This Woman Was Brought Up In A Cave, Got Stalked By Jaguars And Killed A Street Child To Survive

First came the growl. Then the animal loomed into view. It was a jaguar, on the hunt right outside their home. The young girl and her mother had every reason to be afraid. Jaguars rarely attack humans, but when they do it can be fatal. More than this, though, the pair were extremely vulnerable. They lived in a cave. There were no fences, no doors and nowhere to hide…

The young girl’s name was Christiana Mara Coelho. Born in 1983 in Diamantina – a colonial mining town in Minas Gerais, Brazil – she was taken to live in the cave just two weeks after her birth. Her mother, Petronilia, had needed to escape her abusive brother. Christiana’s father was not around. So, she grabbed her baby daughter and fled.

Christiana and her mother, whom she affectionately referred to as Mamãe, spent the next five years clinging on in the wilds of Minas Gerais. Of course, living away from civilization meant contending with serious challenges, such as prowling jaguars. And yet, as time went on, big cats proved to be the least of their worries.

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Indeed, the jaguar that visited their cave ran off just as quickly as it had appeared. But as Christiana, who is today known as Christina Rickardsson, explained to the New York Post in 2018, they frequently encountered all kinds of dangerous wildlife. “Venomous snakes, spiders and scorpions were common,” she said. “I would wake up in the night to swat away giant, poisonous centipedes crawling over my body.”

Day-to-day life for the pair was, of course, rough. Getting enough food was a matter of gathering, scavenging and hunting whatever was available. One source of protein was wild birds, which they killed with a slingshot. “I gained confidence from hunting and scavenging and still recall my immense pride when I claimed my first bird, which we grilled over our tiny fire pit,” said Rickardsson. “It made a good meal with fruit, berries and nuts.”

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However, some food staples, such as rice, could only be bought in Diamantina. To earn money, the two would sell dried flowers and leaves, which they carried to town on foot. It was a lengthy walk. And because Christiana had no shoes, she would often cut her feet on the rocks. Sometimes she would beg her mother to stop. But Petronilia ignored her daughter’s pleas. Instead, she talked about God and religion.

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Despite life’s hardships, though, young Christiana enjoyed living in the wilderness. “We came close to starvation, but I often look on those years as my best years,” she told the New York Post. “Mamãe always had time for me, and I got all her love. We chatted for hours, taking in the beauty of the wilderness, feet dangling over the mouth of the cave… the colors, sights and sounds were magical.”

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Characterized by rugged, quartz-filled mountains, the land around Diamantina is indeed rich in natural beauty. Blooming with bromeliads and delicate orchids, tracts of forests cloak the region’s river banks. And aside from jaguars, local fauna includes cougars, maned wolves and giant anteaters. In many respects, the region could be considered a nature-lover’s paradise.

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But Christiana and her mother could not remain in their natural paradise forever. And in the end, it wasn’t wild animals that drove them out. It was a band of men and their dogs. “Perhaps they were the landowners,” said Rickardsson. “They didn’t catch us, but Mamãe knew it was time to move on.”

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The city of São Paulo, where the pair went next, could not have been any more different from their isolated cave. Located in southeastern Brazil, São Paulo is in fact the most heavily populated city in the southern and western hemispheres. With few resources, the little girl and her mother wound up living in a favela (a Brazilian slum). To survive, they begged on the streets. And some people threw abuse at them, calling them “street rats” and “roaches”.

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The little girl was often left to her own devices for long stretches of time. So, Christiana befriended another street child called Camile. “She became my best friend,” said Rickardsson. “We did everything together. We shared all the food we found equally between us. Camile had an amazing ability to tell stories… They took the pain away from living this reality. At least for a while.”

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One night, before Christiana’s seventh birthday, Camile was captured by the military police along with five other children. The six-year-old had managed to escape, but she later backtracked to try and rescue her friend. It was then that she witnessed Camile’s execution. She was shot in the head. “I lost my friend, my sister, that night,” she told the New York Post. “I also understood how little our lives were worth.”

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Brazil is, in fact, notorious for the extrajudicial killing of street children. As recently as 2015, the United Nations published a report accusing the country’s military police of conducting an “elevated number of summary executions of children.” The UN alleged that “widespread impunity” allowed the killings to happen, and that they were part of a drive to “clean the streets” prior to the 2016 Olympic Games.

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Shortly after Camile’s murder, Christiana got in a fight with a street boy. She was starving and had just found a morsel of flatbread in some garbage in an alleyway. The boy demanded she give it to him. The little girl refused, so he hit her and took it. Then, as he began walking off, she grabbed a broken bottle and ran at him. And then plunged the glass into his stomach.

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“At first I felt nothing,” she told the New York Post. “Then my hand got warm. Blood gushed from the wound. I took the bread from the boy as he screamed and doubled over in pain. After I’d run a fair way, I started eating. But then I started vomiting. The realization of what I’d done hit me… Later, I heard the other kids in the neighborhood talking about a boy who had been found dead in the alley.”

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Some days later, the little girl wasn’t sure how many, Petronilia found her daughter living beneath some stairs. “After I told her everything,” Rickardsson explained to the New York Post, “she said: ‘Christiana, promise me something. Promise me that whatever happens in life, never stop walking.’ I didn’t understand, and I asked: ‘Where shall I go?’ She replied: ‘It doesn’t matter, just never stop walking.’”

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After Christiana turned seven, she and her ten-month-old brother, Patrique, ended up in an orphanage. Petronilia visited them on Sundays. Then, one day, the orphanage prevented their mother from entering. And after Christiana turned eight, a middle-aged Swedish couple, Sture and Lilian-ann Rickardsson, adopted the siblings. At that point, the little girl’s name changed to Christina Rickardsson.

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“Our new life in Vindeln, Sweden, was the exact opposite of São Paulo,” Rickardsson told the New York Post. “There was barely a stray piece of paper on the streets, let alone a mountain of garbage… The culture shock was jarring. [But] I shrugged off Christiana. I learned Swedish and forgot Portuguese in a matter of months. After years of fighting for survival, I had hope for a future.”

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Years later, however, at the age of 31, Rickardsson found herself racked by an identity crisis. “I looked in the mirror one day and felt like a non-person,” she said. “[I] needed to reconcile Swedish Christina with Brazilian Christiana.” So, in 2015, she returned to Brazil. There she found her mother, now aged 67. “It was then that I learned Mamãe had suffered from schizophrenia all her life,” she said.

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But despite the reunion’s challenges, it was also a moment of healing. And today, Rikardsson is the founder of a charity orphanage dedicated to street kids. She is also the author of book about her experiences, Never Stop Walking: A Memoir of Finding Home Across The World. The book’s title was inspired by the words of Petronilia, who, she says, gave her “enough love, courage and strength to keep me walking forward through my life…”

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