click here to read the introduction: My Vacation in Colombia

 

Lo unico necesario el triunfo de los malvados,
es que los hombres buenos no hagan nada.”

—Edmund Burke
(on the wall at the union hall)

In the Presence of the Disappeared

 

1. BOGOTA

(Colombia’s capital, Bogota, is 8,500
feet above sea level and has more miles of
bicycle lanes than any other city in the world.)


From the summit of Montserrat,
the city stretches so far
up, down and across the valley
that it disappears in mist
whichever way you look

So the tourists who ride the cable car
up for the view today won’t see
the miles of suburban
shantytowns— las casas de carton
that surround Bogota like
a siege of orphans,
an hour’s bus ride away.

Blood of the struggle

Inside a white cathedral at the top
of the windswept stairway,
a white man with long blond hair
wearing a gilt brocade sarong
kneels where he has fallen,
encased in plate glass
above the altar, one hand
already nailed to the cross

Bodies of the martyrs

While in the back of the church,
electric candles flicker
over black steel boxes,
chained and padlocked,
with generous slots for donations
and plaques of every size,
shape, style, material,
and workmanship line the walls
pledging eternal gratitude
for miracles granted—

Wine and bread

And on a sister summit nearby
the Virgin of Guadalupé,
carved in dazzling white stone,
blesses the endless barrios
with outstretched arms
on behalf of the steep green slopes
behind her— the Andes,
untamed by the steel strut
of high-tension electric towers.

I stand here feeling strangely
safe, looking back,
far from the left-wing guerillas,
the right-wing paramilitaries,
the extrajudicial executions,
the forced conscriptions,
the aerial fumigations,
the kidnappings and massacres,
narcotrafficantes and terroristas
right, left and center . . .

But even now I feel it:
like a shadowy shroud woven entirely
of names never called aloud
that shimmers invisibly against the sunlight,
I feel the crowded, suffocating
presence
of the disappeared.

Peace is my country, wherever I find it.
I left a nation at war
to go looking.
Not that I understood this then,
standing on the bloodsoaked
land of my birth.
I came to Colombia
because of a lifelong habit of saying
yes. And here,
among the poorest victims of war,
my country was waiting.

 

2. BARRANCABERMEJA

(The river port of Barrancabermeja, on the Magdalena River,
is the center of Colombia’s oil and gasoline industry, and
an epicenter of violent conflict. Christian Peacemaker
Teams maintains an ongoing presence there.)


“Thank you for coming to Colombia,”
said the businessman
sitting next to me on the little
propeller plane, after I explained
that my business here
was peace. His was petroleum.
Together we watched as
a break in the clouds revealed only
more clouds: then a darker
mountain ridgeline: at last
the green campo, the countryside,
disappearing and appearing,
eventually solid enough
to land an airplane on.

The official greeter in Barrancabermeja
is the airport crucifix,
pinned to the wall high over our heads.
Blood of the struggle
But the unofficial greeter
is the airport kitty, slipping in and out
through walls designed
like most walls in Barranca
for maximum ventilation.

Buzzards are already circling
the scent of sweaty gringos,
but the flock of yellow taxicabs is
quicker, and before we know it
we’ve joined an uptempo dance
of bicycles, motorbikes, buses and taxis
through the one-story neighborhoods
of Barrancabermeja, tripping
into some non-Euclidean space
between metaphor and hallucination.

Each bus is painted to outdo the others,
blaring popular tunes.
Every traffic median is a market,
colorful baskets of fruit and vegetables
innocently extending the curb—
the guitar vendor, seven
guitar-cases strapped to his body—
a man pushing a pig in an orange T-shirt
on a two-wheeled cart,
a bright green bird on a TV antenna,
open-air Bingo—

That first night in Barranca, while we slept,
three men and a woman
were assassinated on those streets.
Fourteen, we learned, in the past ten days.
Bodies of the martyrs
Executed without the dignity
of a trial, without even the indignity of arrest.
Eight others had simply
disappeared.
A slow, quiet, poisonous form of torture
for the ones left waiting.

“Don’t look for the assassins.
We killed him. You have one hour
to resign from the union or die.”

Back home, only presidents and statesmen
are deemed worthy of “assassination.”
Here it’s union organizers,
teachers, soccer coaches, ministers . . .
But once you meet them you understand:
these who are threatened with death
for their love of the living
are easily the equal of a president back home,
as far as character goes:
sweet-faced hombrés with eyes
that shine like pools of coffee
or petroleum, an office full of women
whose laughter erupts like sugarcane
from riverbottom earth,
a plump padré, preaching
against the sin of machismo with emotion
dug from the coal mines
deep in his chest,
one Colombiano dark like chocolate,
one pale like cocaine
working together for the return
of the disappeared . . .

“Any liberated person can create liberty
in any given space.”

Courage has a face:
it’s no abstraction here.
So many died.
Their photographs line the union hall.
Like the eternal flame
atop the highest tower of the refinery,
the impossible example
of too many fallen
compañeros y compañeras
burns on.

“When the moment comes for sacrifice,
both leaders and members are ready.”

In the front of the church,
a long-haired white man with no nipples
hangs bleeding against
a giant street-map of three parishes.
It doesn’t occur to me till after
the priest has said the early-morning mass
and passed the Eucharist—
Wine and bread
And maybe it never entered the minds
of the brown-skinned ones
around me— how their ancestors
mistook Cortez and Pizarro for gods,
and brown people have been
dying for white people ever since.
Why not grant them, at least
once a week, a glimpse of one gringo’s
perpetual death-agony, one at least
dying for them?

“A mother of a para hurts just as much
as a mother of a guerilla.”

But even here in the church,
beneath the murmur of prayers
en Español, I can feel it:
like waves of whispers that echo
in the vast underground caverns
of unheeded conscience
under skyscrapers and factories, steadily
wearing away the bedrock, I feel
the unexplainable, undeniable presence
of the disappeared.

Colombians killing Colombians
down in Colombia is none of our
business, it’s tempting to say. But business
is exactly what it is—
sugar, cocoa, coffee, cocaine, coal, petroleum—
the addictions that built empire
after empire and called it
“civilization”— and who can claim
a life or livelihood untainted
by the lies of history?
Down here in Colombia they call denial
by name: the ancient
Lei de Silencio, the Law of Silence.

 

3. THE RIVER OPON

(Displaced when right-wing paramilitaries took over the area, several
small fishing and farming villages along the River Opon have now
returned home from the nearby city of Barrancabermeja, with
the accompaniment of Christian Peacemaker Teams.)

 

Now I know how the driftwood feels.
Running fast and flush
with last night’s rain, the river
carries its floating cargo of sticks and debris
in perfect formation, smooth and serene.
Even pushing upstream in our
outboard canoe of welded steel,
I feel the pull of the river’s journey down
to join the Magdalena, learn to float
effortlessly homeward with every breath,
so that stepping ashore
over one of the dugout canoes
tied along this muddy bank
since ancient times, I still feel its current
bearing me along.

(Blood of the struggle)

On cool, clean-swept dirt floors,
in the shade of
soot-blackened ceiling-thatch
walled with hand-cut planks
that barely show the marks of the chainsaw,
they welcome us to the campo
with rice, beans, beets, and fruit fresh
from the trees in the front yard:
smiling people of every
shade of brown, from river to topsoil,
surrounded by just as many
persuasions of green,
one man petting a bright parakeet
that rides his shoulder
while chickens, ducks and pigeons
scramble for the tidbits we toss—

“Why is such a rich region so poor?
Why in a region that loves life so much
is there so much killing?”

It’s a beautiful river, señor.
But where’s the trash?

The occasional scrap of litter
startles me, all the more strange
for the unfamiliar logo
and brand name en Español.
Grapefruit, orange, banana, lime, guava,
coconut, cacao, papaya, starfruit,
corn, bean, plantain
all come with packaging that efficiently rots
into rich, dark fertilizer.
The earth is so alive here,
the fenceposts take root and sprout leaves!
The corn in every field stands
twice as tall as I am!
Such a beautiful country, señor.
But where are all the tourists?

“Colombia has had a death machine
for political killing for many years.”

(Bodies of the martyrs.)

“Paz sin Armas, Paz sin Miedo”
plead the banners we pass
here and there along the riverbank,
tied between the trees—
“Peace without arms, Peace without fear.”
Two of them we find split
precisely down the middle: not sliced,
just rotting in the tropical humidity
as fabric will. As the fabric of la paz
too often has. One banner
has been knotted back together;
soon the other one is.

“The peace process
was frustrated by both sides.”

Skipping over the open water of Lake Opon,
past flocks of waterbirds in flight
and swooping electric cables,
gradually we can make out the main
village, swarming with soldiers.
Only when we land our canoes do we see
the boyish adolescent faces
looking out of crisp new jungle fatigues,
from behind heavy black steel
weapons, smiling, scowling, shy—
the same colors and expressions
as all the other faces we’ve seen,
but only one haircut.

“Women don’t give birth to children for war.
We’re the ones
who have to bring back the bodies
and put them in the ground,
without any way to do it.
So often we don’t even have time to cry.

The campesinos of the world—
the peasants— seem to have no choice
but courage. They stay,
enduring everything, no matter what—
where can they go?
—until it’s time to flee for their lives.
They carry what they can, bravely
abandoning all they know.
And still, again, forever, where can they go?

We gringos have no choice, either.
We can’t escape
the invisible privilege
that automatically accrues to pale skin
almost anywhere in the world.
But some have found a way
to put even this to good use.
They call it “accompaniment”:
one of the few known
treatments for the disease
of displacement,
preventive medicine for the epidemic
of assassination.
And a year after the people of the Opon
began to come home
to their cornfields and fruit trees,
their soccer fields and schools, the army finally arrived
to guarantee their “military security.”

“It’s a lie that the government is
winning the war. The only solution is
political, and neither side wants it.”

Ah, this is truly and simply the lap
of luxury: porcelain.
It doesn’t even have to be
white. Who needs a tank,
a ballcock, a handle?
The rain barrel is right outside the door,
its dipper dangling, the two-story
concrete cistern casting
long-legged shadows across the dew
while water swirls, vanishing
into a septic tank under the long grass
and the sky ripens from papaya
to mango . . .

(Wine and bread)

The jaguar roaring in my tent
turned out to be someone
snoring two tents over,
but still I carry home with me
my relatives the heron, the cormorant,
the egret, two macaws
flying over the river at dusk— trees
that branch in unexpected directions,
orchids blooming along their limbs,
hundreds of feet up—
the bamboo, plantain, yucca, sugarcane
that line the shore and
the occasional homestead where
someone invariably waves—
the horizontal tree over the water
that points out how to live
in balance
on a steadily eroding riverbank
in the Colombian campo

“Peace is: a life of dignity,
the right to food and shelter.”

But up on the empty soccer field
next to the graveyard
overlooking the lake,
like a thundering of horses so far away
I heard it only with my feet,
like a shiver traveling up my bones
to rattle my jaw against my skull
and wake my tongue,
like a tingling in my lips
and fingertips I could feel
the solemn, helpless
presence of the disappeared.

The innocent Americans
can’t imagine that anyone
in a suit and tie
would ever lie to them.
But every murderer needs an alibi,
and if your government
was still spending your taxes
to exterminate whole tribes,
languages, cultures
from the endless frontier,
wouldn’t you really rather be
the last to know?
La Lei de Silencio.
What you pretend not to know
doesn’t hurt.

 

4. BARRANCABERMEJA AGAIN

(After losing a soccer match to some of the village players,
our delegation returned to Barranca for two more days
of meetings with non-governmental organizations.)


The river of yellow taxis too
seems swollen with the rain,
its hosanna of horns
and incense of exhaust fumes
even louder and smokier
after the quiet of the campo.

Two-wheelers are everywhere,
darting past the cars and buses,
all the motorbike riders in their helmets
and numbered vests—

Every sloping street becomes
its own gutter when it rains.
The sentinel pigeons desert their posts:
not the paramilitary spies
watching the waterfront.
The buzzards give up their circular
patrols: not the runners
for the paramilitary protection racket.
It’s known as “Secure democracy.”

“8,000 pesos per month to the paras
for so-called ‘security.’ Where is the state?”

A little boy sitting in front of his papa,
learning to steer the motorbike—

Yet no one will say the guerillas
were much different.
Some even switched sides
when the takeover came. Now I start to see.
The lines down the center of the street
are guidelines, not boundary lines.
Motorbikes weave down the middle
on whichever side is empty at the moment.
“Democratic security,” it’s called.

“The definition of a civil war depends
on the legal status of the armed actors.”

A man with a dog trotting beside him,
tied with a plastic string
to the spare wheel mounted
on the back of his motorbike—

Green and fertile, mountainous
and tropical, cursed with veins
of buried riches, Colombia
is a natural market for guns.
Once you’re armed, why work for a living?
Foreigners bleed off four-fifths
of the profits every year, anyway.
Sending money home from exile
is the second largest industry!
On someone’s map of the future,
new hydroelectric dams
export power to California, flooding
ancient Andean valleys, a new canal
links the Amazon to the Pacific . . .

That universal gesture,
rubbing all four fingertips across
the tip of the thumb—
the ideology of narcoterrorists
and multinationals alike.
“Secure democracy,” they call it.

“Drugs are the most powerful engine
of struggle in Colombia.”

A man pedaling his bicycle
with a stack of reclaimed lumber
across his shoulder—

Spanish is a lover’s
language, says the song.
So where does a translator find the words
for death by dismemberment,
hired killers with chainsaws,
pregnant women slashed open,
body parts delivered to loved ones
in a plastic garbage bag?
Blood of the struggle
(Remember, this is what we watch
for entertainment up north
between commercials for our
other addictions . . .)
It translates, “Democratic security.”

“The judicial backlog is extreme.
Impunity is the biggest problem.”

A family on their motorbike,
man in front, woman holding on, little girl
sandwiched between,
baby riding on his mama’s back—

Where are the detectives
to investigate these murders?
Lined up back to back
from prime time to the late night re-runs
in a country that sends down
billions in military aid to stop the violence,
year after year after year!
Bodies of the martyrs
And what crooked bookkeeper keeps track
of expenditures for chainsaws
and garbage bags
to improve the business climate
by eliminating unions down south?
Enter it under
“Secure democracy.”

“Privatization is coming. We can’t stop it.
We can only resist to save our dignity.”

A man on the back of a motorbike
towing a load, one handle
of the wheelbarrow in each hand—

Not just for complaining after the fact,
the horn is an instrument
as essential to the drivers here
as steering wheel or brakes.
An extra yellow light always heralds the green.
But the true secret of the
impromptu choreography of these streets
slowly seeps in. No traffic cops
enforce the signs and stoplights.
The drivers seem to simply
trust: some in Jesus and the Virgin,
the saints and angels, some
in nothing but the other driver’s
naked will to survive,
some perhaps in the eternal
closeness of death.

“Recipients of U.S. military aid
must be cleared of human rights violations
by every agency in this Embassy.”

The rented washing machine, arriving
on a trailer towed by a motorbike—

Pale virgins stand in solitary shrines
along the country roads,
some with holy babes in arms,
as if continuously
begging the blessing of Heaven
on helpless passengers,
innocent pedestrians, unarmed
children and other bystanders . . .

“We hope you won’t get tired— the situation
will get worse. Your cards and letters
have saved lives in this region.”

A woman waiting behind her husband
on a motorbike at the light,
loosely cradling a toddler on her thigh
who stares with wide, calm eyes
through my window
till we both begin to move—

Wine and bread

Of course, the only slow taxi
is the one you catch
when you’re late for the airport.
But even there
in the back seat,
like an invisible cloud of witnesses
testifying to the crimes against them
in a voice like a pursuing wind,
even there you can feel it:
the untraceable, inescapable presence
of the disappeared.

To murder the innocent
only betrays your fear.
But the Blackhawk helicopters
and M-16s are just the first wave.
In any war against civilians,
the key objective is the conquest
of hope itself. Padlock
the schools! Barricade the hospitals!
Restructure the economy!
Privatize! Deregulate!
Some foreign corporation
is busy trucking in fiftyfive-gallon
drums of poison as we speak—
“Hey! Need a job, señor?”

 

5. PEREIRA

(Pereira is a city in the coffee-producing region, where
the violence in Colombia crops up only rarely. Friends
who grew up there took me to a hot spring nearby.)


The man next to us
on the commuter jet
spends the whole flight muttering prayers.
My friend laughs, but who knows?
Odds are, it’s a rare flight that doesn’t carry
at least one person praying,
and who can prove those aren’t
precisely the ones that go down?

Rocky escarpments west of Bogota
disappear in cloud fragments
that gradually solidify as we lift away.
The big river I can occasionally see
winding below my window
deadends into an even bigger one:
the Magdalena, another passenger
informs me from the seat ahead,
practicing his English:
“Colombia’s Mississippi.”

Water droplets
find each other somehow, high in the air,
accumulating slowly into shapes
they never tire of improvising
till the lush, grief-stained land disappears
under a peaceful country
of sunlit cirrocumulus towering
over vales of shadow—

“It is the obligation of the Colombian government
to provide a situation where we can
determine our own destiny.”

Greasy footprints
out on the wing of the plane,
invisible a moment ago,
catch the sun all of a sudden like
hieroglyphs of fire, and once again I feel
the silent, watching
presence of the disappeared.

*      *      *

As every soldier must be prepared
to shoot on command,
marksmanship be damned,
a true poet must be ready
to fall in love at a glance, deeply,
gratefully, at least
once or twice a day— but here
in this country of wild mulatto beauty
wherever I glance I sense,
peering from the deep
subterranean shadows
of long black braids and Indian eyes,
the unseen, unmistakable presence
of the disappeared.

“As punishment for defying them,
they cut all the hair off kids and women,
even their eyebrows.”

*      *      *

The waterfall comes
splashing down so gently
from so far above,
pausing only
to pirouette a second
on every pinnacle of its
descent
like some daredevil ballerina,
that it immediately
makes me want to pee.

In the open-air men’s room
on the third floor of the little
brick hotel
at the end of a gravel road,
the toilet tank is running.
It doesn’t seem to matter,
cupped in this steep
forested grotto
reverberating with the endless
padded steps of falling water,
green bursts
of blooming vegetation
crowding the slopes, as if each leaf
has just this instant been born—
banana leaves, elephant ears,
bamboo, palm, palmetto, and one
solitary evergreen, stiff and formal
like a lone tourist in evening wear
among the natives—

Beside the flowerpots
and white bannisters of the hotel,
above the cataract
where the waterfall thunders through,
a steaming hot spring comes plunging
into one end of the pool,
a cold clean shower crashing down the rocks
at the other. And as if all that
is not enough, the hotel hospitably provides
rock ‘n’ roll en Español
via loudspeaker, powered
by a mountain rivulet
piped into a humble red-painted shed:
the hotel’s own private
hydroelectric plant.

The unarmed security guard
out at the gate only searched my bag
for liquor— forbidden competition
for the bar inside.
At the airport, leaving Barranca,
they searched it three times!
We are far from the gun-toting narcos,
the union-busting thugs,
the army units operating out of uniform,
the assassins and kidnappers
of left, right and center,
far from the mercenary cropdusters
saturating vegetable plots,
coca plants and children alike
down in Putumayo with poison,
far from the paramilitary raids
on Indian villages across the border
in Venezuela and Panama—

But even here, lying back
in the warm pool, sipping the best
tapwater I ever tasted,
I can feel it:
like an enormous choir of small,
rainbow-feathered angels
singing their majestic chorus at sunrise
in total silence, I still feel
the patient, unrelenting presence
of the disappeared.

The rumble of a mountain river,
hand-made spoons and spatulas
slotted on their nails,
scrap lumber pile out back,
the smile of a stranger
as he hands you a plate— some things
are the same wherever you go.
But tell that to the Sunday Christians who are
stockholders the rest of the week,
studying their portfolios like Holy Scripture,
tracking their numbers like beads
of a rosary, faithful
all their lives to the sacred vow:

la Lei de Silencio . . .

On the drive back to town,
the mountains around us
gradually disappear in the arriving
rain.

Blood of the struggle

Bodies of the martyrs

Wine

and bread

 

click here to read How You Can Help Colombia