This week marks the release of Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives from Colombians Displaced by Violence, the ninth title from Voice of Witness. Here, editors Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening sit down with Stephen Ferry, photographer and author of Violentology: A Manual of the Colombian Conflict, to discuss their work recording the oral histories of Colombians whose lives have been touched by the country’s decades-long internal armed conflict.
(Also: Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening are on tour! Click here for a schedule of appearances.)
Stephen Ferry: Both of you came to this project with deep experience in Colombia and years of investigating and reporting on the Colombian conflict behind you. What did you learn about the war from making this book?
Sibylla Brodzinsky: As a journalist, I have covered Colombia and its conflict for more than a decade. Having interviewed actors on all sides and countless victims of their atrocities, I thought I had a grasp of its complexities and nuances. But when we started interviewing people for Throwing Stones at the Moon, I realized how little I understood.
The most revealing part of each narrator’s story for me was not the moment of their displacement nor the event that provoked it, but rather the backstory—the details of their lives before fleeing. It is there that one comes to understand what life is like for hundreds of thousands of Colombians living in the shadow of one or another armed group, having to conform to the arbitrary dictates of a local guerrilla leader or paramilitary chief or even the commander of a local military base. As much as those affected by bombs and mortar attacks, and murders and massacres are victimized by the war, so too are those Colombians quietly living under the gun of these groups, trying to survive.
SF: Many of the people who relate their stories have suffered displacement for opposing the will of armed actors, for resisting the domination of these armed groups on the right and left of the political spectrum. Do you feel that Colombia has become safer for civilians or that armed groups continue to control much of the population and territory?
Max Schoening: Armed groups, criminal organizations and their allies have historically employed forced displacement to tighten their grip over communities in Colombia. Dissent—whether expressed through activism, not paying an extortion payment, or refusing to offer your child to guerrilla or paramilitary ranks—can make you a prime target for being forced out of town, or even killed. Despite overall security improvements in Colombia over the past decade, armed groups continue to exert this type of pressure on civilians in many places throughout the country. While it often occurs in remote areas and doesn’t make headlines, it is nevertheless suffocating, corrodes fundamental freedoms, and uproots people from their homes. The price that many Colombians have had to pay for asserting their basic rights make the book’s stories of resisting violence and pursuing justice all the more remarkable.
SF: For me, the oral histories compiled in Throwing Stones at the Moon often reveal a surprisingly intimate, personal side to the armed conflict. What do you think about the role of family and domestic violence in the overall war?
MS: The impact of violence and displacement on the narrators’ family lives is a central theme throughout the book. While the episodes of abuse and flight are in themselves devastating, perhaps the greatest tragedy plays out in the enduring effects they have on the family—which is often the bedrock of meaning in the narrators’ lives.
There are cases like Mariana Camacho’s—right-wing paramilitaries killed her two sons and disappeared her husband. For the past decade her husband’s unknown fate has haunted the family, who deeply longs to recover his remains.
Narrators’ love for their families is also often their main source of strength in surviving the severe hardship of displacement, and in many instances, the motivation for seeking justice against all odds. Julia Torres’ story spans from the moment her eyes first met her husband’s up until he is killed for attempting to recover their stolen farm. We see how her love for him fuels her courage to continue his struggle to reclaim their land.
And finally there are stories like Alicia Zabala’s, where there is a striking continuity between the armed conflict and her personal life. Her father’s beatings as a child nearly caused her to join the same FARC guerrillas that ultimately killed her cousin and displaced her family years later. She suspects that her boyfriend at the time participated in the murder.
SF: The FARC guerrillas and the government have just announced they will begin peace talks in October. What prospects for peace do you see for the country?
SB: Without wanting to seem overly optimistic, I would say this appears to be the most serious effort ever to actually end the conflict. Both the FARC and the government appear to be going to the negotiation table with the genuine desire to reach a definitive deal to end a conflict that has raged for half a century.
Unfortunately, a peace deal alone will not bring peace to Colombia, as the FARC are but one of the factors of violence that affect the civilian population. The social control over many areas of the country applied by neo-paramilitary groups, which are mostly dedicated to drug trafficking, continues to displace thousands. Leaders of groups trying to recover land stolen by rightwing paramilitaries and guerrillas are under constant threat and dozens have been killed.
And the question arises of how much of the FARC rank and file the rebel leaders will actually be able to demobilize in the case of a peace deal. The FARC are said to number 9,400 fighters but there is concern that some rebel units may go rogue. All of these elements bode a less-than-peaceful post-conflict scenario.
SF: How did the process of making this book, of listening with great intensity to so many stories of violence and struggle, affect you emotionally and spiritually?
SB: The connections we made with the narrators in Throwing Stones at the Moon were powerful and personal. During the interviews, I often found myself trying to hold back my own tears—often unsuccessfully—while listening to their pain, frustration, anger and desperation. I wanted to do something immediate and urgent to relieve their suffering, brought once again to the surface, I feared, by retelling their stories to us.
There are scenes from the narrator’s lives that haunt me and I am awed by the ability of those who actually lived through them to continue to hope, love, laugh and live. Their strength, determination and energy are an inspiration.
MS: Throwing Stones at the Moon is an emotionally intense book. I think it’s impossible to assimilate the magnitude of loss experienced by the narrators. I usually found myself retelling the stories to close friends or family. But the trouble I had absorbing or grappling with the stories clearly pales in comparison to actually having lived and remembered them.
It was painful for many narrators to recount their stories, but I also often saw that it was empowering, and hopefully it helped them cope with their traumas. I’d like to think that, like Sibylla and I, readers will continue this chain of oral histories by sharing with others what they’ve read, and through this deepen their understanding and connection to the human consequences of this conflict.
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