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

(Image: McSweeney's)

Throwing Stones at the Moon
Edited by Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening
Voice of Witness/McSweeney’s
San Francisco, 2012

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.”

What happens when survivors of conflict share their personal experiences unmediated by experts and statistics and their lives can assume the role of both context and content? The powerful combination of authority and intimacy in the stories in “Throwing Stones at the Moon” is a compelling answer to that question. Forget the debate about whether the personal is political: these stories annihilate the distinction altogether. And they shed other rhetorical deadweight in the process, too.

“There has been a huge, concerted effort by the Colombian government to re-brand the country” and bury its troubled image, said Schoening. The PR stunt meets little resistance in US officialdom, thanks at least partly to what he sees as “the need for a success story and model in the global war on terror/drugs, and to praise and reward a steadfast ally in a region increasingly distant from Washington.” Colombia was the sixth-largest recipient of US aid dollars between 2000 and 2011, with a grand total of $8 billion going primarily to the country’s military and police. Its former president, Álvaro Uribe, was one of the only Latin American leaders to support the Iraq invasion in 2003.

At the other end of the myth spectrum are pervasive stereotypes about the source and nature of country’s conflicts. “Colombia can become very decontextualized, the way it’s understood, typically, as a lawless country that’s engulfed in drug violence, and there’s this idea that it’s a cultural violence,” said Schoening. It’s hard to imagine how 23 people can undo a misperception so deep it borders on foregone conclusion, but the book’s narrators pull it off with the simple – if daunting – act of describing their lives in their own words. The result “challenges the notion that it’s just some kind of inevitable perpetual violence of a country of people that are just inherently violent,” said Schoening. It also makes clear that Colombians’ human rights have been – and continue to be – violated on a massive scale.

Politicians have trade deals to sign and allies to appease, but do ordinary people have something to gain by distancing ourselves – with semi-conscious biases about “cultural violence,” for example – from the suffering of others? That nagging sense of powerlessness, maybe, or despair, or anger. Or maybe we’re not avoiding it altogether – maybe the tendency to ignore horrific truths just hasn’t been challenged in the right way. “Throwing Stones at the Moon” has some of the same ingredients as Nancy Updike and Larry Kaplow’s report for This American Life after the 2010 Iraq troop withdrawal, when Updike observed that “Iraqis haven’t developed some special mid-East super immunity to violence, just because they’ve seen a lot of it.” Mid-East super immunity? What a tasteless idea, right? Except, didn’t it sound slightly familiar? Enough that the shock of hearing it might have jolted listeners into seeing people in Iraq – and themselves – a little differently?

Maria Victoria Jiménez’s story is kind of like that. Jiménez is a bacteriologist, labor union president and expert porro dancer. Jiménez is a survivor of an attempt on her life, when assailants, probably in retaliation for her reporting of corruption at the hospital where she worked, stabbed her seven times in the chest and face as she entered her mother’s farm after work. Jiménez has lived through some of the most terrifying events life could possibly deliver, but she is not a member of some mythic club of survivors who understand the true nature of evil. “Maybe if I’d participated more when I was a student, I’d have had a well-formed outlook about who people really are, and I would have better grasped evil,” she says. “I knew that people in Colombia killed, but I never thought that people I knew would be capable of going so far.”

And that is one of the hardest parts of reading the book. Over and over, people describe the days and sometimes hours or minutes before their agonizing decision to leave. The real-life implications of their stories couldn’t be more clear, but somehow it’s still easy to react like someone shouting at the screen of a suspense film: Go, go, they’re right behind you! What’s taking you so long?

“A lot of these farmers are literally chopping down jungle and planting these farms. It’s a lifetime of work,” said Schoening. While death may be literally at their doorstep, they are weighing that risk against leaving their entire livelihood behind, and often everything else except for their physical bodies. After that loss, many struggle to hold onto the internal qualities that make them who they are. A rancher who used to barter for cattle over beers in town is isolated from the social habits that were part of his prosperity. Jiménez dances alone in her room with a kitchen knife, pepper spray and bulletproof vest at her bedside.

“It’s almost a cliché in Colombia, for people who follow the conflict, that it’s an incredibly complex country, but that cliché was consistently re-affirmed through the interviews,” said Schoening. “Sometimes there’s no clear reason why they’ve necessarily been persecuted.” While the book is explicitly presented as a work that won’t offer explanations or analysis, the web of confusion that envelops the narrators as their lives disintegrate at home and in hiding can make for frustrating reading. The book ends with a short reference section that helps fill the gaps with big-picture facts and figures, but more than anything, it confirms that the sense of vertigo lingering after the personal stories is simply a testament to their accuracy.

In Colombia the word for extortion payment, vacuna, literally means “vaccine,” but no one is immune to the violence there. While farmers and landowners are some of the most frequently targeted, Supreme Court justices, urban activists and labor leaders have lost their lives in the conflict, and loyalties among the armed groups are fickle: one paramilitary leader was killed by a rival group that included his own brother. Because the conflict is unpredictable and ongoing, the stories in “Throwing Stones at the Moon” often came at great emotional and physical risk to the narrators and sometimes, the editors. “In smaller communities, or even smaller cities where we would meet with people, people were generally concerned that there may be informants or people monitoring who we were or why we were talking with people,” said Brodzinsky. “Some meetings happened in town squares with a lot of sort of looking over the shoulder.” A book created when the stakes are that high lends new urgency to a universal question: How much power does a story really have?

“We had very little to offer these people,” said Brodzinsky. “In a lot of cases, people asked if they were going to get some sort of humanitarian aid for sharing their stories, and that is not the scope of the project.” The book is the tenth in the Voice of Witness series, which includes others on Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, and the United States and focuses not on aid but on public awareness and educational partnerships.

“Generating more interest in what’s going on there can help push for the types of reforms that will help protect human rights there and help displaced people,” said Schoening, “but obviously that’s a very long chain of events for the book to actually result in concrete impact for people’s lives.” And yet, he points out, many narrators “felt empowered by the fact that they were able to make their story known, and that it wasn’t going to just, you know, remain an untold tragedy.”

That word – “empowered” – is at risk of being loved to death in both mainstream and grassroots development circles. But a book like “Throwing Stones at the Moon” might actually deserve to use it. Its narrators have lived through extraordinary suffering, and that is part of their stories’ worth – but more importantly, they are experts in their own lives. They are the only people who know exactly what has been lost in a conflict that has denied attempts at resolution for over six decades. Amado Villafaña of the indigenous Arhuaco knows his people’s spiritual leaders lost their authority when the guerrillas took over part of the Sierra Nevada. Felipe Aguilar knows he lost his wife’s respect when the financial pressures of leaving their farm ended their relationship. And Ramón Santamaría knows he lost every peso of “devil’s money” he made as a cocaine lab manager when he fled up the Orinoco River to escape an attempt on his life.

The book’s title comes from a narrator describing a sense of powerlessness that echoes through many of the stories. But the storytelling itself has power, and while it’s hard to say why or how much, it begins with a question in the reader’s mind: What would it take for me to leave my home today without looking back?

On their September 12-October 1 tour, Brodzinsky and Schoening will speak to audiences at several East Coast universities and bookstores and at the Institute for Policy Studies.

*The book employs pseudonyms and alters other identifying details at the request of many narrators, including González, in order to ensure their safety.

**Schoening’s and Brodzinsky’s comments for this review represent their personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations with which they are affiliated.

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