“She was found dead in the areas around Xuri prison, in a state of decomposition, without pants, with a fractured skull.”
Rugby League World Cup hopeful Lorena Damasceno tells the story of how her aunt – her guiding light in a troubled childhood – was discovered dead the same day as this year’s Brazilian women’s grand final.
Damasceno’s team, Vitória Rhinos, had qualified for the biggest game of the year, but Lorena was denied the chance to take the field; the result of a fractured collarbone suffered in a horrendous week.
Even now, she describes her spirit as “exhausted” recalling how everything was turned upside down by a sequence of events that is almost beyond comprehension.
“I nearly gave up on playing the semi-finals because my father, who is 71 years old, had entered hospital in the middle of the COVID pandemic. I lost almost six kilograms in a week from the stress,” Lorena recalls.
“I personally knew several people who died from COVID – strong and healthy people – and others still suffering with breathing months later, and at that stage any elderly people entering hospital were not coming home.
“But I had this dream of the World Cup and my teammates were counting on me, so I made the trip to São Lourenço (11 hours via car) on the Friday morning.
“There is no phone signal on that particular road and it wasn’t until Friday night that I found out my aunt had disappeared. I’d spoken to her just before I left. She was a second mother to me.
“Our team played a very important game the next morning, which was to be followed by a week of try-outs for the World Cup.
“I got to the second half (Lorena’s team won 25-16 to qualify for the grand final) and then I fractured my collarbone.
“I was totally frustrated. A lot was weighing on my mind at that particular time.”
Not only did Lorena have to remain in São Lourenço with her arm in a sling while her teammates spent the week trying to impress Brasil head coach Paul Grundy in a pre-World Cup camp, she later received confirmation of her aunt’s death.
The grizzly scene continues to appear in the news in Brasil, with examinations of Junia Souza Damasceno Bonfim’s body reported to have found no evidence of sexual violence.
Lorena is filled with anger and distrust. Currently studying her second university degree in law, she contends the entire investigation has been littered with negligence on behalf of the State.
“My aunt went to Xuri prison to visit my cousin,” Lorena explains.
“The prison did not have guards at the guardhouse, the area around it was full of high weeds and the prisoners were roaming free and unsupervised at the same time as visiting hours.
“The detainees of the prison have told my family the person who killed my aunt is an inmate already serving time for rape.
“However, the authorities say she wasn’t sexually assaulted, despite her pants being missing, and none of her belongings – cash, phone, documents, credit cards – being removed from her possession.
“A lot of things don’t add up. Certain people in positions of power were not fulfilling their duties on the day she died. And the perpetrator must have had help hiding the body for a week.”
It was a truly tragic ending to a life that had been devoted to family.
When Lorena last spoke to Aunt Junia, the latter was feeding her mother (Lorena’s grandmother), the matriarch of the family who had been battling Alzheimer’s disease.
Junia was always thinking of others first and trying to keep the family together.
“Anybody who knows me is aware I’ve had family problems since childhood,” says Lorena.
“My mother has been hospitalised with depression. She has panic attacks and is weakened by the medication.
“My father worked very long hours and was often in the bar.
“I was alone. But my Aunt Junia was there whenever she could be. She always defended me and encouraged me. She made me want to be a good and polite person.”
At first, Aunt Junia opposed Lorena playing contact sports, fearful of injury.
Yet, she also became an immense supporter, delighted when Lorena was named in a provisional squad to train for the Rugby League World Cup.
“She told all her friends and said to me ‘blow me a kiss from England’,” Lorena remembers.
“Of course, after my injury I did not make the final cut for the World Cup squad this year, which also devastated me.
“But maybe life has given me an opportunity with the tournament being postponed until 2022. My head wasn’t in the right place this year.
“It’s still going to be a challenge, even more without my aunt’s support and the usual costs and sacrifices involved.
“But I’ll try one more time.”
A star soccer and handball player in her school years, Damasceno discovered rugby union in 2012 and was an early adopter when rugby league came to Brasil in recent years.
Sport has played a key role in the education opportunities that Lorena has received. She debuted in soccer as a 14-year-old against adult women and was offered a scholarship at age 15.
She continued onward to study Physical Education at Universidade Vila Velha, completing her first degree.
Giving back to the community, Lorena has juggled her subsequent law studies and rugby league training with volunteering for a social soccer project run by Caratoira Escolinha de Futebol.
A website for the project describes it as ‘occupying the idle time of children who come from many different backgrounds in life’.
“I train 17-year-old girls in 5-on-5 soccer, largely because of my experiences,” Lorena says.
“When I think about my past, I either had to play soccer against the boys in my neighbourhood or against fully-grown women. There was no chance to play with girls my own age.
“Acting as an instructor on this project is like an escape valve for me. I forget a little of my problems and have the opportunity to transform lives through sport.”
Brasil Rugby League will donate all money received via its fund-raising page in the month of December to help Lorena Damasceno support her family and further her World Cup dreams for 2022.
By Robert Burgin
Photo credit BRUNO RUAS