In Memoriam: Nanko Van Buuren (1951 - 2015)
The life of Nanko Van Buuren is remembered as a shining example of courage, vision, compassion and unwavering commitment to social justice and reconciliation. Many owe their lives to him, and he devoted his own life in service of improving the lives of the most disadvantaged and marginalised people of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He ventured into places that others were afraid to tread, built bridges across seemingly insurmountable social divides, devoted himself to even the most precarious and difficult social problems, and transformed the communities where he worked. In 2009, Nanko was awarded the title ‘Officier in de Orde Van Oranje Nassau’, a prestigious royal award in The Netherlands for people making extraordinary contributions to society, and in 2012 he was the recipient of a Global Reconciliation Desmond Tutu Reconciliation Fellowship.
While Nanko was best known for his work in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he lived for nearly 28 years, his work began much earlier in his native home of the Netherlands. There he spent many years developing pioneering approaches for working with disadvantaged young people, particularly those suffering from drug addiction or mental illness. His work in the Netherlands included providing psychological support to political prisoners, technical support to programs for disadvantaged young people (especially those with drug addictions or in conflict with the law), and developing a new Public Health Law aimed at assuring access for excluded groups. During this time, he also authored the report ‘Criminality and Society’ for the Dutch Government.
In the 1970s, when Nanko was still living in The Netherlands, he participated in the ‘Molukkenproject’, a project that emerged after groups of young people from the Moluccas – angry and frustrated with their situation of social isolation – began to cause trouble in the outskirts of the city of Assen. The situation escalated; Moluccans hijacked a train near the town of Wijster, and in 1977 took a group of hostages at a school in Bovensmilde. During this crisis, Nanko was involved as negotiator between the hostage-keepers and the police, a role that he would revisit in many forms years later, when he made his way to Brazil.
In 1987 Nanko was sent to Brazil on a mission for European funding agencies, which focused on an impact assessment of foreign aid for work with street children. After producing a report with a series of recommendations, he agreed to move to Brazil, along with his wife, to continue this work and address what he saw as some of the limitations of existing services and approaches. He went on to live in Brazil for the rest of his life. In 1989 he established the Instituto Brasileiro de Inovações em Saúde Social or Brazilian Institute for Innovations in Social Healthcare (IBISS), which by the time of his death employed around 300 people, most from the target communities in which it worked, many of whom were reformed child soldiers that IBISS had supported to leave the drug trade.
The extraordinary breadth and impact of his work is difficult to capture in a short piece of writing such as this, but some examples are illustrative. Nanko was known to be respected by many across diverse social settings, including government authorities, drugs bosses (including from the various warring cartels) and police officers. His personal qualities and this unique ability to move across social boundaries made it possible for him to serve as a conciliator between hostile parties on many occasions. In 2007 he served as the mediator between the Brazilian authorities and the rioting prisoners in Rio prison. The flagship program run by his organization, titled ‘Soldados Nunca Mais’ (Soldiers Never More), sought to work with drug cartels and state authorities to support young people to leave the drug trade. The same program brought together young people from warring cartel zones (the ‘Red Command’ and the ‘Pure Third Command’) who would usually never meet except in gun fights, and young people from wealthy neighborhoods and favelas (slums) to socialize and play sport together. These feats seemed miraculous to those who witnessed them. Nanko later recalled many people telling him that he was crazy when the ‘Soldados Nunca Mais’ program was first proposed. It went on to become a landmark program that saved hundreds of young people (many of them child soldiers) from certain death in the drug war.
In an interview with Nanko in 2014, journalists Jeroen Haarsma and Eddy Veerman asked Nanko what was his ‘trick’ for so successfully managing the role of the person ‘in the middle’ between hostile parties. Nanko replied:
“It’s not a trick. I am always genuinely interested in what’s going on in someone’s mind. I don’t want to know why someone does something, because when you do, that someone has to explain himself. And then the person feels judged. No, I just like to give a person the opportunity to say what is on his or her mind, without judging. This is the true foundation for reconciliation.’’
Nanko became a public advocate for favelas in the worldwide media, giving a voice to the concerns and struggles of these communities. Many major broadcasting stations and newspapers from all over the world contacted him in relation to matters concerning Rio de Janeiro and its favela communities. In the lead-up to the World Cup, Nanko used his voice to bring attention to the ‘invasions’ of favelas by the Brazilian army and police forces and the violence and injustices resulting from these invasions. This contrasted with the official government messages being promoted to the world that these interventions were creating a better and safer Rio de Janeiro.
Nanko’s work was pioneering, and at times it was somewhat controversial and unorthodox. As such, as well as being widely praised, Nanko’s work also attracted some critics. An article published in a Dutch newspaper shortly after Nanko’s death leveled a series of harsh allegations. The claims of this article have been refuted by former IBISS employees, journalists, and others who knew Nanko, who have also criticized its timing, which gave Nanko no opportunity to respond to the accusations because he had recently passed away.
Nanko devoted almost three decades of his life to his work in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. He came to be known and loved in dozens of favela communities of Rio. On the occasions that we accompanied Nanko into the favelas where he worked, the widespread adoration for him was palpable. Even in the most notoriously violent communities, Nanko’s presence would draw smiles and waves. A crowd of people would invariably gather around him wherever he went, approaching him with hugs and warm greetings. Even in his final years, when he was unwell and must have been experiencing extreme physical pain, Nanko barely mentioned his illness but worked on tirelessly until the day he died. His passing was a shock to all who knew and loved him. Even knowing that he was unwell, to most of us he seemed invincible. Nanko’s example will always stay with us, and his legacy will continue to inspire us as we are sure it will many others who had the privilege to cross his path.
- Elizabeth Kath and Jeroen Haarsma