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This story does not appear in the published version of Out of War

I was eight years old, just home from school, and as usual my father was in the workshop below our apartment. He saw me but he didn't say anything. I went upstairs. The door to the apartment was wide open, and almost everything inside was destroyed. The doors were smashed up, the furniture was turned upside down and broken. I walked through the wrecked rooms, afraid that I might also find my mother lying there, broken like a chair, but she had gone. The place was deserted.

I felt exhausted and weighed down by it all. I had such pain in my heart that I didn't want to feel anything at all, good or bad, for anyone. I knew already that my father had done this. He'd been doing it all my life. So many times he came home drunk, picked a fight with her, yelled at her and cursed her until he boiled into a rage. I'd seen him grab my mother by her hair and smash her face against the wall. He battered her so hard that sometimes he almost killed her.

Once we had a little bird we called Manolo. He was a beautiful little thing, about ten centimetres long, with a pink beak, green feathers, and yellow fluff under his wings. He had round coffee-coloured eyes, and had learned how to say my name. His wings were clipped so we let him hop free around the apartment. One day, when my father was hitting my mother, Manolo hopped onto his shoulder and tried to peck him. My father grabbed that little bird and crushed him to death with his bare hands.

I don't know why my father battered my mother. Perhaps he thought it made him more of a 'man' and that he had the right to beat her. He could give a thousand reasons why he did it, and maybe they made sense to him, but the only reason he ever did it really is because there was something wrong and bad inside him. That day when I was eight, I went downstairs and saw him in the workshop but he still said nothing to me. I found my mother at a neighbour's house. Her faced was messed up, her arms and legs bruised and battered, and her dress was ruined. She told me she was leaving him and I was glad, but for two weeks she left me with my father while she looked for a place for us to stay. During that time he ignored me completely. He didn't care if I was there or not. He went out every night. At least my mother called every day, and eventually she came and took me away.

I went with her because I thought it would be safer, but I did not feel close to her. All the fury that my mother felt against my father she often took out on me, and on my sister and brother. She beat us with anything she could lay her hands on. Because of this, my sixteen-year-old sister, Daniela, decided not to come with us. She moved in with her boyfriend instead. And my brother decided to stay with our father. It didn't matter much to him where he lived since he spent most of his time on the streets. He was 14 and already into drugs.

Over the next few years my mother and I lived in many apartments. We never had enough money. She didn't speak to me much or share anything with me. I spent a lot of time out of the house, with my friends, on the street or with my sister, Daniela.

Daniela was a beautiful woman. Everywhere she went she attracted attention. She was always well dressed, relaxed, happy and generous, but perhaps because of all the sadness in her life, she had no faith in herself. She had been forced to become an adult when she was too young.

When she was only eight years old she became my protector. When my father went on one of his rampages, she would scoop me out of my crib and take me and our six-year-old brother into the street for our own safety. We stayed out there in the dark, waiting until it was over. Daniela cooed over me, looked after me and when the trouble had passed she carried me inside and settled me back in my crib. All the time I was growing up in that terrible house, she felt responsible for me. At least I only suffered there for eight years but she was there twice as long and she grabbed at the chance to escape.

She said that her boyfriend wasn't bad to her, but he also sometimes got drunk and beat her. She allowed him and other people to manipulate her. She got into trouble with stealing, and let others exploit her beauty. Another man called Leo became completely obsessed with her. He wanted her to be his woman, and when she refused, he stalked and threatened her. She and I talked about him, and I was very afraid. I thought he was unstable and dangerous because I knew he used a lot of drugs.

In November 1999, Leo saw Daniela and her boyfriend walking in the park together. He went right up and shot her twice in the head. My mother was especially hard hit by my sister's death. She found some photographs of Daniela and had them blown up into enormous prints that she hung around the apartment. She talked to them all the time and seemed to have given up all hope.

I felt so much emptiness inside because of my sister's murder and because my brother was in and out of jail all the time. He had always promised my mother that one day he would get a good job and look after her, but he never did. But perhaps because of what had happened to my brother and sister, I gradually began to think more about my own survival. I wanted to be different from everyone else in my family and I realized that this meant I had to take responsibility for my own growth. There was no one else to do it for me.

I saw that I had a choice. I could decide to end my life, to have no respect for myself or to wallow in the bad thoughts I could have about other people. Or else I could try to find a way out.

At first I found small ways of helping myself. I kept a journal and wrote down all the things that were happening to me. I thought that if I did this then perhaps someday it could help someone else. I reminded myself that my sufferings were small compared to those of many other people in my country, and in other countries.

I started thinking like this for many reasons but the main one was that so many bad things had happened to me - I don't want to tell them all because it really does not help - that I could not understand why I was still alive, why I was still whole. I couldn't understand why, when I was sometimes so horribly depressed and afraid, I could also feel that maybe things could get better. It sounds very dramatic to say this but for years and years, since I was maybe four or five years old, I have begged almost every day for God to take me away from this painful life, yet for some reason I am still here.

I think that my survival is the reason, and that if I can help other people who have also suffered, then there is some purpose in all that pain.

The daughter of a friend of my mother's brought me to a Scout meeting. I had never thought about becoming a girl scout before. I didn't know what it would be like or how someone like me could fit in. I was glad first of all because I did not feel like people were judging me. Then I got really interested because they were talking about the 'territories of peace'. These are places where people agree to solve conflicts without violence. As Scouts we volunteer to work with children in different parts of the city and play games that can help them learn how to find peaceful solutions to their problems. We help them to create their own 'territories of peace'. As soon as I heard about this I thought, "Yes! That is what I want to do!"

I was surprised by how quickly the scout troop became like a family for me. There were 15 of us, girls and boys, who met once a week. I had never been in an environment before where, if I talked about my problems, the people around me really cared and wanted to help. My own family was never that way.

Life is still very hard for me. Sometimes I think I am only hanging on by a thread. There are days when I feel strong and focused and believe that all things are possible. There are others when I am plagued by demons and fear my life will end.

In my heart, I know what is necessary to survive but I still do not live in an environment that is nurturing. I know the theory of happiness, without being able to put it into practice. I think about leaving home but I don't want to make the same mistakes as my sister. I feel an obligation to my brother yet I know I am too young to protect him.

I dream about peace. I pray there is a way to find it.

I have sometimes seen people who have suffered who claim that they have recovered from it, yet when you look at their smile, you know it is simply an expression they are wearing on their faces. It is not something they truly feel inside.

I don't want a fake recovery. I want the real, full-on, complete happiness that I know some people have. I think that is what peace is.

Brenda, 14 years, By a thread