Tales of trauma

Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives from Colombians Displaced by Violence
Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening
2012, Voice of Witness
429 pages

NO MATTER what position you take on the causes of Colombia’s long civil war and the factors that have prolonged this nightmare without apparent end, this is a powerful book.

Throwing Stones at the Moon is a valuable work of oral history that brings together the harrowing recollections of civilians caught up in the five-decade conflict and describes perhaps its most important legacy: forced displacement.

Over the years at least four million people in the country have had to flee their homes as a a result of violence by the army, paramilitaries and guerrilla organisations – as well as enduring untold horrors at the hands of combatants on all sides.

Those displaced by force in Colombia – the desplazados – represent possibly the world’s largest populations of internal refugees.

And the war goes on. Since 1964 the Colombian government, backed by the US, has been locked in conflict with the peasant guerrillas of what is now the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP and FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army).

Perhaps 600,000 people have died in the conflict, there have been countless atrocities, and despite peace talks which have recently started in Havana, it is likely that the civil war will drag on for the foreseeable future and that efforts by the Colombian and US governments to dismiss the guerrillas as a dwindling force will fail. Garry Leech’s excellent recent book on the FARC demonstrates convincingly that they cannot and should not be written off as an actor in Colombian politics, not least because of their enduring ability to adapt to shifting military conditions.

Such is the scale of suffering, that cruelty and pain form a substrate of Colombian life and few people in the country have been left untouched by the violence – the war, as the authors remind us, has become deeply ingrained in the national psyche. But as those who compiled this collection point out, beneath the trauma also lies determination and defiance.

Brodzinsky and Schoening have done a great job of bringing us the stories of ordinary people trapped in Colombia’s labyrinth in a way that highlights both the horror and the hope.

They allow 22 people from seven departments to recount their dramatic stories and personal perspectives with the modest ambition of adding depth and complexity to readers’ understanding of the country and to draw attention to a war that has endured for so long it has almost been forgotten.

The narratives are compelling and shocking, and no amount of hyperbole can do justice to the emotional and physical trauma suffered by these people.

We hear from María, a trade unionist attacked by paramilitaries on her doorstep in Medellín – and brutally disfigured – who continues to live in hiding out of fear of her assailants. We hear from Carmenza from Meta whose son became one of the “false positives” – poor civilians lured by the promise of work then executed by soldiers and subsequently portrayed as guerrillas in an effort to boost military “kill” rates. We hear from Felipe, a farmer in Cauca, whose former wife and three children were gunned down by paramilitaries in a massacre. And the list goes on …

The authors also point out an unnerving feature of such collective agony – the strange premonitions of impending violence that most of the narrators experienced. They write:

“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 … Episodes of violence are remembered as if they should have been foreseen.” [p. 18]

With humility, the authors also acknowledge that the conflict is messy and defies easy explanation: drugs, uneven land ownership, vengeance, political power and ideology have all played their part.

As, it must be said, has the US itself – a point only acknowledged directly at the back of the book within the appendices by contributor Adam Isacson, and in such a way as to tie US involvement primarily to the war against drugs.

Doug Stokes and Noam Chomsky would beg to differ. Stokes’ controversial and powerful book, America’s Other War, lays the blame for this conflict squarely at the feet of Washington.

He maintains that the US has long supported and funded a pervasive campaign of state violence in Colombia directed against both armed insurgents and a wide range of unarmed progressive social forces. The aim: to maintain its right to intervene in Latin American politics, maintain the pro-US Colombian state, protect US economic interests, and maintain strategic access to oil.

Against this backdrop, Throwing Stones at the Moon represents a contribution to this debate – but a limited one that, sadly, misses a good opportunity to associate the unimaginable levels of violence and terror that have been experienced by the ordinary Colombian people who populate the pages of this book with the foreign policy adopted by the country whose ordinary people, one hopes, will read it.

As demonstrated by the FARC’s recent call on Washington to release Simón Trinidad – one of their leaders imprisoned spuriously in the US – until more American citizens are made aware of that stark and uncomfortable association, this war is likely to go on and on.