Fifteen guerrilla fighters struggled to control a devilishly strong bull on the way to a place of sacrifice. The bull jumped, kicked, and charged the flustered men. Amid that din, it was hard to notice El Pollo. Even when his blood-soaked hands were stuck in the bull’s ribs, El Pollo was barely visible. A silent and laconic man, he would mumble over here and cut over there as the dying animal turned into a jumble of meat strips aimed to feed the guerrillas and visitors that had met in the Yarí Plains to preside and witness FARC’s last meeting before laying down their arms.
The dead animal’s smell stuck to his uniform, El Pollo sharpened a piece of a small pocketknife. Conscientiously, he stopped to check the blade’s edge with the tip of his finger, and then he continued. Staring at the shifting blade, he recalled his past, the long-gone years before he became a guerrilla, the long-gone years before he woke up and went to sleep over the mud of the mountains and forests of Colombia.
–I didn’t like studying. I wanted to play with my friends. I wanted to walk and walk to discover Neiva, to discover everything.
That was El Pollo, a wiry, hunched kid who wandered through the streets of his city, on the shores of the Magdalena River, while the other kids stayed at school. Sometimes he would also go to school, but when he did he would often end up tussling over the floor, fighting with some other kid. That’s why they took him to a see a psychologist.
She was a pretty girl, I remember that. She started talking and talking. She wanted to know what was going on with me. She talked and talked and I just stared at her. Then as time went by she told me that she needed to see my home. And she did. She went to see my mom and she understood that I came from a neighborhood where only the scum of society lived. That’s what helped the teachers understand why I was the way I was, and that they needed to understand where I was coming from, value the fact that I was being sent to school because, otherwise, I would have never gone.
That was all before El Pollo began his long pilgrimage through southern Colombia, before he started carrying an assault rifle and a bag full of landmines.
María, a thin woman in her early fifties, has also been wandering through Colombia’s south. Since 2004, she’s been ambling the streets of San Vicente del Caguán, one of the access points to the Yarí Plains.
– There’s a lot of good land over there, a lot of fish. We used to work there, using our strength to grow cassava, plantain; we fished and ate game meat. It’s very pretty over there!
María says that her land lies there, right by the place where the hands of the guerrillas quickly raised a village in the middle of a seemingly uninhabited plain. She says she is a Yaguara, a member of Yaguará II * her voice and her accent change depending on whether she is speaking of the place or the demonym.
Yaguará II is a multiethnic indigenous reservation that harbors Pijao, Piratapuyo, Tucano (orginally from the department of Vaupés), and peasants from, principally, La Macarena, Arauca, and Tolima.
María’s lineage is a lineage of adventurers. In the 1960s, the Pijaos from Tolima received an captivating offer: in response to the plundering of their lands by country’s landlords, that same land that the Spanish Crown had given them centuries before, and in the midst of the still raging bipartisan wars, the military government of the time told them that in the south they would find plains that were just like the ones they knew, plains that were identical to those they lived in Tolima; all they had to do was go there, cut down the forests that grew on top of them, plant their crops, and establish a town. The government told them that all of it would be theirs. They just needed to board a small plane that would drop in the middle of the jungle so that they would “civilize it.” It was a plan to turn the nation’s barren fields into productive ones, and, also, a way to suffocate the rising indigenous movement that had been growing since the times of Quintín Lame* , an indigenous born from a Nasa * father and a Misak* mother, who was part of the Pijao movement that got the government to notarize their land in Tolima.
was an indigenous leader who defended the rights of the indigenous people to the lands of their ancestors. His struggle, in the beginning of the 20th century, inspired the creation of what many consider the first indigenous guerrilla of Latin America: the Quintín Lame Movement, which fought for indigenous land from 1987 to their demobilization in 1991. The Quintín Lame Movement’s reintegration was arguably the most successful one in the history of Colombia. +INFO
Nasa people are an indigenous Colombian group that lives mostly in the southern Andes, near the region of Tierradentro, between the departments of Cauca and Huila. They also live in a few regions in the eastern part of the Central Range and in the Amazon foothills.
Misak or Guambianos he misak or guambianos are an indigenous population that inhabit the northeastern regions of the department of Cauca, where most of their ancestral territories can be found.
Later, others who weren’t Pijaos * came down the river. They were indigenous men and women from other ethnicities who were fleeing their destinies as rubber-bleeding slaves. They were escaping and mounting an epic journey across the jungles and rivers of Vaupés –all to get to Yaguara II, a place that, according to rumors from pelt dealers and travelers, was to be a second home to the indigenous people of Colombia. Then others came: after the news of the marihuana and coca bonanzas broke among peasants and fortune-seekers, the reservation soon filled up with fugitives and adventurers from different cultures and regions.
The Pijao People are an indigenous community in Colombia. In pre-Columbian times, they inhabited the Andes’ Central Range, between the Mounts of Huila, Quindio, and Tolima, and the upper Magdalena River Valley and the upper Cauca Valley.
El Pollo also arrived from beyond the Andes. Kneeling in front of his tactical vest with an assault rifle, a gun, magazines, a couple of grenades, a spoon, and small photographs of the dead framed in a plastic keychain, El Pollo thought of his original home. It’s a small city embedded between two of the three mountain ranges that divide the Andes in Colombia. He remembers the streets, his school. He remembers the church, the river, the buildings, and the alleys. El pollo remembers Neiva.
-Your fate is not fixed. Fate makes you. That’s what I’ve come to understand about life –that you are born to be something and that regardless of what happens, that’s what you’ll be. I wonder how I came upon connections to get to know FARC in a city like Neiva. Everything came together so that I would get here. My dream was to become a psychologist, but it didn’t happen. When I turned 13, I came to the mountains. I came here, but they didn’t want to accept me in FARC because I was too small. In the end, they decided to receive me. With time, while I was in FARC, I became bigger. I started growing into a man’s body, and I never went back home. My fate was to become a guerrilla fighter, and that’s what I am: a guerrilla from the First Company Sonia the Pilosa, from the Teófilo Forero Mobile Column*. [ SIC]
The Teófilo Forero Mobile Column is considered an elite corps from FARC’s Eastern Bloc. It was initially created in 1993 with the purpose of providing security to the guerrilla’s secretariat, but it eventually grew its operational capabilities and became a leading player in several high-profile military maneuvers, including, according to the Colombian government, the car bomb against Club El Nogal in Bogota and the kidnapping of the deputies from Valle del Cauca, among others.
El Pollo has fired his weapon countless times. He has seen his friends die from enemy fire. He has overseen the “detained,” some of whom have promised him money, a new ID card, and a new life outside the country. He has mined fields and he has walked across the Colombian mountains with his gaze fixed on the ground while fire rained from the sky. El Pollo was just a child, a rebellious and problematic child, when he first came here. That was 13 years ago.
In the 1990s, a wood bonanza brought new adventurers to the Yarí Plains. Others arrived as well. “The ones from the mountains,” as María and the others call the guerrillas. FARC arrived building new roads and mixing in the yaguaras’ daily lives. They took part in the community’s conflict involving the use of resources; in the prohibitions, sanctions, and the social order.
The Army soon followed FARC. And so did the crossfire, the bombings, the rules, and the intrigues that forced those without weapons to dance and tumble between those with weapons, who invited them and accused them of working with one or the other.
In 1997, the government set up the notorious El Caguán DMZ. The DMZ was the stage of the conversations between FARC and the Colombian government, then headed by President Andrés Pastrana. Without anyone asking those who lived there, Yaguará II was included as one the territories that would be left without any Army presence. A momentary peace maintained by the guerrillas lasted until the process was abruptly terminated in 2002. Then came a military campaign to retake the territories and a new time of even greater tension to the inhabitants of Yaguará II. Controls increased and the Yaguaras were used as scapegoats for the suspicions of both the military and the guerrillas. In 2004, without any explanation, most of the population was ordered to leave, and people scattered all across the region.
The DMZ was an area created by the government of President Andrés Pastrana. The area was demilitarized to engage in talks with FARC about a possible end to the Colombian conflict. The DMZ, which included five municipalities from two departments, was in place from 1999 to 2002. The peace talks failed and the DMZ was abolished after the guerrillas seized a plane and kidnapped a senator who was on board.
In 2004, days after the disappearance of the Government of the Chapter, the reservation’s highest authority, FARC guerillas displaced various families, which corresponded, according to María, to nearly 80% of the reservation’s population.
-So far, “the ones from the mountains” haven’t told us why they suddenly forced us to leave. They called us to a meeting and told us: Look, comrades, if you don’t want to work for us, if you don’t agree with us, you better head from here to there. They pointed at the horizon, far away, and they told us to leave. They banished us, and they took our governor from us. No one knows where he is. We also lost some young people from the community because they went with them. They fooled them and took them along. That’s why they felt anger towards the people from the reservation –because we didn’t want any of our families to go with them. They said: we are going to train them so that they will take care of you; we are not going to take them. But they did. They took them and in the end we don’t know where they are… Ricardo left, Alberto, Mariluz, Hilda, Janet, and a few others. But there were some who returned somehow…
María appeared to make a mental list of those who live there, of those who returned to Tolima after “civilizing the jungle,” of those who were in Villavicencio, and of those who went to Bogota to try their luck, just like her daughter did. She thought of the really young ones that are currently wearing the FARC insignias. She asked herself whether they’ll return once they lay down their weapons. She asked if perhaps those children who only knew how to plant cassava figured out what to do in a war. She asked, but she received no answer. El Pollo also thought of children. He thought of himself several years ago, of the time when he was learning what to do when a hail of bullets struck around him in the mountains.
-There was a time, when I was a child, when the soldiers asked themselves how we, being so young, managed to fight them when they had been anywhere from 20, 25 years being soldiers. What you need is military discipline. That’s what we studied and applied in guerrilla warfare. And in the meantime, I grew up and became a man in the military business. At the time of the hard war, they put 10,000 men following the Teófilo, and we spread out and faced them. And we stood up to them so much that they never managed to finish us off. It was because of that and because of the mines we left for them.
That’s what El Pollo says when he thinks about his childhood after Neiva. He remembers those days that most of the country heard of through newspapers and television –the days of “the hard war,” as he calls those years when the Teó- filo Forero Mobile Column struck the most spectacular blows; the days of the implementation of the war plan known as Sword of Honor, a plan that involved a thorough reengineering of military strategy in order to eliminate all fronts and FARC guerrillas and relentlessly attack the Teófilo in Putumayo, Meta, and Guaviare.
-If you moved with a light, the plane would find you. If you moved with your eyes looking up, the plane would find you. You turned on a radio and the signal would tell on you. If you built a fire, they would find you. By day, during the war, we couldn’t use clothes like this because they could even target a military bonnet. They discovered the smoke, the colored clothing. They targeted everything. They targeted it, and they hit it.
That’s how El Pollo recalled it, as he held a landmine in his hand, a small artifact that looked almost like a toy amid all his weapons, many of which bear the initials of the Colombian Army.
According to the National Glossary
of Terms from the Integral Action against Landmines, a “landmine” is any mine conceived to explode by the presence, proximity, or contact of a person. Such a mine must also be able to incapacitate, hurt and/or kill one or more people when it explodes. +INFO
The most important thing is always the battery. If you keep it well protected, it can last three years without losing its power. It stays there forever. It doesn’t sleep, it doesn’t eat, it doesn’t lower its guard. The mine that has already been planted is always awake, while human beings need to rest. The man who made it was a very important mind. I don’t know the name, but I know he made it and he taught all the other FARC guerrilla fighters in the country about it.
El Pollo kept holding the landmine in his hand. He stared at it attentively and carefully rolled up the two one-meter cables that hanged by the artifact’s sides.
All of us who have mines, I think we need to go and point them out so that they can be taken out. And if they come to me and I have to go, well I’ll go and show them where I have them so that they can dig them out. I still haven’t lost a single one of the 80 mines I have. That’s all I have and they are all in my head. I only have a few, because some have 400, 500, 600. Others have whole villages filled with mines. I also learned how to make them. We made 1,000, 2,000 mines and delivered them. And the next day we had to make another lot. During the war, we made a lot of mines, especially in our area. Since we were being hunted, we planted a lot of mines so that they wouldn’t climb so much. There were also some buried bombs, buried explosives, tons of explosives… and all of it, for what?… for the war.
For 13 years –almost half his life— El Pollo has lived in the jungle, sleeping in a cambuche, surrounded by his comrades, and by the unnerving presence of combat, the mission, and flight. El Pollo has traveled the roads of southern Colombia, where he has left behind pieces of himself, dead friends and dead men he knows nothing about, and sleepless artifacts that lurk beneath the ground, waiting.
The word cambuche refers to an improvised and temporary refuge fashioned with any available materials.
-We are not bloodthirsty, as they say. We want what they all want: to live. If the mothers and relatives of the others suffer, so do our mothers. That’s why we don’t want this war. We don’t want any more blood. That decision has be taken and it will be respected. Sometimes, one fights with a soldier and he dies or you die, and that’s because there are bullets that come from here or there, but it’s not because one wants that, it’s because that’s how it has to be. It’s not because we want to kill. No, it’s not like that. I am not like that. We are not like that.
María and her people have also traversed long roads since they left behind Yaguará II. Today, their homes made of chonta and bareque still stand. They were taken over years later by a new wave of immigrants, many of which were indigenous people: Nasa families that came from Cauca and who took over the abandoned lands of those who were forced to leave.
In 2009 the Yaguará II reservation received indigenous population from Cauca.
-They gave us some small houses a few years ago in the town, but it’s not the same. They say that they want to give us another land, but we don’t want that because it will never be like the one we had. Right now, we are very happy with the peace talks that they made. They say that there will be peace. I don’t understand much about [the peace process]. I watch the news, I watch a lot, and listen to the radio every day, but I don’t understand. The thing is that I don’t have any schooling and they say so many things… But we are very happy to see if we might be able to return to our land. We are all very happy. We all want to return.
To return, that’s what María says, and when she says it, she appears to imagine a land where her people are once again a community living in a land of forest and plains. When El Pollo spoke of returning, he talked about his mother, about his sisters and the streets of Neiva where he once wandered. María longs to go back with her people to the land where others have already settled. The house where El Pollo’s mother lived probably is not there anymore.
Even though she is grateful for what she has received, María doesn’t want to see her grandchildren running around in a park made of bricks, far from the plains. El Pollo hasn’t seen how much the river changed when the city administration built the promenade where people now saunter. He hasn’t seen the new buildings, nor has he walked with the lines of mourners that follow the caskets of relatives or childhood friends.
María doesn’t want the brick and cement little house that the government gave her. El Pollo knows, or at least senses, that he will soon lose his place in the world.
To return, but to return where? To the land that no longer belongs to them? To the land where the people they care about are no longer there? There is no place to return to, no road that leads back to the past.
The only road leads straight ahead: towards a home where María can play with her grandchildren; towards the daughter that El Pollo dreams about; towards fishing and hunting in new lands; towards becoming a psychologist, just like the pretty woman that El Pollo when he was child; towards becoming a dentist after removing countless rotten teeth from the mouths of guerrillas fighting in the mountains. The road leads towards the future, towards the unknown. And it’s the only road they can tread.
“I can’t go back, not even to gain momentum,”
María mumbled smiling before losing herself amid the crowd of people walking through the square of San Vicente del Caguán. In the meantime, somewhere in the jungle, El Pollo is probably carving a new piece of wood with small his pocketknife, waiting for the moment to finally lay down his arms.