For nearly five decades, Colombia has been embroiled in internal armed conflict among guerilla groups, paramilitary militias, and the country’s own armed forces. The oral histories in Throwing Stones at the Moon (Voice of Witness, 2012), compiled and edited by Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening, describe the most widespread consequences of Colombia’s human rights crisis. Uncover the true narratives of three Colombians displaced by violence in this excerpt taken from the introduction. These brave men and women share stories of sorrow and survival against the odds.
We sat in gloomy silence as our taxi wound around 8,000-foot-high mountains from the southwestern city of Pasto to the airport for our one-hour flight home to Bogotá. The sun seemed too bright, the mountains too lush.
We had just come from the apartment of a local human rights activist, where we met Felipe Aguilar and Mariana Camacho. A quiet, gentle man, Felipe described to us how a group of paramilitaries gunned down his ex-wife and three children a few months before. Leftist rebels had previously driven him off three different farms. “Everything I’ve loved, my God has taken away,” he said, summing up a life of loss.
We then turned to Mariana, who had been waiting to talk to us. A plump, meek-looking woman, she surprised us with the ferocity of her pain and anger. Right-wing paramilitaries killed two of her sons, and disappeared her husband in 2001. A decade later, she learned that he had been cut into three pieces with a chainsaw while still alive, and then buried in a clandestine grave.
Felipe’s and Mariana’s stories had overwhelmed us. Even more overwhelming is the reality that, for the four million Colombians who have been uprooted from their homes, there are similar tales of loss, cruelty and violence, equally matched by determination and defiance. Fleeing from murder, massacres, threats, forced recruitment and countless other abuses, Colombia’s forcibly displaced—los desplazados—make up one of the largest populations of internal refugees in the world.
Colombia’s armed conflict pits left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and government forces against one another; drug mafias battling over smuggling routes add to the general violence. The country’s last remaining Marxist rebel groups, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), rose up against the state in the mid 1960s. In the 1980s, right-wing paramilitary groups mushroomed throughout the country, representing a loose alliance of the Colombian military, cocaine traffickers, and wealthy landowners, all set on eliminating guerrillas and suspected supporters.
The conflict peaked at the end of the 1990s, when regional paramilitary militias joined forces under the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and the FARC reached its pinnacle of strength, controlling as much as 40 percent of the national territory with some 20,000 fighters. Both groups, fueled by the drug trade, were designated foreign terrorist organizations by the United States and the European Union.
The year 2002 marked a watershed moment in the war: peace talks between the government and FARC collapsed, and Colombians elected President Álvaro Uribe, who started a massive counter-insurgency campaign against guerrillas. By the time Uribe left office in 2010, the tide had turned in the conflict. The AUC had agreed to disband and between 2003 and 2006 more than 30,000 supposed paramilitaries turned themselves in, in exchange for pardons or reduced sentences for confessing to atrocities. The government had driven guerrillas from Colombia’s main cities, towns and highways, halved their troops and declared the paramilitaries extinct. Colombia began to project itself internationally as a country that had largely overcome its conflict, an apparent success story in the War on Terror.
This turned out to be more wishful thinking than reality. Without a doubt the number of massacres, murders and kidnappings dropped sharply. But in its zeal to fight the guerrillas, Colombia’s army murdered innocent civilians and presented them as members of illegal groups killed in combat; thousands of cases of alleged extrajudicial killings by the military are currently under investigation. The paramilitary demobilization ceremonies turned out to be filled with stand-ins rather than actual fighters. Many former AUC members reorganized into neo-paramilitary groups, which are far less ideological than their predecessors, but continue to target civilians. The FARC, after suffering crushing military blows to its leadership and rank and file, regrouped and kept up its relentless attacks on both civilians and the military.
As an observer and chronicler of Colombia’s conflict, Sibylla witnessed many of the events of the past decade unfold. But it was not until she began interviewing narrators for this book and hearing their stories that she understood the tragic magnitude of each episode. A vague sense of remorse overcame her when she realized that she’d been on a reporting assignment just five kilometers from Mariana Camacho’s farm in Putumayo province days before Mariana’s husband was disappeared in February 2001.
Max had just moved to Colombia when we started to research this book. He knew about the war’s dramatic scale, its different players and the theories of its causes—and that he wanted to tell the story. But until he began interviewing narrators, he had no idea how often the ideological, political, and economic contours of the conflict are eclipsed by its deeply personal nature. It was a one-on-one battle of wills with a guerrilla commander that ultimately drove Rodrigo Mejía to flee his farm, and María Victoria Jiménez worked side by side in a hospital with the man she suspected of ordering her assassination.
Both of us feel honored to have been welcomed into each one of the narrators’ lives, and we were amazed at their capacity to give after having lost so much. They offered us beds in their homes, steaming sancocho soup, their friendship, and their stories, despite the renewed pain caused by the retelling. We never felt we could fully reciprocate the generosity with which they shared their lives—many lacked food, decent jobs, and protection, and all we could offer was the opportunity to make their stories public. Keenly aware of the limitations of our undertaking, we hope that these personal perspectives in Throwing Stones at the Moon will add depth and complexity to readers’ understanding of the country, and draw attention to a war that remains largely unknown abroad.
We also hope to highlight how Colombia’s conflict and human rights crisis is ongoing: during the two years that we worked on this book, more than 250,000 Colombians were newly displaced by violence. Over the course of multiple interviews with each of the narrators, we witnessed how several of them had suffered a new atrocity or threat since our previous encounters. When we first met Felipe he told us he couldn’t take any more suffering after losing three of his children in the massacre. By the time we caught up with him again, we learned that an unidentified armed group had nearly chopped off the hand of one of his two surviving sons.
The narratives in this book also reveal how far back this war goes in the country’s history, and how deeply ingrained it is in the national psyche. Its deep roots are reflected in the premonitions of impending violence that many narrators experienced. One felt a tingling in his body before being attacked by guerrillas; another felt a sudden need to turn back just before stepping on a land mine. Emilia González recalled how the village dogs howled the night before the 2000 El Salado massacre, one of the bloodiest mass killings in Colombian history: “People say that when dogs howl, something bad is about to happen.” Episodes of violence are remembered as if they should have been foreseen.
We do not pretend to provide explanations for Colombia’s human rights problems. The Colombian conflict is messy, and there is no overarching analysis that can explain its causes and motives or even its consequences. The country has long led the world in cocaine production, and profits from the trade fund guerrillas, paramilitaries, and violent mafias, while also corrupting politicians and members of the armed forces. But the drug trade is only part of the equation. Colombia has one of the most unequal land and income distributions in the world. Its Andean mountains, Amazonian jungle and two coastlines have produced a splintered society where regional political barons, guerrilla commanders, and warlords control daily life. The conflict has also been fueled and motivated by the fight for land, gold, bananas, coal, oil, emeralds, and palm oil, as well as by vengeance, political power, and ideology.
Rather than attempting to tell the story of Colombia’s conflict, this book depicts the many ways it plays out in the everyday lives of the people it has displaced and dispossessed. The narrators are black, white, mestizo, and indigenous, poor and wealthy; they are peasant farmers and urbanites; they have been driven from their homes by guerrillas, paramilitaries, army abuses, and the random violence of drug traffickers. Their common experience is having been caught up in a seemingly inescapable spiral of violence. While some seem to accept their fates in the face of incessant brutality, others confront their abusers and seek justice for their crimes. Whether with quiet stoicism or with tears of rage, nearly all of the brave men and women we talked to show a will to maintain their dignity, to protect their families and to rebuild their lives. The title of the book, Throwing Stones at the Moon, which speaks to an apparently impossible task, refers to that tenacity to persevere and survive against the odds.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Throwing Stones at the Moon compiled and edited by Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening, published by Voice of Witness, 2012.