The emotional toll of covering violence
The police scanner says there was a shooting in Zone 7, very close. We arrive right behind the firemen. Two men on a motorcycle had been shot with the same bullet. Neighbors start to gather as I make a few pictures of the rescue crew loading the victims into the ambulances and rushing off to Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City. The neighbors are angry and start taunting the police, accusing them of incompetence.
Out of the corner of my eye I see family members arriving. You can tell who they are by their faces. Their confusion and disbelief stands out even through the dozens of people scuttling around. They are not crying yet…They still don’t know exactly what is going on. Eight-year-old Erica Estrada, dressed in shades of pink and burgundy, follows her grandmother. She draws my attention. Her hands are in her pockets and her face is twisted, but her eyes are still dry. Her grandmother screams as she realizes that her grown son, Erica’s father, was wounded badly and her husband, who was sitting on the back of the motorcycle, wasn’t expected to live.
Erica is half everyone’s size. Dropping the camera from my eye, I lower it to my waist, to her level. She is surrounded by strangers who have formed groups around her and her grandmother and who in their own horror seem to completely forget the young girl. Erica finds my eyes and stares at me in pain.
Still shooting with the camera at my waist, I have nothing to hide behind. Erica covers her face and begins to cry. Her grandmother calls to her from somewhere inside a separate group of bystanders. As she removes her hands Erica’s stare locks onto me again. She’s pulled by the arm and rushed back to their car just as my partner finds me and pulls me back to his car. We are off to the hospital.
We are already there when Erica and her grandmother arrive. They have gone from crying to screaming and each moment a new relative shows up in another taxi. Once again Erica seems lost and alone among a sea of adults, all in their own pain. Poor girl. I look around for someone to help her, anyone. Someone to hold her and tell her she’ll be alright, that the pain will go away.
She asks different people about her father and her grandfather but gets no answer from them. “Is my grandfather dead? Is it my father?” Everyone is on cell phones. She turns to another. I keep working but with the camera still down low there is no way to hide the tears swelling in my own eyes.
Erica bends over in emotional pain, crying aloud. I can’t take any more. I let go of the camera and touch her shoulder, and she looks up. “It’s gonna be okay” I tell her. She looks right into me. I find a relative of Erica and ask him to please look after her.
As I leave, I give up trying to hold back the tears. I cry aloud as I drive home, and as I sit on my bed. I can’t get Erica out of my mind. I lie there crying for three hours. I cry when I re-tell the story to others, and as I write it just now.
Guatemala’s National Police reports an average of 17 murders per day in the country of some 12.5 million inhabitants, giving it one of the highest murder rates among countries formally at peace.