Sunday 17th April, 2016
“When is mummy coming home”, called 9-year-old Jorge (photo with me) as we walked down the crumbling path towards his little house. I looked into his eyes; they seemed full of hope and expectation that I was actually bringing good news. His question and expression will remain with me forever. It had been a tough 24 hours and now the reality of what had happened came back into my mind all too powerfully. I suppose re-telling the story will not only help me but will, I hope, continue to bring before the world the conditions in which so many young people have to live every day.
It was Monday 6:00pm and I had just dropped off two boys from a mentoring session who were full of laughter and excited by the day´s activities. We had planned to mark the International Day for Street Children with a week of special activities for all the children we work with and so our team had taken the boys, and many other children, to a swimming pool.
As I left their little one-room house I met Kevin, Walter and Frank who asked me to help with a situation where a mother had been beating her daughter again. The girl stood behind them, she is 12-years-of-age and is biting her nails and seems very anxious.
We walk around the corner where her mum runs a bar, which offers all sorts of “services” and it is here that she lives together with her daughters, and the eldest has a 4-year-old son. There is one bed in one room and the other room full of wooden tables and chairs and pounding music that makes any conversation almost impossible.
To cut a long story short, we have to witness and intervene in a physical fight between the mother and her young daughter and enough information is disclosed that leaves us with no doubt that we can´t leave this girl with the mother. It is heart-wrenching stuff and the girl clings to my side and cries as we walk her into the street to then find the mother closing her bar and saying she never wants to see the girl again.
It is a short walk back to our centre and clearly everyone is distressed, particularly the girl. Sitting back at the centre and having hot coffee and something sweet to eat brings a smile back to her face and we begin to explore our options. The girl´s sister and her 4-year-old son join us and Kevin, one of our volunteers, brings out our box of Lego and begins to play with the boy who must clearly be affected by what he had to witness.
It´s then we get a phone call that a shooting has taken place a couple of blocks away and it had involved some of the homeless youths we work with nearby. We arrive at the scene within minutes and find three police officers and one of the local volunteer Bombero (ambulance team) standing over a body. The boy is obviously dead and in full view of all those who had rushed over to see what had happened. The ground is covered with bullet casings and we quickly identify the body to that of 17-year-old Miguel.
One of the police officers asks us if we know him and we say yes and begin to pass on the information with have about Miguel. We are then told that two other people had been shot, Maricela and Brandon, but that both had just left for the San Juan de Dios hospital. It is at this point I notice a light shining in my face and look round to find two TV cameras there and a reporter beginning his speech about how a group of local delinquents had been gunned down in front of the Ministry of Defense in zone 10 of Guatemala City.
Our concern now is for Maricela and Brandon who are fighting for their lives in hospital together with their families and those in the streets nearby who had become their family. Apparently one of the boys had witnessed the shooting and had gone back to tell the others and that is how we got the phone call. We take the decision to split up and for two of us to go and visit Maricela´s family while the others can go to the hospital.
The drive to Marcela´s family with Walter and Maricio through the late evening traffic is sullen during which we speak little as we are both reflecting on the fact we won´t ever see Miguel again in this world. He was a teenager who had grown up in horrendous abuse and had taken to the streets where he was quickly assimilated into a life he always regretted. He had also fallen in love with Maricela, a 26-year-old and who was one of the leaders of a group of homeless street youths.
Her family home lives in a conflict area and one of the gangs is clearly visible as we arrive and park in a dead-end road that then leads down into a dark wooded area. By daylight the walk is a very different experience but we have no clue where we are treading and so slowly descend some steps and knock on a door. It´s now 10:30pm and a family come out and ask who we are and what we want. We explain how we are looking for Maricela´s family and a few minutes later are invited into their garden and led down another path that takes us past tin shacks with barking dogs. At the bottom of the path Maricela´s family meets us. It´s my first time of meeting them and we introduce ourselves and ask if we can talk with them.
Most people sleep in their day clothes here and so it is no wonder all are fully dressed and immediately gather to meet their guests. “It´s about Maricela” we say and go on to talk about the shooting. Her two children children, 11-year-old Dyana and 9-year-old Jorge are immediately shaken by the news and cling to Mauricio and begin to cry. The rest of the family want the full story and ask if Maricela will be all right. The news we have received from the hospital at this point is that both Maricela and Brandon are fighting for their lives but stable. Stable usually means good and so the family takes some comfort in that word.
From what we gathered up to that point is that Maricela, Miguel and Brandon had gone to a fairly wealthy area of Guatemala City to beg at the traffic lights. Maricela and Brandon had been sitting down watching Miguel work his magic and earn a few coins. A black car with darkened windows had passed them and then had driven around the loop and had come back. Brandon had pointed the car out to Maricela as it came around a second time. Their instincts told them something was not right. It was then the car screeched to a halt, a man got out of the car and walked towards Miguel with a gun in his hand. He quickly lifted the gun up and fired 5 bullets into Miguel´s chest. All the other cars either stopped or drove off at speed. Maricela got up and ran towards Miguel but was shot 4 times in the stomach. Brandon stood up and heard more shots as he stared his friends lying on the ground. He then felt warm in his side and realised he to had been shot in the chest. The gunman was now making his way over towards him and so he fell to the ground and rolled under one of the cars. The gunman then fired a couple more times and then took of in his car.
With about 8 young children present it was hard to explain all this and, at the same time, having to watch Maricela´s children react to every part of the story. We offered to take Maricela´s father to the hospital as they had no other way of transporting themselves apart from the bus, which was now not running, as it was late. The family thanks us for coming and the children give us hugs and ask us to pass on their love to their mum.
Driving back up the hill is another silent time of refection punctuated by having to slow down because a crowd of people is gathered in the middle of the road. We notice police cars and then a body and drive past thinking of the many others who have lost their lives this night. Guatemala City is still one of the top 5 most dangerous cities to live in with a minimum of 17 people killed a day, most of them young people. It´s then we get the call that there is no longer any need for Maricela´s father to visit the hospital as staff have assured us that she is OK and the family can visit her tomorrow.
On our way back to the Centre we stop off at the place where Maricela, Miguel and Brandon live and spend some time with the group to bring some form of comfort and consolation. They had lost yet another friend and it had hit them hard.
Returning to the Centre jolted us back into the situation with the 11-year-old girl. The team that had stayed had resolved it for now and the girl was going to stay with other family members and her sister until we could arrange an alternative solution.
It was clear we all needed to talk and to pray and so the early morning hours were filled with our memories of Miguel and solutions for this little girl who was obviously in a very abusive situation.
I suppose most of us had about 3-4 hours sleep and then made our way to the hospital after calling Maricela´s parents and agreeing to meet at the hospital. Getting into the hospital is not that easy. You have to be a family member or know the system well. This time we had been asked by the Public Ministry to go to the hospital and give a statement of what we had seen the previous night. On our arrival at the hospital we are given the news that Maricela had passed away in the night. We are given access to see Brandon and go to his bedside to find him alive but in bad shape. He had been shot twice in the back but both bullets had exited through the front of his chest leaving him with severe blood loss and lung damage. He is clearly pleased to see us and holds onto my hand as his tells me the whole story. I wonder how many more times he will have a close brush with death and so encourage him to consider a different path in life.
As we leave the hospital we bump into Maricela´s parents who have now been told of her passing and so take offer to take them back home and break the news to the family. Driving back down the same road during the day is very different but now even sadder as we have to break the news to Maricela´s two young children. As we get out of the car little Jorge runs over to us and takes my hand and then looks up at me and asks when mummy is coming home. I want to be there and somewhere else at the same time and find myself saying something along the lines of having to talk to the whole family first.
Clearly breaking news like this is never easy on those bearing the news and even worse on those receiving it, but is has to be done and practical arrangements have to be put in place. Thankfully we have already started to make the funeral arrangements for Maricela as we have papers for her. Miguel is going to be an altogether more complicated situation as we have no papers for him and now contact with family members.
The story of Maricela´s two young children will have to be a blog in itself. The situation is desperate and I find myself discussing with the team at the funeral what we can do to help.
The funeral runs an hour late due to traffic and so we are told we only have a few minutes before the men have to bury Maricela in the wall tomb and then we can hold our service. We have been helped to design a service now for such occasions and hope that something of what we offer at this time brings comfort to the family. I found myself consoling little Dyana as her mother is laid to rest and promising to help her and her brother as those were the last things I spoke to Maricela about before she died.
The only sour experience in all this was the day of the funeral when we had called to collect all Maricela´s street friends and take them to share with us in saying goodbye to her. The family had asked where they all were as the mother knew many of them by name. We had arranged to collect them that morning at 9:00am and take them to the cemetery.
Sadly, one organisation that seems keen on trying to disrupt anything we do in Guatemala and knew of the funeral plans, had arrived at 8:30am and told them all to go with them to play football rather than the funeral. With the obvious offers of food and drink and fun in a park most of them went. Frustrating but also deeply sad to see how organisations, at times like these, can do the most despicable things in order to either get more publicity for their work or disrupt what others are doing.
We will remember Maricela and Miguel and going back the other evening to their streets friends to talk with them about all that had happened this week we found they had made a little shrine by what was their bed and asked to see photos from the funeral. It was a time of deep connections and when we eventually said goodnight I realised we had been chatting, as a group, for more than 3 hours. Time had stood still and a certain sense of reverence had been observed for two dear friends who will be missed by all.
Miguel (photo) after one of the sessions on the streets with us.