That’s not actually how things are going for Casey and me. With all the Colombian food we’re eating, we’re likely going to come home a little chubbier than before we arrived. Rather, “fat and then skinny” is how one woman described what we’re looking for in our interviews. Like in a weight-loss commercial, we want to see the before and after of people’s lives. Except for us the in-between intervention was not a diet pill, but instead the end of violence and war.
In the past nine days in the campo, we talked about this “before and after” with dozens of people, most of whom had lived under the occupation of paramilitary groups. The stories we heard were both horrifying and beautiful.
One man told us that at his finca (farm), he was charged a monthly “tax” by a paramilitary group. They’d also take his pigs and chickens, always telling him they’d pay him later, and never doing so. The man got fed up. He stopped being friendly, and soon, his name was on the list of the “subversives” the group would kill. The man then sent his wife and kids to live with relatives, but he stayed on the farm to try to make a living. At night, knowing that the group might break into his home to kill him, he slept among his crops. But that wasn’t sustainable, and eventually he, too, left his home. He tried starting a business in the nearest town, but the “taxes” were too high there as well.
Thankfully, the paramilitaries demobilized (essentially, they forfeited their guns in exchange for protection from the state) in 2005. The man went back to work on his finca. He started growing sugar cane, coffee and cacao. With other farmers, he started a cacao growers cooperative, to which he was then elected president. Now, in addition to farming, he negotiates the price of cacao for the many members of the cooperative, and is in the process of filing for the cacao subsidy from the government. The night he spoke with us, his adorable toddler of a daughter ran around the town plaza.
In that same town, a man remembered the day paramilitaries took over because it was Oct. 31 – Halloween. While working that day at an auto shop, he heard gunfire, and peeked outside to see that a murder had just taken place. He saw the face of one of the assailants, a man who later that day would stand in the plaza and hand out candy to children. The following day the paramilitaries announced that they had “cleaned” the town, and would stay to keep the remaining residents safe. In the years that followed, people stopped talking to their neighbors for fear that he or she might be an informant, or just a gossip. There were more “cleanings.” Teachers and community leaders were shot. No one went out after dark.
We arrived to the town on a Sunday afternoon. Music was blasting and the plaza and kiosko were lively. Men sat at tables outside and inside the bars, some holding the ropes to their horses as they drank. Kids rode bikes up and down the main street. We drank coffee and panela and hoped they’d turn the music down after dark so we could sleep. They didn’t.
In a nearby town, a woman told us her daughter was kidnapped and held hostage. The paramilitaries wanted her to work for them. Her mother begged them to be reasonable. She’s been in school all her life, the woman argued, she’s not trained to carry a gun. Not long thereafter, the daughter disappeared. The woman knew because she woke one day feeling horribly sick. She called people to go check on her daughter where she was being held hostage in a nearby town. The girl wasn’t there. She’d been killed, but the paramilitaries wouldn’t admit it, even when the woman demanded, and claimed her right to have her daughter’s body.
The woman’s son was a teenager when this happened, entering his rebellious years in a town where rebellion was strictly forbidden. But his anger was uncontainable, and he vented it, albeit in small ways, publicly. Soon, he was also killed.
The woman also lost a brother, and the father of her first-born. There was never a good reason. The paramilitaries either suspected the people of collaborating with guerrillas, or feared their leadership potential. It was never really clear to the woman. She tried to run a business, making and selling piñatas and toys, but the paramilitaries “taxed” away her profits. She left town, and her home, and stayed away for awhile, never knowing for certain what had happened to her daughter.
She came back after the paramilitaries had demobilized, and started to search for her daughter’s body. She used a machete, a shovel, and whatever information she could get. It took years, and before she found her daughter, she uncovered the bodies of two other women, ending mysteries for two other families.
The woman started organizing other victims. One day she lined them up, in a line that stretched four blocks long, to report what had happened to them to city officials. Those officials had likely been linked with the paramilitaries, and they didn’t want to take these reports, but it didn’t matter. The woman was in front of a movement. In the years that followed, her activism carried her to city council, and to help draft a victim’s law for the federal government. It passed, and is now the legislation that funds reconstruction and and reconciliation work throughout the country.
The woman continues to press her own community forward. She leads reconciliation tours in a building that was once a paramilitary base, but which she helped convert to a sort of a sanctuary. Groups of children and adults tour it regularly, and she shows the pictures of the disappeared and their families. She has a list of 200 people who went missing, and even the kids look for the names of people they know. At the end of the tour, the woman pours water on everyone’s hands, trying to help them clean away anger and hurt, and move forward.