Colombia’s Displaced People Speak Out in New Oral History Collection

Before right-wing paramilitaries came to kill and torture the people of Emilia González's* farming community on Colombia's Caribbean coast, they more or less sent a holiday card. "Enjoy yourselves on New Year's Eve," read the pamphlets the paras floated down from a helicopter. "Kill a turkey, make sancocho, be happy - because later on, just wait." González and the rest of her village didn't have to wait very long. The next month, a helicopter rained bullets instead.

González is one of 23 Colombians to tell her story in “Throwing Stones at the Moon” (out September 12 from the nonprofit book series Voice of Witness), a collection of first-person accounts from people who have been displaced by the violence that has plagued the country since the 1948 assassination of the populist presidential frontrunner at the time, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, set off a civil conflict split down party lines. Journalist Sibylla Brodzinsky and Human Rights Watch researcher Max Schoening** took on the role of oral historians and spent two years interviewing people across the country, from the Andes and the Amazon to the cities and the eastern plains. The narrators they found are ordinary people caught in a conflict that grows more tangled with every decade. Paramilitary groups demobilize and spawn new versions of themselves, guerillas like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (better known as the FARC) fight them for territory and power, and the elaborate hierarchies and expert criminality of cocaine traffickers weave through them all, seeding more violence with money for weapons and personnel. Any attempt to describe the conflict in short is a bold oversimplification, but suffice it to say that for every acre of land in Colombia, there is someone with a gun who wants to grow coca, bananas, or palm oil there – or mine for gold, or graze cattle, or skip the honest work altogether and extort whoever passes through for as many pesos as possible.

“It is the most serious humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere,” Brodzinksy told Truthout in an interview about the book. The only other country whose people have been forced to flee their homes in such numbers – an estimated 5 million – is Sudan. Colombia’s internal refugees, along with others who fled to Ecuador, are primarily farmers, and so far they have left behind over 16 million acres of land.

Many stories in “Throwing Stones at the Moon” begin with scenes from peaceful lives raising crops and livestock, until a rumor, a threat or a gunshot announces the arrival of a new order that turns them upside down. But while the book is a valuable document of crimes against humanity, it doesn’t read like an inventory of brutality. The beautifully edited transcripts that make up “Throwing Stones at the Moon” feel less like a written record and more like a story you listen to, tense but not traumatized, heartbroken but not depressed. Despite chilling details like the New Year’s greeting-card death threat, the narrators’ personal sensibilities dominate the book, and their voices can be heard even in the subtitles that punctuate their stories:

“I like the machete and I work like a man.”

“Cocaine was passed around like hors d’oeuvres.”

“I began to feel guilty for confronting things.”

“Everything I’ve loved, my God has taken away.”

“Love and tranquility reigned.”

“Who’s going to give me that kiss now?”

There seems to be something about the oral history form that is especially suited to tell the stories of violent conflict while leaving the subject’s dignity – and the reader’s psyche – intact. Brodzinsky and Schoening have a few ideas about what that something is.

“As a journalist, when you interview a victim or someone who’s witnessed some atrocity, you always know that there’s this incredible story behind it, but you only have so much space and so much time to actually get that story,” said Brodzinsky. “The amazing thing about this format is that, you know, to a large extent, what’s important is not what happened, really; it’s how people felt, and what people thought.”

Entire Article Here: Colombia’s Displaced People Speak Out in New Oral History Collection.

About Kurly Tlapoyawa (1010 Articles)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: