Our Only Right Is to Be Silent: The Story of María, Displaced in Colombia

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“And the worst of all is when the things happen to you and you can’t do anything,” said María, a displaced woman in Colombia who has endured abuses by guerrillas, paramilitaries and the army.  “And you have to just watch and simply be silent. If you say something, it will happen all the same. That’s when I saw that the only real right we have as people is to be silent. Maybe that’s the real right I’ve exercised here, in Colombia.  It’s watch and be silent, if you want to survive.”

LAWGEF is pleased to publish this selection from a book coming out in 2012 from McSweeney’s Voice of Witness, by editors Max Schoening and Sibylla Brodzinsky.  This will be a powerful collection of oral histories, compiling the life stories of a selection of Colombia’s over 5 million internally displaced people. In their own words, narrators recount their lives before displacement, the reasons for their flight, their personal tragedies and struggles to rebuild their lives. By amplifying these unheard voices through the intimacy of first person narrative, this Voice of Witness book aims to increase awareness of Colombia’s human rights catastrophe and illuminate the human impact of the country’s ongoing war.

María (an excerpt)

María lived with her family on a sprawling farm on the slopes of Colombia’s eastern mountains, a historic stronghold of leftist FARC guerrillas. In 1998, when the government granted the rebels a safe haven as a stage for peace talks, María’s farm was caught up in territorial disputes between the FARC, rightwing paramilitary militias and government forces. María, her husband and their three children were given an hour to abandon their home. Fleeing to the city of Bucaramanga proved no escape, as María and her family have been hounded by paramilitaries, poverty and urban violence to this day.

They Were Always Watching

I lived with my family on a farm in the province of Caquetá. My husband and I had two girls and a boy. We grew coffee, grass, lulo and bananas. I had a vegetable garden with cabbage, potatoes, red beans, corn, carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, and beets. We never lacked anything because the land was perfect for farming. The soil, you’d step on it, and it would sink. It was a mountainous area, so it was virgin and all loose and black for working.

We only had to bring rice and meat back from the town from time to time; the rest we produced ourselves. We didn’t know what it was to buy beans, tomatoes, onions, carrots or anything like that. I loved working and having my garden because most of the neighbors would come by and say, “Oh, sell me that” and I would just fill them up. I had enough, and the vegetables would have been wasted otherwise, so I I’d say, “Here take them, don’t worry.” I’ve always been someone who gives what I have. And so they would bring me what they had. Those with fishponds brought me fish. The people who made those big, huge cheeses would bring me some, or those who had cane mills would bring me big panelas. Back then I lived well because I was never in need. We didn’t know what it was like to go to bed without eating.

But it was a life of obligation, of submission. Because there in Caquetá, it was the rule of law that we give the FARC ten percent of what we harvested.  If we collected at least ten cargas of coffee, we had to give one carga to the guerrillas. So of everything we produced, we had to give them what was called the vacuna—the extortion payment. There was only one route in and out of our village, and they were always watching.

They would go house to house and call us to FARC meetings. They would say, for example, there’s a meeting at such an hour, so we went because that was the deal. At the meetings they would say what they had to say and the conditions we had to follow, and at the end they would say, “Raise your hand if you disagree.” I thank God that my hour hasn’t arrived, but I always raised my hand and asked them why they asked us those questions if we knew that even if we didn’t agree, we couldn’t say anything. Sometimes they stayed quiet; sometimes they looked at me.

We were most afraid when the army arrived and attacked us, saying we were guerrilla accomplices. There was heavy gunfire, bombs, army “ghost” planes dropping bombs, explosions, all that. There was always fighting, always this anxiety that the war would arrive at any moment. When the plane began shooting, it did not respect anything—it would kill the crops, the cows, everything. They didn’t care if you were inside the house, they would just shoot. We would hide under the sink, under the table. I would grab the children and hold them tight, hold them very tight because they were shaking.

Those were the problems we had, but even so we learned to live in that situation and, well, you knew you had to stay there, upright, without leaving. It was the life that we had become used to.

This Is Where It Ends

Then the situation became more serious when the paramilitaries began to arrive. When they did the massacres and all that, the only people who you saw during the day were from the army. And we would ask them, “If the army is here during the day, why were families being murdered at night?”

I remember something disastrous that happened to a man, a mixto bus driver. He was on the bus with his family and they grabbed him. They raped his pretty daughter, and they caught his wife and two year-old son and destroyed them all. How can a person grab a helpless child and murder him? How is a person capable of taking a chainsaw and cutting another person into pieces, taking the wife down to the crocodiles? Those animals.

Then one day the guerrillas started taking all the people from their homes down to the guerrilla safe haven. They made you go out to the road and from there you had to ride in the mixto bus. Marching in front were the women and children. The idea was for us to go and make a presence, a show of support, there in the guerrilla safe haven. But my husband and I were afraid because it was always war. We were most worried about the children—I mean, there could have been a shootout or something. We were afraid to go there, so we decided to hide. We went into the bush and then returned to our house.

The next morning, my husband woke early, at about five in the morning. Then we heard machine guns rattle, they sounded like truac!  And I turned to see what it was. A bunch of guerillas started coming out from behind the coffee bushes and surrounding the house. There were so many of them. To kill one person you don’t need so many people. When I saw that, I said to myself, This is where it ends. They gave an order for us to leave the house. They didn’t let us take anything. I mean, you had to comply, simply follow the rules. You had to leave or be killed, it was that simple. I thought it was the day of our death.

We left on foot until we got to where we could catch a bus. Our heads were filled with nothingness. The children didn’t understand anything, they didn’t know what was happening. The smallest one wasn’t even one-year-old; I carried her in my arms. We arrived in the city of Bucaramanga, where my sister lived. She introduced us to a man who agreed to lend us a farm to work on in a nearby town. When we got there, the houses were empty and there were all kinds of armed groups. Most people had left, and of the ones who stayed, no one spoke, no one.

We lasted there about two weeks. One day we heard noises and my husband went out and he tried to run, to flee. I don’t think he got away. Someone took my husband and we haven’t heard from him since. It turns out that it was worse there than in Caquetá—the war was even harder.

I returned to Bucaramanga with my kids. Right after my husband disappeared I thought I was going to go crazy. I had no job, nothing. I was alone, with young children. I didn’t know what to do. I eventually got work selling French fries from a cart, but I had to leave my children locked up all day. I would make a pot of soup in the morning and would go to work. I had to watch my children grow up in those conditions, locked up, with nothing. Even if I hadn’t eaten anything, and my children hadn’t eaten anything, we simply went to bed, just like that. I was never taught to ask for things, never taught to beg, so it made me embarrassed to ask for things.

Sometimes I thought I was losing my mind, my senses. Sometimes I went blank. I didn’t know my own name. I would go to do something and when I got there I couldn’t remember why I had gone.

Our Only Right Is to Be Silent

From the moment I arrived in the city, I had no place to go. I would get kicked out of rented rooms— they wouldn’t rent to me because I had kids. I went to the squatter settlements and asked if I could live there. But each time I went, I saw the situations people were living in, the conditions they lived in, and I asked my god not to let me end up there. Because that would be my kids’ perdition. All the displaced families that go to that settlement have lost their children. Those who don’t become rapists fall into drug addiction, and the girls fall into prostitution.

Working in the María Paz neighborhood I had to see how the gangs killed ten, twelve-year-old kids of displaced families. Once, they killed eleven in one night. They killed one of them under the bed. So, I protected my kids from all those things.

In the countryside we lived well because it was our way of life. But in the city, we had to confront a new specter, because there are just as many armed groups in the city as there are in the countryside. There’s no escape. It’s one of the many things that happens to you. Everywhere you come across people that want to finish you off, want to crush you, consume you.

In the early years of my life, at least, there was no bitterness. I could at least smile. After a while everything went bitter. When people talk to me about being resilient, I give the example that this building is going to fall and I put myself there to support it. I’ve had to be resistant against things that you don’t expect to happen in life. And the worst of all is when the things happen to you and you can’t do anything. And you have to just watch and simply be silent. If you say something, it will happen all the same. That’s when I saw that the only real right we have as people is to be silent. Maybe that’s the real right I’ve exercised here, in Colombia. Because everything else… it’s watch and be silent, if you want to survive.

About Voice of Witness: Founded by author Dave Eggers and physician/human rights scholar Lola Vollen, Voice of Witness is a nonprofit book series that depicts human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them. The Voice of Witness education program, in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves, aims to bring socially relevant, oral history-based curricula into schools.