Saturday, February 11, 2006

The vanishing

One of the realities of life when working with street children is that many of the kids come and go - the little girl we take to the doctor today with a severe case of bronchitis might suddenly decide to leave Hanoi tonight, and we can only hope that she is somewhere safe and taking her medicine.

But we don't know, and there's nothing we can do about it.

It's very rare that one of our kids disappears permanently; some have mysteriously vanished for over a year before coming back to us. Just last week, a boy named Nhon started sending me text messages from Ho Chi Minh City - we last saw him when he stole a bicycle from another one of the kids 18 months ago!

(For those volunteers and friends who knew us during 2004 and 2005, Nhon is the shoeshine boy who gave me Bob, the cat. And considering what a psychopathic freak Bob turned out to be, it was in Nhon's best interest to leave Hanoi!)

So usually when kids 'disappear', we don't worry too much. We know they'll be back.

Except... Since Tet (Lunar New Year), one of our young guys has disappeared, and I have a really bad feeling about it.

T is 16 - or so he says. Actually he has no idea - no birth certificate or official registration papers; and his father is the last person on earth who would have bothered to remember what year his son was born in.

T has been living on the streets for most of his life, and smoking heroin for the last year or so. My staff and I have been trying everything to get him to quit. We've known that, once he starts injecting, it's just a matter of time before he contracts HIV.

With no special expertise in helping drug users, and no resources to rely on other than instinct, we've encouraged and supported T as much as we could. We gave him his own special corner of the office in which to keep his few belongings, so that he could at least have a place to identify as his own. We included him in all the normal outings that we could, took him along with us for lunch and dinner, experimented with confrontational and non-confrontational approaches, and even saved his life when a drug dealer was threatening to kill him. The same dealer has been switching between exploiting him and caring for him, leaving T both dependant and terrified. T has been visibly torn between embracing the support of Blue Dragon, and submitting his soul to these vile drug dealers.

About 3 weeks ago, he turned up at the center with his arms looking like pin cushions. Bad news.

And now he's vanished.

The last time I saw T was on the eve of Lunar New Year. One of the Social Workers, Tung, had been here at the center and left a little before midnight to see the fireworks down at Hoan Kiem Lake. I was getting ready for bed when the doorbell rang... T was in tears, confused, ashamed to be alone on the eve of the New Year.

He wasn't stoned - for the first time I had seen him in a long time. Reality was hitting him hard.

So we watched the fire works from the top floor of the building - he 'wow-ed' and 'whoa-ed' with the awe of a little boy.

For the following hours, he was restless: something was wrong, but he didn't know what. Was it withdrawals? Or just the agony of realising how alone he is in life? I wanted to ask him where the dealers were, and why they had abandoned him on such an important night.

Finally T left, mumbling about going to see someone – and we haven’t seen him since.

In a police operation last week, the dealers were all arrested. Was he with them at the time? Or did he see the police coming and think that he was in trouble, and ran away?

This afternoon I was sorting through some bags that I found when we were moving into the new center earlier this week. Out of one bag fell a piece of paper, with T’s name, written over and over. Just a few months back, we started teaching T how to read and write his name, and other important words such as “Vietnam”. We had such hope. Things seemed to be going so well for him.

This isn’t the end of the story, though. One thing I have learned is that the story never ends; something more will always happen, for better or for worse.

Now it’s almost midnight here in Hanoi; it’s raining and it’s cold. I don’t know where T is sleeping tonight; I don’t know how the next chapter of this story will be written.

I can only hope that it will be for better.

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