I like to be comfortable. I like jeans that fit just right and I like a Tempurpedic mattress as much as the next guy (yes, I can say that and still be a missionary.) I like surrounding myself with like-minded people. I don’t like talking about death, being caught off guard, or getting mosquito bites. I avoid long lines and shots and take melatonin when I can’t sleep.
I seek comfort. So do you. We rarely sit in our discomfort. We’re rarely forced to and almost never choose to.
I am thinking about this because I am trying to write a blog post that ends with a 15 year old girl being burned alive.
“How do I make this digestible to readers?”
“How do I write something that makes people stop and think but doesn’t make their stomachs churn or ruin their day?”
Unfortunately, that cautious courtesy has caused me to stare frozen at my screen for hours now. I keep typing clunky, awkward paragraphs full of phrases I don’t even use. I was once told to think about what it is that I’m scared to write - and then write that.
So I am going to write a post that ends with a 15 year old being burned alive. With 41 teenage girls being burned alive, actually. I am going to write it in a way that scares me a little bit. And I am going to ask that you sit in the discomfort with me.
Since I can’t quite figure out how to start or end this, I’ll try starting somewhere in the middle.
Maria, 15, walks into my office. She had arrived at the children’s home we were running at the time at 3am the night before. I had taken a razor blade from her upon arrival. That’s all she knew of me and she hated me for it. She has on thick, black makeup, cuts up and down her arm, and a look in her eyes that makes me unes. I need to take down some basic information. Name, age, allergies, medications, etc. She is rubbing her fingers together in a methodical, circular motion. I can tell she’s hurting herself. Her nails are digging into her palms. I don’t mention it.
She is quiet, quiet, quiet, angry, hesitant, and then quite suddenly, out of control. She all but screams at me, “Do you even know what happened?!” It’s accusatory. She hates my ignorance, hates that I might pretend to understand. I say, you can tell me, but you don’t have to. I was tired and kind of hoping she wouldn’t go there. Not yet. But she did.
This is her account of what happened on March 8, 2017 at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asuncion in Guatemala City. At this point you can stop, open another tab, and Google ‘Guatemala City children’s home fire’ for context. Or you can wait. Actually, maybe wait.
They burned them, she says. Now we’re both crying, both shaking. What’s your name again? Alycia.
Ms. Alycia, they burned them. I don’t remember everything. The night before, we were all mad. Who? All the girls, all of us. We were tired of it, how they treated us. Not all of the people in charge were bad. But some of them touched us, raped us. If we told on them, they would get mad, call us liars. Sometimes the older girls touched the younger girls at night. Everyone was getting sick of it. We all taught each other how to cut. We hated it there. So we all got real mad. We made signs and got sticks and took apart our beds. We were trying to tell them that it wasn’t fair. That night we tried to organize something, like so they would hear us, you know? Some girls tried to escape. We couldn’t take it anymore. They called the police, they’re always calling the police. They made us all lay down on the ground. They had guns. They told us we were animals. They even sprayed some of the girls with something for their eyes that burned.
The ones that were really bad, the ones they were really mad at, they put them in a room. Nobody slept that night. They were locked in there, you know. My sister, Mayra, she was in there. Locked in there.
She stops speaking for several moments that seem to defy my understanding of time. Something is happening to her, it seems she is not in control of her body. I have to restrain her arms. She is trying to hurt herself. She is screaming her sister’s name. She is screaming, me. She is trying to hurt me now. I feel the weight of it, whatever was hanging in the air when she walked in has suddenly began to crush us both.
Once she regulates her breathing, she continues.
I can’t really remember the morning, she says. We were right there, kinda in the room next to them. We saw smoke. We thought it was like a fire on the outside, in the street or something. But they started screaming, all the girls, and and we all ran out of our rooms.
She’s sobbing now, I can only catch every couple of words.
The roomthey were all in there
The smell...like bodies
They couldn’t The doorsThe doors were closedHandswindowsscreaming
And the policeNo keysMAYRA, I’m trying Mayrawe got everything, towels, sheets, clotheswe got it all wet and put it in the windowsse estaban quemando Alycia
They opened the door, maybe they found the key. They all look dead. We went in to help the firefighters. We were pulling them out. Some of them were still breathing. Coughing. Asking for water. They just wanted water. I couldn’t find my sister. Everyone was black. I can’t really remember. They were everywhere. The firemen were putting sheets on them. If their arm was on fire, we put a wet sheet on it. Sometimes their face was on fire. It smelled so bad. People were throwing up. I couldn’t find Mayra. Maybe I passed out.
I think it was two days ago. We didn’t sleep. They said we had to pack a bag and everyone was leaving. They put us on a bus, everyone that’s here now, but they didn’t say where we were going. It was so long, like the whole night driving. We all got sick on the bus. Is this an orphanage? A prison? Where are we? Are we in Guatemala City? Are you in charge here? My sister died.
All of the sudden she collects herself, wipes the black makeup off her face with her shirt, and it’s like we had just been talking about her day at school or the weather.
They told me on the bus, she says. Then they gave me a shot to go to sleep, I don’t remember. Do you think they’ll bury her? She starts doing the finger thing again and staring at the corner of the room. Can I leave?
She tried to commit suicide the next day. She thought that it would mean she could be with her sister. This happened several times while she was in our care. This is why I’m not using her real name.
Can I tell you one more story?
It’s the story of Analy.
I remember her best when she was 12. A walking disaster in all the best ways. She was sassy as they come and ridiculous on every level. She loved anything sequin or glitter, anything butterflies, and everything hip-hop. She was fearless. The kind of pre-teen you’re actually really intimidated by but would never admit it. She would fight you tooth & nail and then hug it out with equal ferocity. She'd be dancing or singing or crying or screaming but it was always big and full of raw, beautiful emotion. I don’t know what she would have done with her life. But I know it would have been awesome, and loud, and important. I also know that she would have come up with a knock-out dance routine to “Despacito” had she ever heard it.
Analy was under our care at the home for several years. After a series of complicated events, she was returned to her biological father, only to be placed back in the system and sent to Hogar Seguro. I believe she was only at the home for several months before the fire.
It’s like this. You know how there are these big headline, national tragedies that break your heart and challenge your world-view? Mass shootings. 9/11. And then there’s personal tragedy, right? In your face, the pain reaching deep into your bones. And then there are the rare instances where the two things are one in the same. The woman who lost her husband on 9/11. She has to watch the plane fly into the building over and over again on TV and picture her husband in it every. single. time.
That’s why my hands shake when I type this. Because there were 40 girls I never met that died in that fire. I am certain that they were all amazing and beautiful and gifted. And I am deeply troubled by the injustice of their death. But then there’s the 1. There is Analy.
In that charred room, covered with a sheet. In every uncensored photo in the Guatemalan newspaper. In every article. In every conversation and protest about the fire. It’s all her.
In the days after the fire, I contacted everyone imaginable trying to get information on Analy. Child services. The home itself. Hospitals. No one could give me an answer. The hospitals said the girls still living and in intensive care were unrecognizable. The home said they didn’t have a database to go off of. Child services was frantic trying to relocate 800 kids.
Finally, almost two weeks later, DNA testing confirmed. She was one of the 19 who died on site. We had to tell her three younger siblings, who were still under our care. They were 3, 6 and 9 years old. Can you picture it?
Her body was transported to Huehue. My husband and I met the ambulance at 2am at the church we had reserved for her wake. We helped lower her coffin. Coffins can be so heavy. Can you picture it?
I printed photos. Bought flowers. And a day later, we walked from the church to the cemetery in the sweltering sun. Her white coffin leading the way, her siblings awkwardly following behind. Can you picture it?
We get to the cemetery and our oldest boys from the home carry the coffin to the burial site. One of the boys,16, is weeping and carrying the front, right end of the coffin. Analy was his first crush, his first love. And now he is burying her. Can you picture it?
You have to picture it to get it. And it is so important that we get it.
Because Analy was real. And she really died. One of the bodies Maria pulled out of the room.
We loved her. But we didn’t protect her. And there were consequences.
The system failed her. The laws failed her. The church failed her. And we need to sit in that.
The fire was horrible. The fire was disgusting. The fire was inexcusable. And that’s the point. Sometimes we need an alarm clock without a snooze button to wake up.
I don’t know why Analy died that day. I don’t know why Mayra died that day or why Maria had to watch. I don’t know why - 41 of them - I can’t explain that. I do know a couple of things though. I know the fire hurt God’s heart more than it hurt mine. And the other thing that I know, with certainty, is that we can do better.
The facts of the fire are this: 800 kids were living in a facility designed for 400. A state-run dumping ground for vulnerable youth. 52 girls were locked in a 13x13ft room because they were crying out for help and no one quite felt like dealing with it. And then, on International Women’s Day, 41 girls, ages 14-17, were burned to death because no one was advocating for them.
This cannot happen.
This cannot be the best we can do.
Today, a year later, a friend and I will paint butterflies on Analy’s grave.
And I am reminded: A better plan is worth fighting for.