We will never give up
October 14th, 2011
I’ve been thinking about writing this for a few days now but haven’t been able to bring myself to – firstly because I don’t want everything I write to be doom and gloom (consider yourself warned). But secondly because I just didn’t know how to tackle it. How can you reduce the experience of meeting young lads that are living on the street, drugged out of their heads, into 6 or 700 words? I’ve given it my best shot – I hope I am able to convey some of the impact.
It was about 10am in the morning.
To try and set the scene for you, there was a road running over a grass slope and crossing underneath this was a dry drainage ditch. It was probably about 3 feet wide and 5 feet deep. You wouldn’t have looked twice at it. This drainage ditch, and the space under the road, was called home by around 10 boys, aged between 11 and 16.
The children looked really young, much younger than the 13 to 14-year-olds most of them were – their growth clearly stunted at the point they had started living on the streets. They were incredibly dirty and all of them were holding pots of glue – which they inhaled deeply on every minute or so. The ditch they lived in was full of empty discarded bottles of the drug. One of them had a serious skin disease on his hand which looked like it was impairing his ability to grip. I watched, appalled, as one lad went through the empty bottles of glue to see if he could find any more. While we were there a lad of about 11 came back – pot of glue in one hand and a windscreen brush in the other, having just worked a morning shift at some traffic lights, cleaning people’s cars as they waited for the lights to turn green.
Most of the boys kept their distance.
After a couple of minutes of uneasy silence some stilted conversation broke out. One lad in an old Barcelona shirt remembered a visit from Toybox before – “where is the man with the pink and orange hair??”
he asked, describing the Toybox Chairman (it had been a charity fundraising stunt of his 3 years ago). We laughed, but all I could think was: “he’s been living here, under a road, for 3 years. At least.”
We were about to leave when I asked, in very halting Spanish, if it would be possible to take some photos. And wow, was it possible. Eyes lit up as the boys competed to pull the most macho pose. Before each photo the refrain “sin drogas!” (without drugs) rang out as the older boys scolded the youngsters for holding onto their glue. It vanished down their trousers for the photo, and then was pulled straight back to their nose once we had finished. They crowded around me to see the photos – and at this point I rather foolishly gave away my camera.
One of the youngest lads (in the black jumper and beige shorts) took it and scarpered to the other side of the ditch. After a couple of minutes trying to figure out how it worked he took some photos of me, then he pointed the camera inside and took photos of their living space. This prompted a flurry of activity as the other boys rushed out to see themselves in the photo. An older boy we hadn’t seen before strode up and pushed into my mate with the camera. As he started to wrestle it from his grip all I could think was – people are not going to believe I was so stupid as to give my camera to 10 teenage street kids, completely high off their faces, and expect it back.
But I did get it back. Barcelona shirt saw what was going on and swiftly intervened – grabbing the camera off the newcomer and passing it gently back to me. I didn’t really know how to react. I think a part of me thought I deserved to lose the camera, and I definitely wouldn’t have blamed any of them if they had taken it. Yet they didn’t – for all appearances they saw me as their visitor – and they were going to look after me.
This filled me with hope, there’s just got to be the possibility of a better future for them. But it can’t happen if they stay living there – under a bridge in a drainage ditch. In three years’ time will Barcelona Shirt be alive to remember the time he rescued a funny looking tall bloke from having his stuff nicked? If things don’t change – I can’t believe he will.
So what is the government doing?
Very little. The standard policy is to either lock them in the cells for 48 hours if they are found on the streets before releasing them or committing them to institutions. They promptly run away back to the streets. In a largely rural country, most of the population don’t want to know anything about these boys – with their tragic histories and their dark existence. There is apparently a law in the pipeline to direct extra resources, but it has been in the pipeline for over 3 years.
What is Toybox doing?
Some, but we need to do more. Our partners here in Cochabamba have a dedicated member of staff who tries to build links with these children – to persuade them to come off the streets of their own accord. But the sad truth is that for children this far gone, it is going to have little effect. They’ve already fallen through this safety net. Our current focus is mainly on preventing children from ever getting to a state like this.
But it was the response of Andrew – who oversees all our work in Latin America – that left me with some degree of hope for these children. I have never seen him as animated and passionate as he was after the meeting, and he will have seen dozens of similar scenes. He said, “We have to ask ourselves, what is our calling? I’m constantly told there’s nothing we can do about this, but I don’t believe it.”
And I’m glad he doesn’t believe it. Neither do I. There’s got to be more we can do for these children, even if right now I don’t know what it is. But I do know that Andrew is going to keep fighting for them, and that no matter how difficult it is, he, and all of us at Toybox, will never give up.
Thanks for your comments and prayers. We really appreciate them and any questions do ask!