Available for preorder now, Throwing Stones at the Moon, edited by Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening, is the next book in the Voice of Witness series.
For nearly five decades, Colombia has been embroiled in internal armed conflict among guerrilla groups, paramilitary militias, and the country’s own armed forces. Civilians in Colombia face a range of abuses from all sides, including killings, disappearances and rape—and more than four million have been forced to flee their homes. The oral histories in Throwing Stones at the Moon describe the most widespread consequence of Colombia’s human rights crisis: forced displacement. Narrators recount life before displacement, the reasons for their flight, and their struggle to rebuild their lives.
Today we’re running an excerpt from the book. To learn more about the Throwing Stones at the Moon visit voiceofwitness.org.
OCCUPATION: Street vendor
HOMETOWN: Ipiales, Nariño
INTERVIEWED IN: Pasto, Nariño1
Alfredo Romero has no memory of his parents. When he was two years old his mother went missing, and his grief-stricken father drowned himself in a river. His uncle raised him in Ipiales, a small city close to Colombia’s border with Ecuador. Alfredo started working at a mechanic’s shop when he was eight years old, and in 1988, when he was eighteen, he left Ipiales to seek his fortune in the coca-growing boom in the neighboring province of Putumayo. He bought a farm there, met his wife, and started a family. In 2002, FARC guerrillas falsely accused him of being a paramilitary2 informant, and gave him twenty-four hours to leave his farm. Alfredo moved with his wife and children to a farm in Patiía, Nariño province, where he continued to plant coca. In 2005, paramilitaries discovered that he had sold a batch of coca paste, an intermediate substance made during the cocaine-production process, to rival buyers. They tied him to a tree and attempted to force him to work for them. Alfredo fled his farm and tried his luck planting coca in a jungle-covered hamlet near the village of La Guayacana, in Tumaco, Nariño. In this narrative, Alfredo describes his third displacement, this time at the hands of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, which maintained a presence in the area along with the FARC and the Águilas Negras neo-paramilitary group.
Names in this narrative have been changed at the request of the narrator.
THESE AREN’T GUNSHOTS OF DEATH
On May 7, 2007 the ELN3 guerrillas called everyone in the hamlet to a meeting. They told us that they were going to be in combat with the army, and that we had to abandon our farms until they gave us the order to return. When there’s combat, the guerrillas make people in the area vacate their farms so that if the army starts winning, the guerrillas can take off their camouflage, hide their weapons, put on civilian clothes, and act as if they were the owners of the homes.
That day, I took off for the highway and left my farm behind, which was planted with six or seven hectares of coca.4 My wife and four children were living in Pasto at the time, because I didn’t like to have them on the farm around armed conflict and coca crops. So my dogs and the chickens were my only friends on the farm. When the guerrillas made me leave, I poured out half a sack of feed for them to nibble on.
I’d been sleeping at a friend’s house by the highway for five days, when I said to myself, The chickens must have finished the food by now. I told my friend, “I’m leaving.” He said, “Don’t go until the guerrillas give us the order to return.” But I said, “No, the chickens are going to die on me.”
I was going down the path toward my farm at five in the afternoon when I heard, “Hey, son of a bitch! Snitch bastard, didn’t we tell you not to come here?” The guerrillas had been on a hill about six meters above me from the path. Two of them shot at me, ra, ra, pum. I flew back about six meters into a gully as little bullets entered my leg, stomach and shoulder. I thought, These aren’t gunshots of death. I didn’t think the bullets were going to kill me.
As a guerrilla fighter came over to finish me off, I acted like I was dead. Then another guerrilla came and told him, “Don’t shoot anymore—the army will hear us. We have to retreat from here.” Then they left.
My entire right leg felt warm. I looked down and saw that my pant- leg was ground up. I felt high. I couldn’t feel my body and I heard a weeeeee sound in my ears. I told myself, Hang on, hang on. When I took off my shirt, my belly was full of bullet holes. My left arm was dead; I didn’t feel anything when I grabbed it. I couldn’t walk or defend myself, and I thought, God, don’t take me away yet. My children are really young. Don’t take me yet, don’t take me yet.
I was afraid that the guerrillas were going to come by and shoot me again, so I stayed there and didn’t make a lot of noise. They knew I was from the hamlet and must have thought I was spying for the army when they shot me. When they prohibit you from going to your farm, you shouldn’t go—and I’d disobeyed.
There, in the middle of the jungle, the mist falls when it gets dark, and the mosquitoes start to arrive. They went huyyyy in my ears and bit me. I could hear the frogs going ruak, ruak, ruak and the owl starting to yell buaaaaa.
What I was afraid of were the snakes, which really would have killed me. I said to myself, If a snake comes here, how am I going to defend myself if I can’t see anything? It was dark and I only had a machete, which is your companion in the countryside—you don’t go anywhere without it. If a snake arrived it would attack and retreat, attack and retreat, and finally leave me dead.
I took off my boot and there was a pool of blood in it. The jungle ants started arriving, to take it away. They wanted to climb up my legs.
I was terribly thirsty, and I saw that a water hose from a farm passed close by. But doctors say that when you have bullet wounds, you can’t drink water because you have holes inside of you and the water filters through your body. By around one in the morning I thought, How can I take it any longer? I said, Whatever God wants, took out my machete and chopped the hose. The water came and I drank until I was about to burst and then I vomited. I felt even thirstier, and I drank more.
I was in awful pain. My leg felt as if it were about to explode. I would try to sit up and my head would fall back down. But I kept my courage.
I thought about my children, and in the end I thought, God, forgive me for what I’ve done. If you’re going to take me, take me. If not, don’t make me suffer so much like this. I begged God and prayed “Our Father” and prayed the Creed: “I believe in almighty God, creator of heaven and Earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who was conceived by the work and grace of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under the power of Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried. He rose from among the dead, ascended to heaven, and is seated next to God the Father. He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and life everlasting. Amen.”
Then I thought, I want to sleep for a little while. I fell asleep at three or four in the morning and woke up close to seven in the morning.
What a scare when I woke up! My feet and legs were covered in big- bottomed black ants! They tickled. I slid them off with my hand and thought, If no one comes by the afternoon, I’ll die here.
At nine in the morning I heard a little noise and lifted my head up. I saw a neighbor from the hamlet and I said, “Hey, cousin”—because there in the Pacific coast you call black people ‘cousin’—“Cousin, help me out!” When he saw me, he came up to me and said, “What happened?” I said, “Quiet! I’ll tell you outside of the jungle.”
He went to find help and came back about fifteen minutes later with some forty people from the hamlet. They tied a blanket to a piece of wood to make a sort of hammock, hung me in the middle, and raced me eight kilometers to the highway without stopping. They would touch my feet to see if I was going to make it, because death enters through your feet—they go cold first. It took about an hour to get to the highway.
The army was on the highway, and at first they didn’t know if I was a guerrilla. The people carrying me said I was just a farm owner, and so the army took me to a medical post, where I was given fluids. My wife arrived at the post from Pasto. After about an hour, I was transferred to a hospital in the city of Tumaco, where I was given seven pints of blood. Twenty-five little bullets had entered my body. I was in surgery from eleven at night until three in the morning. The surgeon had cut out about a kilo of my guts, and replaced them with artificial guts.
The nerves in my left arm were damaged, so my fingers don’t work. My left arm is now 50 percent disabled, for life.
I was hospitalized in Tumaco for about three weeks. After I recovered, I called a friend of mine from La Guayacana and asked him to tell everyone who’d carried me out that I was going to go there on a certain day. I had them wait for me at an exit off the highway, and I went and gave each one of them a package of bread and cheese. I said to them, “Thank you very much, see you later.” I couldn’t stay there because the ELN has informants there and they would have killed me right away.
I went to live with my wife and kids in Pasto and never went back to that farm. I’ve requested reparations from the government for my arm since 2007, but I haven’t received anything yet. I’ve been thinking about going to Ecuador next year, because I see that here in Colombia there won’t be a solution for displaced people.
With just one arm, no one gives you work, so I started to work as a street vendor. When there are patron saint festivals in towns nearby, I go there to sell chips, lollipops, peanuts, cigarettes, cookies, and other little things. I have to always listen to the radio to see if there’s going to be a festival somewhere, and when there is, I take off for that town with my nine-year-old son. I stay for two or three days at the festival, sleeping at a house in town or in a tent on the sidewalk, and I make a little bit of money. For example, I buy little packs of peanuts for 350 pesos each and sell them for 500 pesos.5
When I sell things I’m happy. But when I don’t, I remember what I had on my three farms, what I left behind. To go around like I do after having had things before—there are times when I’m tempted to kill myself, drink poison. Then I’ll remember my kids and reconsider: have a bad hour, and let it pass. Throw some water on my face and look for something new.
1 Pasto, Patía, and La Guayacana are all false locations that were employed to protect the narrator’s identity.
2 Right-wing paramilitary groups began to form in Colombia in the early 1980s with the purported aim of fighting left-wing guerrillas. Backed by the military, landowners, drug traffickers, and political and economic elites, they murdered tens of thousands of civilians.
3 Founded in 1964, the National Liberation Army (ELN) is Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group.
4 The leaves of the coca plant are the raw material used in making cocaine.
5 About 20 U.S. cents and 28 cents, respectively.
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