, and 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.”

He said he didn’t want his wife and other son to see him sad.

“I can’t give that image to them. I need to give strength to them, for us to keep living,” he said. “Not just for them, but for other friends.”

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.

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When the morgue called to say Kaíque’s body had been cleared for release, Condé caught a ride to meet his wife there. Friends called out condolences as the car drove past heavy machinery still digging out areas buried by the slide.

Condé spoke of everything but the impending burial.

He pointed out the landslide he had seen on social media that afternoon in the workshop. Driving past detritus that a swollen river had left in front of stately homes, he recalled the first time he saw a river overflow.

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. And his brother, and his best friend. They had planned to take a fishing trip with their families next month and already paid a deposit for a rental home near the beach.

Arriving at the morgue, Condé reassured his bereft sister-in-law that Kaíque had obeyed the Lord’s commandments and thus been granted salvation. He shared the same thoughts with the funeral service representative while making burial arrangements. The woman, Elisângela Gomes, later marveled at his poise.

“I believe his faith, his prayers and his will to help his fellow man left helpless like him has kept him strong,” Gomes said. “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. Condé later said he imagined at the time that more heavy rains could shear off that hillside, unearthing all the coffins buried there and washing them to the bottom.

Lowering Kaíque 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.

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Condé took Piter back to Sierra Heights. He wanted the boy to see the landslide's aftermath, how it had ripped the community apart and where Kaíque had died.

“This is the last time we’ll come here,” Condé told Piter as they wended their way up its serpentine alleys.

From a neighbor's roof, they surveyed the scene below: teams of soldiers still searching for bodies in the mud, debris and relics of shattered homes.

On the way back downhill, they came across a woman lugging a mattress. 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 all the way down.

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