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Depictions of Conflict: Documenting Violence in Colombia

October 17, 2012

Parents of a freed Colombian prisoner embrace their son, Tolemaida Military Base, Melgar, Tolima, June 2001. Photo: Stephen Ferry

by Claire Luchette '13

The editors of Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives from Colombians Displaced by Violence dedicate the book to its "narrators, who courageously and generously shared their stories" and "to the millions of other displaced Colombians, whose stories remain untold."

It is a dedication that speaks to the editors' mission: to amplify unheard voices. Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening '09 spent two years conducting interviews with displaced Colombian civilians and compiling first-person accounts of human rights abuses for their book, which is the latest title published by Voice of Witness, a nonprofit book series and an imprint of McSweeney's Books. Past books in the series have told the stories of civilians displaced in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Burma.

"Throwing Stones at the Moon," according to the editors, connotes the narrators' "tenacity to persevere and survive against the odds." Their task is one of rebuilding: their lives, their dignity, their will to aspire and live full lives despite the violence that pervades Colombia.

For more than four decades, Colombia has been embroiled in internal armed conflict among left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitary forces, and the Colombian military. The leading Marxist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has been fighting the state since 1964. Paramilitary groups — alliances between elite landowners, cocaine traffickers, and military — first entered the conflict in the 1980s, seeking to eliminate guerrillas and their supporters. The United States has designated both the guerrilla forces and the paramilitaries foreign terrorist organizations.

In 2002, the Colombian government suspended plans for peace talks between the FARC and the state, and President Álvaro Uribe began a massive counter-insurgency campaign against rebel groups. This offensive, aided by the United States, turned the tide in the conflict. By the end of Uribe's second term in 2010, the number of massacres, murders and killings dropped significantly as guerrilla groups were driven out of major cities and towns. It seemed the state had won in its war on internal terror.

But in the process of this violent campaign, thousands of innocent civilians were killed, by both government and guerrilla forces. And despite claims that guerrilla groups were disbanded, the FARC continues to target both civilians and Colombian military forces. The massacres have uprooted and displaced four million civilians. And although they survived the attacks on their villages, these individuals witnessed violence and human rights abuses from all sides of the conflict. Their stories remain largely untold and unknown.

An international relations concentrator, Max Schoening had proven his passion for world affairs while at Brown, both as an active member of the Brown chapter of STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition, and as a volunteer for Voice of Witness in San Francisco. After graduating and earning a Rotary Scholarship in 2009, Max moved to Colombia to pursue journalism. His familiarity with the series inspired the idea of creating a book of narratives of Colombian civilians, and he was put in touch with Brodzinsky when he arrived.

A freelance journalist currently based in Bogotá, Brodzinsky has spent the past 20 years writing about politics and human rights issues in Latin America. She contributes regularly to The Economist, Christian Science Monitor, and The Guardian. Her work has taken her around the world: she has covered the 2004 presidential coup in Haiti, the 2005 financial crisis in Argentina, and female genital mutilation in Kenya. In Colombia, where Brodzinsky has lived for the past 13 years, she writes about the events surrounding the conflict: peace talks between the government and leftist rebels, land disputes, the search for the forcibly disappeared, and cocaine trafficking.

When Schoening met with her to discuss the idea of publishing a Voice of Witness book about Colombia. she was enthusiastic about the project. "We thought it would be a great addition to the series, because Colombia's internal armed conflict and the magnitude of the human consequences of that conflict remain largely unknown abroad, particularly in the United States, despite the close connections that the United States has with Colombia," Schoening said.

An example of this close connection is federal aid, which, Schoening emphasizes, is taxpayers' money. "The United States has given billions of dollars to Colombia in the past decade, mostly in the form of military aid." Most Americans, he says, are unaware of US funding of the Colombian army.

The book aims in part to dispel some of this ignorance. "This book is an excellent opportunity to add depth and complexity to people's understanding of Colombia through the first person narratives of people who have survived the conflict, of people who have been displaced by the conflict, but also of people who have incredible strength to persevere and who have stood up for their rights."

Together they set out to find these stories of survival in Colombian villages and cities. They spent two years conducting interviews and follow-up conversations with civilians throughout the country. The book consists of 23 narratives, but these stories represent only a fraction of the victims Brodzinsky and Schoening met.

They found the majority of their interviewees through victims' associations and activist groups in different regions. Max recalls one experience in particular. "We traveled to a village [called El Solado] where we knew we wanted to get a story. It had been the location of one of the worst massacres in the recent conflicts, where about 60 people were murdered over the course of four days. We drove there without knowing anyone there. We started talking to the people in the town ... and ended up using one of the stories for the book."

Schoening is referring to the narrative of a woman given the name Emilia González, a native farmer of El Solado. On Feburary 18, 2000 the paramilitaries circled El Salado and gathered the villagers to the soccer courts outside Emilia's home; she witnessed the massacre from her front door. Emilia describes the terror she felt as she watched the paramilitaries split up her family and interrogate them:

The paras started asking questions. For example, they asked us if we were guerillas, or which of us were guerillas, or if the guerillas spent time here, where the weapons were hidden, and so on. They also said things like, "Today is the day you die. Our orders are to finish off all of you."
...The first to be killed was a friend of Carlos [her son], who was sitting next to him. The paras grabbed him and lopped off his ear, and then they put a black bag over his head and starting stabbing him and asking questions. When he died, he fell into my son's lap. And the paras went on killing and killing and killing.

Emilia goes on to describe her family's attempts at rebuiling their lives immediately after the massacre and in the following years. They escaped and did not return to El Solado for more than a year. When Emilia returned, she found her hometown in ruins, she said, and she could not sleep at night. She longs for the days before the trauma: "I'm glad to be back, because I'm in my hometown. I get discouraged, though, because of the loneliness in this village, the sadness ... I hope that the government gives us what it owes us, because they have to give us something. ... However, I say that no matter what we get, we still cannot recover what we lost."

Emilia's is a sentiment that pervades many of the narratives in Throwing Stones at the Moon. Among the other voices featured in the book are Felipe, whose ex-wife and three children were murdered by a group of paramilitaries in 2010, and Maria, a union leader who survived a brutal attempt on her life after she publically spoke out against corruption.

The interview stage was only the beginning. The interviews were conducted in Spanish, and Brodzinsky and Schoening translated the transcripts into English, and then edited and organized the stories. Preserving the Colombians' voices and perspectives was challenging, but Schoening says that because they were able to get to know the interviewees well, they gained "an understanding of each individual. Our understanding of who these people are served as a lens for the editing process."

It's a personal understanding borne of the depth and intensity of the interviews themselves. Brodzinsky recalls the powerful impact of stories about gruesome violence, painful experiences of loss, and grieved loved ones. "One woman watched three men get killed with a chainsaw. She was an incredible storyteller, and she cried, and I cried. I remember looking at Max and thinking, 'This can't be possible.'"

These appalling accounts were hard to listen to, Schoening agrees, but the strength of the story-tellers proved to be inspiring. "It's really difficult to absorb the magnitude of what these people have gone through, and yet ... they're still there talking to you, and they're still there with their kids, trying to re-establish their lives and recreate their life goals."

The openness and generosity of the civilians made it possible for Brodzinsky and Schoening to develop close friendships with them. They welcomed the journalists into their homes, fed them dinner, and gave them places to sleep. Brodzinsky is still in touch with many of the people whom she came to know during interviews. "I get calls even from people who didn't make it into the book, who want to know how we're doing and what's happening with the book." Amélia, one of the narrators in the book, called Brodzinsky on her wedding day and after her honeymoon to hear about the special occasions.

Schoening, who is now working in Washington as a research for Human Rights Watch, is also grateful to have built relationships with the survivors he met, and is still in touch with several of them. One of the narrators who had miraculously survived a brutal attempt on her life in 2009, just notified Max that she received another death threat. "She has to live in hiding because of the threats against her. She continues to be a leader for her union and be very active." When asked how he deals with emotionally trying stories like these, Max cites Colombians' will to carry on. "I think the resilience of the narrators was a source of inspiration throughout the making of the entire book and helped me get through the emotional difficulty."

Works of oral history offer personal and intimate examinations of cultural experiences. Voice of Witness books, in particular, provide the untold stories of those individuals who make up the statistics behind massacres. Schoening speaks of the educational value of oral history in his book: "These stories give personal depictions of the very serious human rights abuses in Colombia that don't necessarily come through with statistics or reading over-arching analyses of the situation."

Brodzinsky added that they offer details about the back stories of the displaced civilians. "The way that people live on a daily basis with the conflict or under the thumb of a bully guerrilla commander or a paramilitary warlord — that non-bloody violence is a form of violence and it's how the conflict plays out for the majority of people day to day. It's important to understand what they're fleeing.

"The experiences of the displaced people are the most prevalent and at the same time most invisible manifestations of the conflict. We felt that by using this [experience of displacement] as our common thread, we could talk about all the other forms of abuses and violence."

Brodzinsky hopes that Throwing Stones at the Moon will be used as an educational tool, especially in Colombian schools. Voice of Witness is currently pursuing the funding required to make the book available there. "I think it's really important that Colombians read [these stories] and understand that this is a part of their country that they may not want to see." A startlingly large percentage of Colombians, mostly elite landowners, are not exposed to the reality of the atrocities committed against civilians in more remote areas. "There are people who think they live in a country of peace, and that is clearly not true," Brodzinsky said.

Brodzinsky also wants the stories to reach those responsible for the violence, especially FARC commanders, the president, and the paramilitary. In the United States, she says, policymakers need to know about the tragedies that have transpired.

Because of their deeply personal and intimate nature, oral histories have the capacity to shock audiences and confer on them a certain responsibility. Reading about violent atrocities requires two things, Schoening says. "The first job of the audience is to read these stories and open yourself up to fully immersing yourself in these realities. [And then] you have to try to both understand and empathize with the stories."

Brodzinsky hopes that the reader also appreciates the vitality of Colombians. "There's a love of life in Colombia; there's an effervescence. They find laughter and love in spite of everything ... Something that's always amazed me is how these people rebuild their lives and keep going. They just do. ... They have a survival instinct, and survival also means loving and living today and tomorrow."