|Only in Silence can Truth be Heard|
In this part of Colombia, like many other parts of the country where the war is raging—today most of the country—you will not hear or see much that indicates that it is the epicenter of a four-decade long armed conflict that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives. You may see some camouflaged troops on the road into town. You may notice that the police force looks like an army—with M-16 machine guns and grenades. You may notice plain-clothes young men on the corner with walkie-talkies. Can you see the revolver sticking out from under their shirt, tucked into their pants? It is not often that you will see much more that indicates the war here. If you do, you may not live to tell about it. Do not be mistaken, the war rages here, just not every minute of everyday. And if you, someone not from this village, see the war in full force it probably means it will be the last thing you see.
Why, you wonder, if there is a war going on here, doesn’t anybody say anything to me about it? Why doesn’t anyone mention that there have been battles fought on these streets, that there have been selective executions carried out in that house across the street, that a massacre was committed in that elementary school on the corner? If all these things are true, why doesn’t anybody say anything about it? Wouldn’t the pain welling up inside be too much to handle? You may even think, as I have, “I am with a group of ‘international observers,’ people are supposed to tell us, of all people, about these things, yet they do not.” Maybe all those terrible things people say have happened here are not true. Maybe all I heard about the violence in Colombia is a lie.
In the Bible there is a verse in Matthew about the massacre of children in Bethlehem. According to that verse, King Herod ordered all the children who were two years old or younger to be killed in an effort to wipe out baby Jesus. A Colombian friend recently spoke of that verse. “Not long ago I saw a special on the Discovery Channel in which a group of scientists was interviewed about this investigations into the historical accuracy of that biblical story,” he told us. “The scientists concluded that the massacre of the children of Bethlehem was a myth. They based their conclusion on the fact that they could not find any writings from the time that indicated such a terrible thing had ever happened. They claimed that if such a horrible deed had really transpired, the grief would have been so great that someone, somewhere would have written about it,” this friend explained. He concluded, “the fact that there was nothing written about the massacre convinces me that it truly happened.”
Two days after this discussion about Matthew, I was back in the land of war that appears not to be at war. On the road from the airport toward a small town, in the tropical lowlands of Colombia, we passed over a bridge that spans one of Colombia’s large rivers. One hundred feet above the water I gaze down to see the fast moving water rush under the bridge. This bridge is located just before the entrance to a small town where approximately 35 people were massacred three years ago only 23 bodies were recovered and no investigation has been undertaken, so it is impossible to say for certain how many people were killed). The armed group that carried out the massacre gathered townspeople together and brought them to the bridge that I was now crossing. They then shot them, cut them open in a vertical line from their necks to their abdomen and threw them off of the bridge into the river that I now watch rush under the bridge.
For all the pain suffered by the people of this small town, no one in this town has mentioned that massacre to me although I personally have been there more than five times since the massacre. Neither national nor international press ever wrote anything about this massacre. Would those same scientists that visited Bethlehem investigating the massacre mentioned in the Bible conclude that this massacre did not happen either?
Even I, right now, am adding to the evidence. I have and will fail to include any names of people (unless fake names are used), places or any other details that could identify the places and acts written about here. Mentioning any of these things could lead to the deaths of the people who have been brave enough to show me and share with me these stories that “never happened.”
On this day as I cross that same bridge, a dead body has washed up on the banks of the river. While in town we ask some people that we know about the body in the river. We hear different stories…four members of an armed group were killed in a battle and their bodies were thrown in the river…seven unarmed community members were killed by one of the armed groups and thrown in the river…I never found out whose body was decaying on the riverbank as I passed by. I didn’t even stop to pay my respects. Was that what I should have done? I still wonder.
What would the Bethlehem scientists say about that body? Would they convince me it did not exist? I think spending a bit of time in Colombia would have helped them in their investigation about the massacre in Bethlehem. Sometimes there is something that hurts more than a massacre. It is the massacre that follows because someone let the secret out that there had been a massacre.
In this part of Colombia you are told en boca cerrada no entra tiro (a bullet cannot does not enter into a closed mouth). Here the less you know, the longer your life span. Nevertheless, in the end, whether you know a lot or not, whether you talk about what you know or not, whether you sympathize with one side or the other in this war or whether anyone merely suspects any of the above about you, just the simple fact that you live in this area means you life span is reduced. In the United States the homicide rate was 5.7 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1999. That same year the homicide rate in the town where I saw the body on the riverbank was 703 per 100,000 inhabitants.
This is the forgotten part of our world, or the part of the world that we wish we could forget, where a Catholic priest is murdered by a group of heavily armed men. As he offers the body and blood of Christ to the congregation, the armed men walked down the central aisles and between the pews, point their weapons at the man standing at the altar and open fire. The bullet holes in the chalice testify to the deed. The Bible, with 4 bullet holes, was his only shield against his attackers. Seventeen bullets hit Father Javier, one for each year of service that he gave as the Shepard of his community.
How deeply ingrained the indifference or fear must be in the human kind for this kind of thing to happen without the world knowing about it, without crying for this loss of life and demanding the guilty be brought to justice? Where are the voices that rose up when Archbishop Romero of El Salvador was gunned down? Where are the tears that were shed for the victims of the Acteal massacre of Mexico?
Father Javier’s legacy is not dead. The time and effort that he spent empowering the people of his community continue to be one of the biggest threats to the armed groups that operate in the area. They declare his disciples, the people that keep his memory and work alive, military targets and execute them one by one. In December they entered the home of one of Father Javier’s followers and assassinated him, along with one of his children. They had already killed two of his other children.
In early January of this year members of one of the armed groups forced their way into the home of Francisco, another of Father Javier’s disciples and a lay worker of the Catholic Church. They shot Francisco four times in front of his family. They thought for sure that four bullets shot at short range would be enough to take the life out of this man. They had no idea how strong his spirit was. When the armed men left to celebrate their victory, Francisco’s family and community members gathered his wounded body and began to carry him to the nearest town with a hospital. On their way out of town Francisco’s would-be killers stopped them. This time they made sure that he would bother them no more. They assassinated him there, in the arms of his family and friends. The killers then ordered his family and friends to bury his body immediately so that a funeral would not serve as a moment of remembrance or protest.
In fact, Francisco’s family and friends were actually lucky to be able to bury his body, an important act in a very religious country, one which gives the mourners a place to congregate to remember their loved one. In this area, as in other areas of Colombia, the armed groups often “disappear” their victims. When this happens, the victim’s family, friends and community members are forced to suffer longer from the unanswered questions surrounding their loss. In these cases, since a body is never found, it is harder to come to terms with the fact that the missing loved one is actually dead. In another tactic, bodies are left on roadsides or in other public places so as to draw people’s attention and serve as a visual warning; “this could be you or someone you care about if you do not act as we command.” In these cases the armed actors let it be known that anyone who attempts to move the body will be declared a military target.
A priest in the area has begun “challenging” the armed actors in the region by giving a proper burial to the dead whose bodies had been left along the roadside. He has already been forced to leave one parish in the area due to death threats that he received because of his work. Yet, due to his commitment to the people of this region, he has not fled the area, like many others. Like Father Javier before him, this priest risks his life by being a leader for the people of his community. Que Dios lo proteja.
I wish this story had a hopeful ending, but I am afraid it does not. Colombia is not a dark place. Even the areas most deeply affected by the conflict cannot be called dark, although very bad things happen there. Still, I do not find Colombia to be a hopeful place. These days Colombia is a country where you can be at the airport and by chance run into a friend who is flying off to Costa Rica, a tourist destination for most people. Yet this is not a moment of merriment before an exciting vacation. As you hug your friend you feel the cool rigidity of the bulletproof vest under his jacket. You see the six men surrounding the two of you as you embrace. They are here to protect him. They stand in military formation with their bulletproof vests, handguns in their holsters on their shoulder with their fingers on the triggers of machine guns. No, this is not time to celebrate a friend taking off for a vacation on the beaches of Costa Rica. This is the time to say goodbye to a friend who is becoming another refugee, Costa Rica being the country that accepted his asylum request. This is the time to thank God that this friend was not killed by the bullets that flew in his house the night before when they came for him. This is a time to pray, as this friend makes his way to his gate with the six armed men, wearing his bulletproof vest, that the protection he has now is enough to save his life. Colombia is not a country of hope. Colombia is a country of faith.
Jess Hunter is a member of the Witness for Peace International Team in Colombia.
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