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A Testimony of War on Colombia’s Forgotten Coast: “A Reluctant Warrior” by Kelly Brooke Nicholls

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Author: Claire Dennis

“Hundreds have been killed in the past year. Several dozen have been murdered for no reason by the armed forces in Buenaventura. Girls’ dismembered bodies have been hung up in town. So many of us have been victims in some way and what happens to [the paramilitaries]? Absolutely nothing.”

The story of Luz Marina and her family’s struggle to escape the wrath of paramilitary leaders in Buenaventura, one of Colombia’s historically most violent cities, is one of feminine courage and the fight for survival in the most dire of circumstances.

Though fictional, “A Reluctant Warrior” exposes much of the reality that the people of Chocó lived throughout the five decades of Colombia’s bloody civil war, and which they continue to face today despite the government’s peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas. The waves of violence came to a peak with the paramilitary expansion through their territory, leading to unprecedented homicide rates, displacement and fear. A vital drug trafficking port, Buenaventura was invaded by every armed actor in Colombia’s civil conflict: the right-wing paramilitaries, the national army, which worked in collusion with the paramilitary death squads, and the leftist guerillas–all grappling for control over the drug routes and killing without discrimination.

The novel traces this dark history from the perspective of Luzma, a young but fiercely courageous girl from Chocó, whose mother is disappeared, who has herself been raped and beaten by armed men, and whose remaining family was inevitably displaced from their small fishing village by an incursion of paramilitary gangs.

Like thousands of others, Luzma and her family were forced to flee. They headed for the nearest city, Buenaventura, only to find an urban warzone, locked under the brutal control of paramilitary forces: streets filled with spies and hitmen, army leaders assassinating young, usually poor boys and later dressing them up as guerrillas in order to achieve higher kill rates–what is now known as the “false positives” scandal–and collusion with the death squads even among government officials.

When Buenaventura’s top paramilitary leader, “El Cubano,” kidnaps her brother, Luzma begins a dangerous and self-sacrificing quest for justice. She seeks help among international human rights workers from the Peace Brigade International (PBI) based in town, local Afro community leaders, and American military intelligence agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

In a joint operation with Colombian military officials, the DEA agents capture El Cubano in one of the largest cocaine smuggling stunts they have intercepted. Luzma is reunited with her brother, but the ending is far from joyous. Their family has been broken, displaced, and scarred by unimagineable acts of torture and cruelty. They will never live in Chocó again, and in a country crawling with competing forces, Luzma questions if justice can ever truly be found in her country.

The testimony offered to us by Kelly Nicholls is a product of years of interviews with families in Chocó, on the same violent streets described in the book, and under the same horrendous oppression experienced by Luzma and her family.

Buenaventura, a city of about 300,000 of which 80 percent are Afro-Colombian, became the deadliest city in Colombia’s civil war, which throughout 50 years produced some 220,000 deaths and 8 million victims. Despite Buenaventura’s notoriety for violence, around 42,000 refugees from other rural areas on the coast have arrived to the city since 1998, subject to the recruitment as foot soldiers for drug lords, rebels and paramilitary gangs in order to support their families, and swelling the city’s poorest slums.

The Colombian government responded to the record levels of violence in Buenaventura by sending in more troops and more weapons, but non-governmental organizations claim this heavy-handed approach has only amped up armed confrontations, leaving more civilians caught in the crossfire.

And though Colombia received $10 billion in antinarcotics and counterinsurgency aid from the United States over the course of 15 years, the country is still the world’s largest cocaine producer and is home to the world’s second highest internally displaced population.

Today, Afro-Colombian human rights activists and community leaders continue to be brutally murdered in Buenaventura and throughout Chocó. The city remains a no-man’s land, a criminal underworld ravaged by drugs, poverty and extrajudicial killings. As the prospect of peace dawns upon other parts of the country, hope for justice and an end to violence remains in the distant horizon in Buenaventura.

The book is available on Amazon and on the author’s website