Learning to stop hating
He’s been close to death and he’s killed someone himself. At the age of nine Hency started taking drugs - because his father did so and to escape from the violence at home. Today he’s 18 years old and clean - largely thanks to Diakonia’s partner organization CEPREV in Nicaragua.
"What I’ve seen in my life - the only thing I’ve seen - is suffering, and that’s what I want to change. I want positive things to happen in my life. I’ve improved my self-confidence and learned to like myself - I’ve started to tell people how I feel,” says 18-year-old Hency Castillo.
In a large, cold room with fluorescent lights on the ceiling, Hency and around 20 other young people sit in a circle on plastic chairs while a microphone is passed round from person to person. It’s Friday morning and the “youth for peace” group has gathered in a cellar that belongs to Diakonia’s partner organization Ceprev, in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua.
Outside it’s almost 35 degrees but inside the room, the air conditioning cools the temperature down to around 20 degrees.
When the microphone is passed around the group, many of the young people, like Hency, talk about their childhood in the poorest neighbourhoods of Managua – various different “barrios”. They talk about a childhood with absent parents - often a father who was never there. About drugs, alcohol and violence as part of daily life. About the gang that became a second family. And about a reality where it’s just as normal to buy drugs and guns as it is to buy sweets. Several of the young people have been in prison, and many already have children - despite the fact that they’re only teenagers themselves.
When it’s Hency’s turn to talk, it’s hard at first to hear what he’s saying. He hides his face in his hoodie and mumbles the words. His mentor Michael Anthony, stands up and says with a loud voice: “Hency has made a fantastic journey.”
“I didn’t have a childhood”
Hency Castillo looks embarrassed and lets the microphone slide down a little from his mouth before starting to talk about how he’s the oldest of three brothers and that his father came and went until one day he didn’t come back. Then Hency says that he’s taken drugs since he was nine years old - but that he’s quit.
“Ceprev has helped me a lot,” he says, before passing the microphone on to Gabriella Martínez, aged 18 years.
She’s a thin girl with long hair and a knitted jumper despite the heat. She also grew up without her father. And she’s also the oldest of three siblings
“I took care of my sisters when my mother was at work. It was tough. They were tiny and I was little. I didn’t have a childhood.”
At 15 she got pregnant and nearly died while giving birth to her son. She was with the child’s father for a number of years and suffered physical and mental abuse.
“I lived like that for five years, but I don’t now - I’ve put it behind me because I couldn’t do it anymore.”
She says that the father of her child, the man she married, was a jealous, macho man who beat her and told her she was worthless. He did a lot of ‘nasty things’ to her. The scars remain, both inside and out.
But thanks to Ceprev’s psychological support and courses, she’s managed to build up her self-confidence again, and her son has given her a further reason to move on and stop using drugs.
“I now live alone with my son, and I’m studying again and have dreams for the future,” she adds with a slight smile.
“He’s changed my life. I give my son love. Something I never got myself,” she adds.
Learning to stop hating
After going around the group, the discussion with Hency Castillo continues in the shade of the organization’s backyard, and now he’s not as shy anymore. He talks about his mentor Michael Anthony, who is employed at Ceprev and comes from the same neighbourhood as Hency:
“That guy has helped me a lot. I’ve learned to communicate, I’ve learned about relationships and self-esteem. That you need to love yourself to be able to love someone else.”
When Hency came to Ceprev, he felt a great deal of hatred towards his father and wanted to kill him, but he’s not consumed with hate anymore, despite the fact that it all started with his father.
“The truth is that my dad took drugs when I was little and that’s why I wanted to try them. He beat me and said I was worthless and that he wished I’d never been born. Maybe he did that not because he wanted to hurt me but because it was his way of raising me? But I don’t believe in that way of doing things,” says Hency, letting his gaze slip away before adding:
“They don’t understand how you feel inside.”
And how did you feel?
He then sits quietly for a few seconds before continuing:
“That they didn’t love me. I sabotaged things for myself - I tried to create problems until I was imprisoned for things I never thought I’d experience.”
They were 35 young guys who formed the gang ‘The Dirty from 30’. The name comes from the neighbourhood they grew up in, called “30 de Mayo”.
He says that when he was in the gang, he saw friends get shot and die. Daily life was all about violence. The violence they grew up with and then gradually embraced themselves.
“One day, when there was a fight between a couple of gangs, the other gang shot a guy in our gang. I picked him up and carried him to his house, but when we got there he was already dead.
He died in my arms. He was my friend, my friend on the street - a brother,” says Hency, continuing:
“We got revenge. We took one of their guys, one of those who was involved in killing our friend. We stabbed him with a knife and killed him. Then his gang came to our neighbourhood and tried to get hold of one of us. They got hold of me and put two guns to my head. But I thank God that they never shot me. Instead they robbed me and hit me on the head with the butts.”
Hency ran away. They shot at him but the street was on an incline and they hit him in the leg instead of the back.
“The bullet went right through my leg. I felt nothing while I was running. It was only when I got home that they told me I was covered in blood. I was lucky because if the bullet had hit my spine, I may have been crippled, or I wouldn’t be sitting here today - I’d be lying in a box.”
He says that he saw his life flash before him. The guys in the other gang had it in their hands when they put the guns to his head.
Do you ever think about the guy you killed?
“Sometimes. I feel bad about it. I should never have done it. The pain that a mother feels when she sees her child in a coffin is unbearable. It was a mistake.”
“I don’t know, but sometimes it feels like I don’t deserve to live,” says Hency and his gaze becomes empty.
When you listen to the youth at Ceprev, you’re struck by how young they are and how violent their lives have been already. It’s hard to reconcile the young, often childish faces with the violence that runs like a common thread through their lives.
In the afternoon, we accompany Hency Castillo and Michael Anthony to their neighbourhood, “30 de Mayo”. Michael Anthony is also a former gang member, but for the past three years he has been working for Ceprev. When we walk round the neighbourhood, he seems to know most people there.
A few hundred metres further on we meet some other former members of ‘The Dirty from 30”. The guys greet each other with a laugh and box fists.
One of them says he’s worked as a mechanic in the tax-free zone where many foreign textile companies have set up shop. It’s a well-paid job but at the moment, work has dried up and he’s interested in one of the grants that Ceprev allocates so that he can go on a course to become a mechanic. He says he’s gone to several lectures that Ceprev has organized. Michael Anthony shows us where the boundary between the neighbourhoods is and where fights usually take place. Just a week earlier, five people were injured in a shooting. Suddenly, Hency’s mother is standing by an ice-cream cart at a crossroads. She looks young and timid. When I ask her to, she shows us where they live. A simple sheet metal hut without windows and with a low ceiling, making it unbearably hot during the day.
What do you think about the change in Hency, I ask and she replies, “Good”. Nothing else. I think about Hency said when we sat at the back of Ceprev about his relationship with his mother being “so-so”.
“The hardest thing is talking to her and telling her my problems. About my situation and my needs. Just because I’m not a little boy anymore doesn’t mean that I don’t need her love. I need her help - I need to feel that she loves me.”
“You can do a lot with love. Look at me, I’m a new person and sometimes I tell her things, little things, not much - that’s too hard.”
He pauses before continuing:
“I’d like her to say that she loved me as if she really meant it, so that I felt it in my body.”