Brazil feels Iraq kidnapping's pain

Joao Jose de Vasconcellos Jr would have been celebrating his 50th birthday with his family in their apartment near the beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 24 February.

    A 'Free Joao' campaign shirt bearing Iraqi and Brazilian flags

    Instead the whereabouts of the Brazilian engineer kidnapped in Iraq more than a month ago, remain shrouded in mystery.

    There has been no contact with his family and no news from the Brazilian government. There have been no threats or demands, There has been no images, and no proof that he is alive.

    In fact, after his diving card was shown in a video sent to Aljazeera by the Mujahidin Brigades and the Army of Ansar al-Sunna on 19 January, there has been no further information of any kind at all.

    Vasconcellos had been in Iraq for 12 months and was one of six Brazilian construction workers with the company Norberto Odebrecht in Iraq. The firm announced they were pulling the remainder out the day after the abduction was announced.

    The hostage case is marked by two unusual factors.

    Outspoken critic

    First, there is no political capital to be gained. Brazil has no troops in Iraq and refused a request to take part in the US-led "coalition of the willing". President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been an outspoken critic of the war.

    Secondly, unlike the hardline approach of many other countries which refuse to negotiate with hostage-takers, Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim, made it clear that "if it is necessary to negotiate, we negotiate".

    Samba children sporting T-shirts
    calling for Joao to be set free

    There have even been appeals from Brazil's most famous football player, Real Madrid's Ronaldo, but still nothing.

    Among the many theories are that either the kidnappers made an error, or are out to make money and yet to make demands, or Joao Vasconcellos is already dead.

    The ambush on the vehicle in which he was travelling in Baiji killed an Iraqi and a British man and was riddled with bullets.

    Nevertheless, a month on from the drama, the forgotten hostage - there has been little media coverage since the first days - was remembered in a demonstration in Sao Paulo on 19 February.

    People wore T-shirts calling for his freedom in Portuguese and Arabic with an image of the engineer with the Brazilian and Iraqi flags.

    Ongoing wait

    Jaques Punskowski, 42, had travelled from the other end of the city. He said, 

    "I don't have any connection to the family or to the Arab community here. On the contrary I am Jewish. Today I am just one more contribution to support Joao who is a Brazilian like me."

    Maria Amadeto had brought her children from the Portela Zona Sul samba school. "They already understand what is going on here," she said. Brazilian flags with Joao's face dotted Avenida Paulista, the city main thoroughfare.

    Jaques Punskowski: I am Jewish
    but a fellow Brazilian like Joao

    His wife of 26 years, Tereza Vasconcellos, remained in Rio de Janeiro, exhausted by the ongoing wait for news.

    "The only concrete information were the documents shown on TV. Not one image of him. This is what is must anguishing, " she told the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper.

    "My energy has a limit during the day and by the afternoon I am finished. I wake up with hope, I work well in the morning, but when the afternoon arrives I know that it is already night in Iraq and the day has finished without news. I become bad-tempered and my memory doesn't work which I think are symptoms of stress."

    Arabs' appeal

    Tereza continued: "The heart speaks a lot. In the first few days I didn't feel him. It took a couple of weeks. I don't know what it is but it seems that now I am more hopeful. There is no proof that he is alive or dead. The two doors are open. I've been praying a lot, I have a lot of faith."

    Today Brazil has around 15 million Arabs living in the country, the majority based in the largest city Sao Paulo.

    Sao Paulo's Arabs said anti-war
    Brazilians did not deserve this

    The Youth Islamic League of Brazil recorded an appeal. "Brazil is a friend [of Iraq), which was always against the invasion of Iraq and because of this doesn't deserve to have one of its sons taken hostage," sthe religious director Shaikh Usama al-Zahid said in a call backed by other Muslim leaders.

    An open letter sent to from the Arab-Brazilian community in Foz do Iguacu also called for the immediate release of Vasconcellos.

    "The Brazilian people, in an absolute majority, have always given solidarity to Arab causes inside and outside their territory, never believed in violence, like we haven't, in the struggle for the legitimate rights and interests of the people," said the letter, signed by Fuad Muhamad Fakih and 13 others.

    The Brazilian foreign ministry says it is continuing to make every effort at contact.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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