Tuesday 25th April
It was all going really well!
It had been a busy and challenging week as one of our British volunteers, Joseph Soden, had been complaining of feeling unwell and when I took him to the clinic his health deteriorated within minutes. The next thing we know he is being rushed into A&E and then into hospital. The last week has been spent at his side in the La Paz hospital in the city while doctors confirmed he has Typhoid.
As the tests continued and more and varied drugs are given to him Joseph slowly recovered. It all looked rather promising and on Sunday his health was looking so much better that he allowed me to bring some of the children to visit him. It was a special time and when I asked the two girls who came with Moses if they would like a late breakfast their faces lit up and said, “yes please”. Over breakfast in the hospital canteen (all rather posh in the private hospital) I asked the girls if they had eaten breakfast. They told me that they hadn´t eaten since Friday and by the way they were eating I could see that this was probably true.
I left Joseph on the Sunday evening and took the children home, as I wanted an early night and knew that Monday would be a long and busy day. Joseph was doing so well and I was expecting him to leave hospital on Tuesday and then recuperate back at the house.
The girls were very happy when I dropped them off and as they climbed up the concrete bank to the building where they, their brother and grandmother live. Despite being hungry they had both squirreled away some of their food for the grandmother and waved me off as I drove to drop Moses home.
Moses, the 9-year-old I am mentoring, is now living back with his grandmother who has moved house but still in the notorious zone 18 of Guatemala City. The journey takes about half an hour as the Sunday traffic is much lighter at this time of day. As we enter zone 18 my sense of security raises and both Moses and me are on our watch for gunmen on motorbikes, gangs and anyone acting in a way that would cause alarm.
El Limon is a conflict-ridden sector in one of the most violent zones in Guatemala City, Zone 18, and it´s in El Limon that Moses now lives. We turn right into the troubled area and right away Moses begins to point out gang members and talks freely about armed attacks, murders and things that have happened to his family that I would rather not print here.
We make it through the narrow streets filled with people and the Guatemalan Army who have erected small outposts and sit nervously behind a huge wall of sandbags as they clutch hold of the type of armory that would expect to see in a war zone.
Moses´s grandmother was clear that he was to be dropped off at the top of the road as she didn´t want me to be in any danger but I really couldn´t do that and wanted to not only make sure he got home safely but that I could see where he was now living. We park the car in a dead-end street and Moses keeps his eyes close to the ground and tells me that 3-4 of the boys we are now approaching are gang members. The group of 6 boys are standing on the corner and watching us closely as we walk by. The oldest is probably 8-years-of-age and I wonder, as I look at them and smile, how children so young can be involved in gangs.
The gang scene in Guatemala has increased dramatically since the late 90s and it is barrios and favelas like this where the gangs hold the greatest amount of control and to some degree respect. The national paper ran an article this week on the increase in the number of bus drivers being killed, 62 already this year, in Guatemala City and this photo (Prensa Libre: Erick Ávila) is of the latest assassination of a bus driver in El Limon.
Today I am sent a photo of a police officer that is lying dead on the ground and covered with a white sheet. A young boy on a bicycle gunned him down as he crossed the road. Gangs are using young boys more and more as they know that if the boy is under the age of responsibility there is little the police can do if that child is handed a gun and shoots someone. Another death and another broken family but a young boy who can probably now be held in esteem in the gang for having killed a police officer.
Eventually we arrive at the house Moses’ grandmother is renting. It´s super cheap and there is a reason for it. It is brick built, single storey and is protected only by a simple metal front door. All the windows have bars on them and inside there are no doors at all, just 6 empty rooms and a small sink in the patio at the rear. There has been a mass exodus from Zone 18 over recent years and some parts of it resemble a war zone rather than a city suburb.
Moses´ grandmother welcomes us and looks up and down the street as she closes the door and offers me a drink. It is clear she lives in fear and with good reason. Every house in the area is now being numbered. Neighbours are waking up each morning to find a number painted on their house. The number corresponds to a property tax the gang are now extorting on every house and it won´t be long before they come knocking on the house where Moses lives. No wonder he does not sleep well and can´t go out to play in the street.
On my safe return I prepare for the long day that is Monday. The day starts at 4:30am as I head to our Centre for prayer and catching up with emails. I need to leave at 8:30am to be one of the first in the queue at the bank in order to double check that the donations from the US and the UK have arrived in time to order the printing of cashiers cheques for the purchase of the house we will be converting into our first Protection Home. The bank confirms the money from the US has arrived but the money from the UK is stuck between two accounts due a mix-up with some bank digits. The news hits me hard as we have arranged the completion of the purchase with lawyers and the owners of the house. All this will need to be cancelled while I sort out how to get the money to the right account.
I then head over to the hospital to find Joseph in a lot of pain and the doctors working hard with more drugs and more tests. He seems rather low and so I decide to cancel meetings for the following day and spend time with him and the doctors working on a solution. Sort of makes me feel like Dr. House! It was all going really well but the day was not shaping up as I had planned – what´s new.
On my return to the Centre I see that children are now arriving and so I begin by spending time with each one using a new app we have developed to get feedback from them on how they feel about the mentoring programme. Some of the children are playing; others doing homework and some are cooking pancakes and seeing how high they can toss them in the air. Such a beautiful time before I head to the streets and try and find Marcos and David.
I arrive at the rubbish dump in La Terminal and find Jesus doing some homework with one of the families that help support our work. We sit down and chat for about an hour about what is going on in the dump and how Marcos and Jesus are doing. Jesus is now keen to start the mentoring programme and the family asks about how Joseph is doing and if they can visit him. As the clouds turn black it is looking like the rainy season is starting early and so I head back to the Centre to collect Victor, a teenage boy we are looking after at the moment, and head to the hospital with the oldest son of the family in the rubbish dump.
We try not to spend too long visiting Joseph as I know how tiring having visitors in hospital is. The news seems promising but we will have to see how Joseph is in the morning and then makes plans. I now have to take Victor to the supermarket so he can spend my money on food for himself over the next week, as he will need to stay with us in the house for a while. I bump into a stand that is selling freshly cooked chicken and so decide to buy two, as we are very hungry and we could go back to the dump and share them with the family there. The boys are very excited about this plan and so we head to the checkout and then the dump.
It´s now very dark at the dump and raining but there are still many people working there. We are invited into a small shack and we sit down and share chicken and bread rolls. It´s a special and intimate time and the family are so pleased we have eaten with them and offer whatever help we need when we open the new Protection Home. We need to get home and so I climb in the car and Victor jumps in beside me. As I turn on the engine the windscreen wipers remove the rain from my view and there in front of me, highlighted by the car´s headlights, are four small children. The children can´t be more than 3-4 years of age and look like they have been working or playing on the rubbish dump all day.
The sight of them fills my heart with sadness as we have just sat and eaten a chicken and maybe we could have shared it with them. Victor says to me as I comment on how sad this is that “this was me a few years ago”. We seem to be frozen in time for a while and I find it very difficult to drive off and leave them. Victor and me talk about his childhood for a bit and then we both drive back in silence. Arriving back to the house is not easy as we have beds to sleep in and so the best thing to do tonight is to have a shower, climb into bed and cry.