A fountain trickles in the front courtyard, and the sun is shining in Nicaragua's capital, Managua.
Members of staff punch their attendance cards as they walk past the guards' booth: the day is beginning. In the culture and sports office (a cupboard stuffed with footballs, guitars, and brightly coloured dresses) fourteen year-old Manuel Flores is giving me a blow-by-blow account of a dream he had last night. "So then I'm running away, right, and I hear she's shouting my name, and I see she's been stabbed – and then there are the gunshots, right?" I gingerly ask who 'she' is. "Katerin Orozco man, who else! You're not listening, teach," he exclaims exasperatedly, before laughing and carrying on. Was the dream a subconscious reflection of the gruelling experience of living in an residential rehab centre? I needed to think more literally. It's a night-time reliving of the perfectly real gunfight in which Manuel got hit by four bullets.
Rehab centre, homeless shelter, childrens' home: call it what you will, Casa Alianza can certainly look like fun on a first visit. Nicaraguan youngsters – from the meekest of twelve-year-olds to burly young adults in jeans, vests and chains – roam around mopping floors, playing basketball, and chatting in small groups. A shout goes up, and the door of the art room bursts open. Out floods a stream of kids, heading for the noisy elevenses queue.
New arrivals are easy to spot – they are usually sitting quietly, by themselves, not quite knowing where to turn. If we can imagine what they're going through, it may be something half way between a first day at school, and a first day in prison.
Miguel Moncada has just arrived from neighbouring Honduras. I ask him what he likes about the place, what he would change. He says it seems OK so far, but he loves drawing, and wishes there were art classes. There's a bigger question to address though; a sort of elephant in the room. And it's difficult to phrase without making him sound like a criminal but, well, what was he in for? It can be difficult to answer as well. After a series of shrugs and mumbles, he suddenly becomes more concentrated. "Daemons", he says, vacantly. "They only come at night, and I'm the only one who can see them."
It's easy to forget that for every one of these teenagers, behind the tidy exterior of anti-violence workshops, social education and music classes, there is a long, detailed, and terrible story. Casa Alianza began as a shelter for children living on the street, but now opens its doors to all sorts – as long as the entrant is willing to make a change. So ex-prostitutes, teenage mothers, abuse victims, drug addicts, gang members and the mentally ill, all rub shoulders in this melting pot of scarred youth. But how do you understand suffering on such a scale?
One way of putting a picture to the story is to go out with the 'street' team, who patrol the worst areas of town for kids they might help. In dark hovels between market stalls, lives the underbelly of Managua. One girl shows us a deep machete scar on the back of her neck, given to her by "some men". Another boy has a split down the palm of his hand, clubbed by a “volunteer policeman” – a flattering name for the thugs who force market sellers to pay them a fee for "protecting" their stalls. And almost all the kids – much as they might tell you they don't – will take any opportunity to inhale deeply from a pot of intoxicating, poisonous glue, available to anyone for a few pennies. The children, widely misperceived to be living on the street through some fault of their own, are almost invariably there through rejection, mistreatment and misunderstanding.
Raul de los Angeles, 14, was scorned by his mother from the start, on the absurd grounds that his skin was too dark. Tired of the beatings and verbal abuse, he slipped away and made the journey to Managua from his home on the Costa Rican border. On the first visit he made back home, his mother tore up his visiting slip, and decided to be more vigilant. When she caught Raul trying to run away again, after he had begged and sung on buses enough to afford the journey, she burned a mark into his leg with a branding iron. On a third attempt he was successful again, and managed to escape – from his real home to a rehab home.
Gustavo López, 18, says that his father has killed twelve people, some of them in front of Gustavo and his younger brother Luis, whom the father cares little for. Feeling no protection or acceptance from his family, Manuel looked for these in a gang. He checked himself into Casa Alianza the day he threw a rock at his mother's head, and tells his story with the maturity of a middle-aged man. His main worry now is his brother, who admires and glorifies their father's behaviour.
So what can be done to help the dispossessed young of Latin America's poorest country? Caught in a trap of stunted education, family breakdown and substance abuse, not to mention the back-biting daily struggle for a living, it seems they are in an endless cycle. But with years of experience, and homes in four Central American countries, Casa Alianza has designed a comprehensive programme to care for the children. First, crisis treatment: healthcare, shelter, clothing and food. Next – and longest – is rehabilitation: the youngster will attend workshops and classes that teach compassion, respect and non-violence. This will be combined with some vocational preparation. And then, finally, “re-integration”. This may mean returning to parents who have attended workshops themselves; or if they have no parents, or are old enough, renting a room in the city, which they will pay for by working with their newly-learned skill. Many of the youngsters, of course, do not get this far with their programme. Anything from drugs and desperation, to a lost love on the outside, can lure them away before enough progress has been made for them not to fall back into old habits – and back into the cycle.
What makes it all seem worthwhile, though, is their seemingly endless energy and hope against the odds. Each battling with his or her memories, the kids struggle through dance classes, sports days and school, adeptly concealing what lies beneath. Their capacity to carry on getting up every morning, to write poems or collapse with the giggles, is a true inspiration. What they must work out is not how to block their memories out, but how to live with them, and integrate the past into a more hopeful, capable present.
On my last afternoon in the home, I sit down next to Miguel again. Having come from Honduras, he now doesn't have the money to get back home. He is resolved to leave the centre the next day, and wander the streets of Managua, indifferent to what might happen. I give him the standard line, and try and convince him to stay. But, of course, I don't know what he's going through. "What do you lack, really?" he asks. "Up to now, what am I? What am I worth?" The awful insinuation is: nothing. "Sometimes I go for days on end without eating", he adds.
A week later, on the morning of my flight back to England, I stop by the centre for breakfast. Something small, but significant, has changed, or rebuilt itself – there is Miguel, smiling and talking to his neighbour as he ate.