By Brad Brooks
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Ester Silva curses the Olympic Games as another bus rumbles over a new elevated highway that passes by her slum in Rio de Janeiro, sending a tremor through her brittle brick house.
“That road ripped our little community in two,” said Silva, 61, who has run a snack shop for 16 years from her home, gesturing up at a stretch of highway where an official Games bus was hit with stones this week as it traveled between venues.
“My home is crumbling, all for an Olympics that is not being put on for us poor, yet we are the ones paying the highest price,” she added, pointing out large patches of plaster that have fallen away from her ceiling and deep cracks in the walls.
The 26-km (16-mile), six-lane highway was completed just ahead of the Games and connects the main Olympic Park and a cluster of other Games venues. The government described it as a Games legacy for western Rio, promising to use it as a major bus route for the area’s many poor communities.
But residents of the Vila Uniao favela hate it.
A total of 368 families were relocated to make way for the Transolimpica BRT highway, and residents say the demolition of those homes and the construction works, just meters from their front doors in many cases, caused serious structural problems.
At least three Olympic buses have been hit by projectiles while speeding along a dedicated lane in recent days, a senior security source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
One bus was carrying a dozen journalists on Tuesday night when two of its windows were shattered by what some on board swore was gunfire but authorities later concluded were stones, likely shot at the bus by powerful slingshots.
In interviews with more than 15 residents and community leaders of Vila Uniao, none said they heard any gunfire when the media bus was hit. But all said they would not be surprised if the buses were targeted by rocks slung by young men in the community, acts denounced by the residents.
“We’re an activist community, we’ve been fighting against the forced destruction of our homes for years,” said Maria do Socorro, a 45-year-old beautician in the favela.
“If we wanted to protest, you would know it. We would barricade that road with burning tires.”
The residents of Vila Uniao, which is just 2 km (a mile) from the newly built Olympic Village, are demanding that the city help repair the slum’s 900 remaining homes, mostly tall, narrow terraces made from weak, locally made bricks.
They also want the city to meet a promise to provide basic sanitation to the community. All its household waste flows into a putrid stream which regularly overflows during Rio’s rainy season, sending raw sewage into homes and streets.
The Rio mayor’s office strongly defends the BRT highway as desperately needed public transport for the poorest communities of western Rio. “It’s an important legacy for those who use buses daily,” the mayor’s office said in an emailed statement.
Critics say Transolimpica BRT highway, and other new highways built ahead of the Games, are inefficient modes of transport and point out that all of them run to the wealthy Barra neighborhood, home to the Olympic Park.
Barra is also the home turf of Mayor Eduardo Paes, who began his political career there and counts on it for strong support.
The University of Zurich’s Christopher Gaffney, who has studied the impact of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games on Brazil, said the new highways were “retrograde”. He said it would have been better to expand Rio’s metro system to densely populated areas in the west and other needy areas.The government instead built an extension of the metro network linking the wealthy Ipanema neighborhood to Barra.
Watchdog groups say about 20,000 families have been relocated since late 2009 for Olympic and World Cup works and legacy projects. The mayor’s office says 15,000 of them were moved because they lived in high-risk areas in danger of mainly mudslides and floods and does not consider them Games-related relocations.
“Funny how none of the rich areas in Rio are high risk, nor were the wealthy forced to leave communities where they had spent their whole lives,” said Socorro, the beautician.
“Why is it the poor always pay the price for what the government calls the advances that Rio needs?”
(Additional reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier; Editing by Mark Bendeich)