My Uncle Cañitas
The voices of those who are about to return come down the Sierra
14/08/2017 D-Day +256
My Uncle Cañitas
The old man pressed the mule’s listless pace. He yanked her sturdily as he inspected his surroundings, fearful of corroborating, in the blackness of the mountain, the frightful possibility of encountering them behind some ceiba. In the beginning, when Grandmother gave him her blessing and kissed his hands, Cañitas was riding like a cowboy, beaten, yet dignified, his back perfectly straight. Shortly after leaving town, his head started drooping over his chest as if held by a thin thread, jolting up and down with the animal’s steps.
Further up the creek, they heard them before they saw them. There were two of them and, even though they were whispering, their voices reached the old man’s ears. He stopped and felt the other mule’s head grazing his back. He turned his head towards Cañitas and tried to tell him with his eyes to stay silent, to refrain from breathing if he could. The lad raised his face a bit and kept mum. They circled the two talking soldiers, who failed to realize that the man they were looking for was getting away under their noses.
While they climbed the Sierra, escorted by a sharp, freezing drizzle like falling needles, Cañitas looked like a mass of vibrating meat. The old man touched his chest and stomach. The youth was burning with a fever. The old man strained to lay down his son on the ground. As he did so, he worried that after he did so he wouldn’t have any strength to prop Cañitas back on top of the mule. He grabbed a rope he had wrapped around his waist and used all the strength he could muster to tie the young man to the mule. Then he disappeared up the mountain. When he came back, the mule stared at him reproachfully. He knew that those animals weren’t stupid. Surely the mule must have thought that he had abandoned it there with a dead body tied to its ribs. The old man gave Cañitas some leaves to chew on and rubbed some more on his back. He took the wet handkerchief and placed it on the red-and-black bulk that his eye had turned into from all the blows he had received.
They walked and walked amid the dark undergrowth. Thankfully, the moon was a tiny horn in the sky. They went up and down and sometimes the old man felt that tame eyes in the trees watched them go by. At a certain point, he felt the acrid smell of coca leaves being toasted. An Indian hamlet was likely near and they were probably keeping an eye on them as they moved silently through their lands. They must have known they were fleeing. The roads were hard and the way was long, but, before dawn, the old man managed to reach Fundación, another town on the skirts of the Sierra. From there, even if he was half dead, Cañitas had a chance of recovering to pursue the road to Barranquilla all by himself. That’s where he should have arrived, though neither the old man, nor anyone else, ever heard from him again.
That same night, in the town, the door of Grandfather’s house was opened by a rifle butt. Grandmother passed out and the lad, the one that had arrived, incredibly drunk, that very same day, saw the rifles in front of his face. They screamed, they issued orders, they hit their boot heels against the ground. The young man was being pulled outside until a female voice rose above those of the men.
Back then, there, in the town where I was raised, we were all guerrillas. That’s what they said. That’s why we couldn’t use rubber boots, which are so useful for farm labor –because whoever used them was a declared guerrilla and tempted his luck at a time and place when the hunt for guerrilla boys was well under way. He would have placed a target on the back of all the ones who worked in the fields.
I was not a guerrilla. I was that 10-year-old boy. My uncle Cañitas wasn’t a guerrilla either, but they said that he was, that he was indeed. He was taken by soldiers along with three other people from our town. We didn’t know anything else. There was a lieutenant who was in love with my aunt, the town’s school teacher. In between his loving words and promises, the lieutenant told my aunt that her brother, my uncle Cañitas, was being tortured, and that he was bound to be killed because he was in such a state that sending him back wouldn’t do, because of human rights and all that stuff. We, the little ones, didn’t hear the news my aunt brought, but the weight of her information could be felt all over the house. Grandfather grabbed as much paper as he could and went from house to house asking everyone to sign above a dotted line to demand the Army’s release of the men they had taken away.
With the signatures under his arm, Grandfather managed to convince a man to take him to the main road in a van. He then hopped on a bus and finally reached La Popa Battalion.
That’s what they said in the Battalion, but we had all seen the Army for at least six months. After the last guerrilla attack against the Police, the Army came and took over. We saw helicopters raising whirls of dust as they landed or flew away, and armed soldiers that walked the unpaved roads.
Grandfather returned home empty-handed, but while Grandmother and my aunt cried wildly, the signatures probably moved the Army. I imagine the call from the Battalion to the town’s commander.
Around five in the afternoon, we saw them come down. My uncle Cañitas was carried by four soldiers as if he were an old hanging rag. They extended a paper that said that we were receiving him safe and sound, without a single scratch, and Grandfather or someone else signed while my brother, who was two years older than me, ran to get a mule. We propped him up from below and I stared fixedly at his face, that black bulge that must have been his eye. Grandmother broke the chicken’s neck with a single twist and boiled it in a soup to give him a “dead-raiser” broth. Once again, the lieutenant’s voice was heard in my aunt’s ear: he told her that they must take Cañitas away that very night; that if he stayed, the soldiers would kill them and claim paramilitaries or someone else was responsible; that, no matter what, my uncle wouldn’t make it past dawn.
That time in the farm was rough. The family’s adults couldn’t go to town because it was risky. They might be captured or taken prisoner and then we wouldn’t see them again. So it was up to us, my brother and me, to do the errands and get whatever we needed. The soldiers, who were angry because of the Cañitas affair –for he had vanished like a ghost—used the house, our house in town, as a military base. In those days, they started harassing us, the younger ones.
All of that happened and you grew up seeing them –the soldiers— as enemies. When my brother was 16, he made a choice and went up the mountain with another six young men from town. Now it was true: we were the family of a guerrilla fighter. That was a secret that we had to keep to avoid further persecution. But military intelligence works and they knew what my brother was up to, so we were all a military target. My uncles were deemed militias and none of them could go to town. It seemed like there wasn’t another path aside from the one my brother had taken, so I joined him soon after.
A young couple waits at a crossroad, staring rigidly from side to side. After a few minutes, a man comes to meet them. They gaze at each other, identify each other, and exchange a password. The woman extends a package wrapped in blankets. The man looks it over, appears not to understand something, and asks the couple to wait for him. He moves away hurriedly to make a phone call from a public booth in a nearby store.
When you enter, you always think that you won’t stay your whole life in the mountain. Always, because our aim is to achieve a goal that isn’t here in the mountain. It’s outside. That thought marked our future. It made us think that, surely further ahead, we would have the possibility of having a family. But that’s a mistake in the midst of war. I told my partner: what are we going to do with a child right now, when we won’t be able to raise it. We won’t have it. But it happened: she became pregnant during the Uribe* government, in the middle of the war.
Her stomach grew and grew and so did the intensity of the operations. There came a time when she had trouble walking up the mountain, but I was in charge of a highly cohesive unit and the lads helped me by carrying our equipment, for I carried some of her things so that she could move with less weight. It was very hard. The Army was circling us on land and air and we couldn’t move as fast as we would have liked.
Around three days after they gave him “the package,” I called the man. Then he began to understand that the boy was mine and didn’t ask any more questions. What I did afterwards to avoid any problems for the kid or the man who had him, or to anyone, for that matter, was to disappear. You see, the risks would increase if I kept on calling every day to ask how the boy was doing. So I disappeared. I sent him a note through another intermediary and told him that I was breaking all contact, that I would get in touch later, that one day I’d get in touch.
Time flew by, and about a year and a half later things calmed down a bit and we were able to contact the boy again. That’s when the persecution began. He was in danger there because military intelligence was getting close. So I had to talk to the people who had him and move my child to Venezuela.
When the boy turned four I had the opportunity of bringing him where we were. I got to know him and things settled down. Now that everything is better, my son is studying in Santa Marta. Nevertheless, we say that we haven’t won anything, that things must still be done, that everything is barely starting, and that the danger still exists. The time still isn’t right for him to be with us.
The two of them were identical. They were both brown and thick and fibrous. Nevertheless, there were some differences that you could pick out if you paid attention, though after that, you could only steal a glance. One of them had a sweet and cheerful face, while the other one seemed laconic and watchful, as if he were making mental notes of the things he couldn’t say. When they left the house that day they walked very close to each other, their mother ahead of them, protecting them with her body as if the bullets of those who spurred them to the middle of the square weren’t angry enough. They had to say it, first softly and then in screams, they had to say what they were:
After the attack where my dad was hurt they sent him away to have an operation and get treatment because that bone –I think it’s called the radius—had turned into a dagger. Every time he set his foot down it cut him inside. Even though the town was controlled by the soldiers and those other people, my father walked around because of his health. We saw him in the distance once while we walked on the street.
My mom didn’t want it to happen. She had other plans for us. She wanted us to continue our studies, but my father said: No, I am taking to them to the guerrilla. And we accepted.
One day, they relieved the unit that was guarding our town. My mother found out about the arrival of a helicopter that was supposed to pick up the soldiers. Taking advantage of the opportunity, we woke up at midnight and left. We left our mother’s house with nothing on us. That was almost ten years ago. At 5 p.m. we arrived at the camp. The men were aware that we were coming and they were expecting us. A couple of little guerrillas were returning to the ranks.
It rains furiously in the valley that extends across the rivers that are born up there, in the snowy mountains that look out to the sea. The rain has silenced the croaking of the toads that are relentlessly calling for their mates. Now, you can hear the deafening, overlapping thunder. After a few seconds, the sky lights up with the intense sparks that reveal, diffusely, in the background, a mountain range.
When the rain abates and the thunders are spaced and far away, you can sense the sound of the guerrilla’s delicate footsteps moving between the cardboard houses, heading towards the cambuches * where they still sleep. Cañitas’s nephew walks to his shed. The mother of the child who waits in Santa Marta sleeps. One of the “mellos” stands guard resting his chin on the mouth of the rifle he is about to abandon. Far away, the sound of a sad vallenato reaches the camp where people wait. They will go back home or start their own home. The sons of the mountain are about to return.