The Price Of War And Amnesia In Colombia
I too can play the game of "I won't think about that, so it can't exist," like a character tells himself in Delirium, the novel by Colombian writer Laura Restrepo. Indeed, such mental games are a national character trait.
The country's principal cinema chain Cine Colombia refused last December to show a short trailer for the documentary There Was No Time for Grief, asking its maker, the National Center of Historical Memory to remove certain "crude scenes" deemed too shocking to watch. The documentary was a visual aid to the findings of a report the Center had compiled on civil conflict in Colombia since 1958.
It seems Cine Colombia did not want us to see what happens in the other Colombia — the one not shown on its screens. Fictional blood seems acceptable, but not real blood.
Here is a bit of non-fiction: 220,000 people murdered, of whom 81.5% were civilians and almost all peasants; 25,007 are still missing, more than twice those of all the military regimes of the continent's southern cone. There were 1,754 victims of sexual violence, 6,421 children recruited by armed groups and 27,023 kidnappings associated with the armed conflict from 1970 to 2010. Anti-personnel mines mutilated 10,189 people — almost as many as in Afghanistan — 8.3 million hectares of land were forcibly taken or abandoned.
"Why did we let this happen? Where was I when this was happening to millions of Colombians?" the report asks. It is difficult not to ask ourselves the same when reading it.
From 1994, history disappeared in Colombian schools as a separate, obligatory subject. An entire generation was born in a country at war, yet young people are growing up in cities and towns in total ignorance of that tragedy. The victims' inheritance is death, and living with death, while many of the rest of us inherit forgetfulness and denial.
Many cheered when Colombia's former conservative President Álvaro Uribe Vélez told an official he would "smash his face" next time he saw him, or when he told Venezuela's late socialist leader Hugo Chávez to tell him what he had to say "face-to-face, like a man."
What's in a name
You don't need to know any history to perceive the violence in Colombia — it's as easy as listening to a president speak, reading news readers' comments, observing the violence in schools or on social networks — or simply returning from abroad. The blood of so many dead, which we think so distant, and the history we deny are among us and have changed us.
The Uribe government left us a country filled with euphemisms and traps to help us escape our history. To misname things is to contribute to the world's miseries, Albert Camus said.
Among the terms that disappeared in the discourse of presidents and the chatter of the media are "armed conflict," "armed actors," "conflict participants" and "war." Cruelest of all was that we could no longer call the 5.7 million Colombians who had to abandon everything to escape death "refugees." Now they were simply "migrants."
The armed conflict took on a human face as these unfortunate families roamed the streets of the country's cities over the past 15 years. And testimonies freely given by paramilitaries following the 2005 disarmament and amnesty law — paramilitaries whose existence most Colombians justified at one time or other — have corroborated the oft-repeated claims of victims, which we would not hear: speaking of massacres, dismemberment, hidden graves, "murder schools."
The war and its basic causes as cited by the Leftist guerrillas persist. An unjust agrarian model, concentration of land ownership, a deeply unequal country and all the points the FARC rebels and Government envoys are currently discussing in Havana — these continue to exist. Indeed they remain the only source of legitimacy for guerrillas that have horribly distorted the causes they claim to defend.
There has been a stunning popular response to the report's publication, much stronger than was expected by the Historical Memory Center. If the war ends, the only place to turn to avoid the risk it returns is our memory.
Colombia has its greatest historical opportunity to attain peace. We need to adjust certain ethical discrepancies in a country that needed decades to accept it was killing itself. Journalism, literature, art and cinema will then have a crucial task. It is time to look at ourselves in the broken mirror of these misfortunes and restore to the unknown dead the only dignity we can give them — to remember what happened.
*Camilo Olarte, America Economia's correspondent in Mexico City, is a native of Colombia.