Under the blue tarpaulin

It was the time of evening when the sky starts to turn dark and the air begins to have a slight chill. We, the prevention team, were walking down ‘la Quinta’ (the 5th) towards a small side street where we have our weekly prevention activity with between 40-60 children. (an activity where we interact with ‘high-risk’ children through fun activities, games, snacks and more, to build relationships and identify those most in need).

Normally as we approach the last corner, we are greeted by a hoard of children running towards us arms open shouting our names and ready for hugs, yet this particular day we were only halfway towards our usual spot when that same group of children came running and jumping!
They stopped us in our tracks and after initial, and rather rushed, greetings and hugs, I noticed police tape across the street to the left. Before I could finish asking what happened they all told us at once a man was dead. Pointing, they showed us the spot where he lay beneath blue tarpaulin.
A chill ran up my spine but I was not as shocked as perhaps I would have been two years earlier when I first moved to Guatemala . Sad? Yes. And I hope there will never be a day where I become numb to sadness. Yet I had become desensitised to the shock of the situation before me.

Hand in hand with the children we walked away, down to our usual spot. In Guatemala I am used to seeing children without parents but it hurt me to think that these children were left so unsupervised that they saw things like this death alone. There was no one but us to take them away from it.

Throughout the duration of our activity we heard different versions of what happened. One boy told us the man suffered from alcoholism and simply drank himself to death that day. Another told us that he had been shot in the head. Sadly, both stories could be true as La Terminal is a place filled with so much brokenness that alcohol abuse and violence are common.
Unfortunately, it is just as easy to believe that the man beneath the blue tarpaulin had drank so much that he had simply died in the street as it is to believe that he had been involved in the kind of life that had resulted in him being shot dead.

I asked how old the man was, and a little voice responded, ‘oh he was old, he was 25.’ Well, firstly if 25 is old I am passed it! Secondly, I hope this child simply, like most children, just thinks all adults are old. Yet the truth is that 25 might be considered quite ‘old’ in this context as the average life expectancy is much lower than we might expect in the UK.
I felt such sadness for this man, who I am going to say was young. Whether he was taken by addiction or violence, this man’s life will not have been easy for one of those options to have been his end.

The thing most troubling for me though is the normality of death for the children. They did not seem phased or disturbed by the dead body lying only meters away, covered with grotty plastic. They spoke of it so openly, so normally as if we were talking about what they did that day at school. It’s heart-breaking that these children live in a reality where death, as a result of violence,  murder or extreme alcohol abuse, is just something that happens.

It isn’t right.
It isn’t fair.
My childhood certainly didn’t involve things like this, death and loss yes, but not this. Why should theirs?
I wish I could write that it was the first dead body I have seen here, but it is not and as much as it pains me to say it, I imagine it will not be the last.

I can’t change everything about the context these children grow up in. I wish I could, but I will keep on trying to, little by little, help these children know that their futures do not have to be defined by events of their pasts or even their presents.
I hope that transformation comes to La Terminal and all the people there.
Because I know that life can be different.

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