October 10, 2000
They did not have to die. Delon Pereira, Danielle Joe and Delisa Pereira were as much victims of poverty, ignorance and downright selfishness as they were victims of the fire that turned their tiny bodies into charred, black lumps. And the manner of their demise has signalled a fourth tragic event in the Timehri Docks community--the spirit of neighbourliness has been mortally wounded.
Monica Pereira, a mother of three at 17, told Stabroek News that she had left her children at home and gone in search of a job as she had nothing to give them to eat. Her eldest, a three-year-old, had complained of hunger, she said.
Pereira must have heard stories of the countless children who had died in fires after being left at home alone by their parents. But endowed with the 'it can't happen to me' optimism of the very young and the attending naivete, Pereira left three babies unattended; left her front door open; left word with a neighbour to "keep an eye" on them. She had no idea of how dangerous that was. In England, indeed, it is illegal to leave children under 14 years old unattended.
Chief Fire Officer, Tulsi John, told this newspaper that the fire was as a result of children playing with matches. But this conclusion could not have been arrived at with certainty. Rather, it must have been through a process of elimination. Investigators would have found no trace of any accelerant, no sign that the mother left a stove on or a candle lit, no electrical appliances that could have malfunctioned and deduced that the children had to have been playing with matches. But who knows?
This newspaper reported that an old woman living nearby had alerted neighbours that there was smoke emanating from Pereira's flat. Obviously, no one went to investigate. Was it a case of everybody thinking somebody would do what anybody could have done, but in the end nobody did? Or was it a case of everyone turning a deaf ear and a blind eye? Whichever it was, Pereira's neighbours failed her miserably. They also failed her infant children.
In small rural communities like Pereira's, there really are no secrets. No doubt, the neighbours knew Pereira's situation. And while it is likely that their circumstances are similar, surely it would have cost them nothing to ensure that her children were safe while she was away.
A letter writer in Stabroek News' letters column (7-10-00) asked the following questions: Why should a 17-year-old be the mother of three children? Where are their fathers? Where are her parents? Was she exposed to family planning? Has she been taught any skills? How many more like her are out there? How did she escape the attention of the welfare authorities? Pereira's neighbours have answered these questions and any others with one of their own "who cares?" The answer, Nobody!
In contrast to Pereira, many 17-year-olds are still basking in their success at the Caribbean Examination Council exams, or have moved on to higher education. But unfortunately, among the critically poor, Pereira is just a statistic; there are just as many 16- and 17-year olds, and some even younger, who have become invisible.
They can be found in impoverished rural and urban communities, or among Guyana's growing population of street dwellers. Nobody cares that they have stopped going to school. Nobody cares that they are using drugs or alcohol. Nobody cares that they are bringing children into the world to repeat the whole pitiful cycle.
It is too late for Pereira's children. But it is not too late to resuscitate neighbourliness in the Timehri Docks community and elsewhere. The women who have mobilized to successfully garner resources for Jennifer Khan after an earlier tragedy are a shining example of what it means to love one's neighbour.
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