Back then, I was still very young. I used to scrape coca with my dad and some friends. We were raspachines, coca scrapers, and we were working in a farm called La última gota [The Last Drop]. In those days, there was a lot of coca there. We were doing that when they sent for us. When we got home, there were men in uniforms. If you are a civilian, sometimes you are not sure who they might be: Are they soldiers? Are they guerrillas?
The twelve of us, the workers in that coca plantation, were forced to pass by two of the men in uniforms. They were sitting by the road with their rifles. They took us to the house, where the man who appeared to be the commandant was waiting. He was short, with spiky hair, of Indian heritage. He was the man people called Cordillera.
-Here are some of the guerrillas, one of them said.
By the road, they had tied up a young man known as Tocayo. He wasn’t a guerrilla fighter, either. He was a muleteer. We saw him, and he saw us, but neither one of us said anything.
-Now it’s your time to die, one of them kept repeating, and we remained silent.
We weren’t alone. They had already amassed a bunch of the people they’d caught. In the house, while we waited to see what happened, we saw old Buches coming down the road. You could tell he had stayed up all night. I remember that we say how one of the men in uniform went over and said hi. He started talking to him.
-We are from FARC, he said. We came to see how everything is going around here.
The old man conversed with him until, suddenly, the man in the uniform turned and said:
-No, you are mistaken.
He flipped his armband. It said AUC, not FARC. They were paramilitaries. Then the man in the uniform started shouting:
-The guerrillas have arrived!
And old man Buches fell to the floor riddled with bullet holes. Almost immediately, the muleteer Tocayo fell as well. It all happened right in front of us.
Out of the blue, it started raining. By the time they made us cross the Morro Frío, the creek had flooded. The paramilitaries where in front and behind us. One of them said.
-If someone gets carried away by the waters, we’ll have to kill them because that’s just an excuse to escape.
They tied some ropes together and forced us to go across.
When we arrived at the farm at the other side of the creek, we realized there were many other workers there, people like us, civilians, coca scrapers from other nearby farms who had been captured and brought to that place. One of the men in camouflage said.
-Everyone form here,
But as a civilian, how are you supposed to know what forming is? So we just stood there.
-You know how to form. You are guerrillas. You know how to do this shit.
That’s what one of the men said. But we just huddled there, paralyzed by fear, so they started to set us up in lines like this, one behind the other. We were a lot. We were maybe 400, all civilians: men, women, children. I was very young that day, perhaps 13 years old, and my father wouldn’t leave my side. Then one of them said:
–Here is a guerrilla. We caught him in a fight. He knows you people.
A man came out of a room. He wore a ski mask, so you could only see his eyes.
-Whomever he touches is a guerrilla.
He went through the first line and nothing. He went through the second and nothing. He went through the third and still nothing. Then, when he was going through our line, he placed his hand on Caifaz, a man we knew. Caifaz, who was gago, that is, who stuttered, immediately tried to speak:
-No, no… I-I I am a wor-wor-worker.
And we knew it was true. He was a muleteer. But who would have dared to speak up for someone else? Whoever spoke up, would die right then and there. Caifaz was dragged to the front and the hooded man kept looking. There, close to us, he touched another worker -a small young man. One of the paramilitaries said:
-Well, that’s two, but I know that all of you are guerrillas.
The chosen men were taken further away. The man with the gun walked up to them. He gazed at them and shot them from close range. Bang bang. He hit the muleteer first and the body fell to the ground. He grabbed the other man and, bang bang, he killed him too.
The guy, the one who shot them, came over and asked if anyone knew the diseased. “Who knew those dogs?” Then suddenly -and I swear on my mother that it’s true-the muleteer, Caifaz, stood up. The paramilitaries started shooting him again and Caifaz fell. But when the guy was turning to us, Caifaz stood up again. After a lot of shooting, the muleteer finally died, but he died only when they used a machete. People said that Caifaz was “crossed” or whatever, that he was protected by witchcraft and he was immune to bullets. That’s what people said, but I don’t believe that.
Someone said later:
-What an imbecile, Caifaz, if I was crossed, I would have played dead and saved myself.
Caifaz did not save himself.
By the time the paramilitaries left, there were already four dead, two on each side of the creek. We waited more than an hour after the last one left in case there were others on the road. In the end, we chose to wait another day: if the paramilitaries didn’t come back, then we would bury the dead.
When you are a boy, everything scares you. That night, I didn’t sleep and I didn’t eat because I kept seeing it. I saw the blood again, the machete, everything. Of course, I couldn’t forget what I had seen.
The following day, around six in the morning, there were shots again, so I ran and hid in the mountain by myself. My father stayed home. Since you could see the road from the house, approximately an hour later, my father and the other people started calling for me to come out. They had already left, they told me. They had taken the people’s chickens and cattle, and many had fled.
Further up, someone else was killed. Chucho didn’t want to hide in the forest. When the men passed by, they saw him and shot him as well. That made three dead on our side of the creek.
People who were hiding started to come out. There was smoke everywhere. It came from all the huts and houses that they’d set on fire. That’s when we all came together, the scrapers and the community, and we decided to bury the dead, the three we had on this side. I helped dig the graves.
That was maybe in the year 2000, in a small county here in Catatumbo. That was the first time I saw people getting killed. There were many more afterwards.
In those days, you worked. But if you worked in some place, then someone would say, “He is a guerrilla,” and if you worked in the other place, then someone would say, “He is a paramilitary.” In other words, you had to run away from every place. They would come and kill you, no questions asked. And then you’d start thinking, “Well, if I am nothing, if I am no one, then why are they looking for me to kill me?” People get tired. When you are young, you get tired. And I was very young when the paramilitaries arrived and it was hard, it was very hard to watch all that. A lot of young men were killed during that time. There were many times when you had to run as the bullets flew, run from here to there. And the work was very hard. Sometimes, you would lose everything you had earned from scraping because if the boss’ merchandise was seized or robbed, then we would also be left with nothing.
Then one day, out of the blue, I left. I started scraping on my own. My father didn’t like to scrape so he started working as a muleteer. I left with some friends.
When we went to work at a farm called El Ventilador [The Fan] I got to know the guerrillas. They were there, camping on the farm’s border. I spoke to them those days. I would go and scrape and talk to them in the afternoons. Later, I wouldn’t go to work, rather, I’d stay chatting with them. But that time I didn’t leave with them. That was later. I was with my friends, with El Curita [The Little Priest], who was a friend from my neighborhood. We gave him that nickname because was bad, he was really bad, and because since he was young he had a bald spot on the top of his head. We were scraping somewhere around La India when the paramilitaries made us run again, and there was suddenly a huge firefight with the guerrillas.
That’s when I said to myself:
-I won’t work anymore. I am leaving and joining the guerrillas. One of two things will happen: I’ll die or I won’t, but… but I won’t run again.
I was supposed to meet them on a mountain’s edge. When my friends started leaving, I had a strange feeling: I was now going to stay with people I didn’t know. El Curita was sad, and so was I, so we hugged.
When you join the ranks, the first thing is the basic training course. That’s where you learn everything you need to know. There, they give everyone a wooden rifle. You use that wooden rifle, that fake rifle, to ambush, travel at night, get into water, go here, go there, get muddy -all that stuff. Even though it’s a wooden rifle, you must treat as a real one. You can’t lose it. It’s a training exercise. You carry it with you throughout the whole course. I carried mine for almost four months. Some of them carried them like this, without given it any shape. Others fixed it well. And when you are finally used to carrying it, then they give you a real rifle. They give an AK-47. One day a comrade, the commandant, called me and said:
-Take this rifle.
I had never owned a weapon before, so I kept cleaning it with an oiled rag. But that was because of the novelty of it.
Four years went by. One day, I ran into my father. I was wearing my uniform and everything. He was surprised when he saw me. He knew nothing about my whereabouts. He thought I had been killed.
That same time, I met with El Curita, my neighborhood friend. We were passing by and he was working by the road, scraping coca. He saw me and called me by my former name. I said to him:
–Curita, thing is, I joined the guerrillas. If they ask about me in the neighborhood, tell them I stayed here. Tell them I have a woman and I am living with her. Tell that to my mom or my brothers, but don’t tell anyone who’ll go out and talk and say I am here, okay? For my sake and for yours.
We stayed there chatting for an hour. We talked until they ordered us to move along.
Afterwards, it was different because I had no plans of coming back. Though it’s true: you remembered your family, your friends, the people in your neighborhood, all of that.
There are people that start shaking when they hear the first shot. There are also people who start laughing, people who don’t do anything, people who remain silent. There are people that sometimes are left… sort of dumbfounded, who won’t respond to anything. The others -you can see them nearby. You can see their faces. One of them might have a bandanna on his head and he will be shooting at you. Or sometimes you hear that they throw something over your head, a grenade, and if you are not careful, you’ll die. If you don’t know how to defend yourself, it will burst your insides.
When you notice that they are killing a lot of your people, that’s when you get scared. You must control yourself in that moment, because if you allow fear to take over, then it will be worse. You must control yourself because, in the end, both parts are feeling the same way: they are scared and you are scared. No one is feeling relaxed when they are fighting. They are frightened and so are you. It’s not easy being in a firefight. It’s not like being in a fight with words, where you can say: okay, I’m tired, that’s it. It’s hard and it’s sad.
Time went by and you then you wanted to know how your family is doing. I asked people many times. I would start talking to some of the peasants, to civilians who know Cúcuta. I would tell them I wanted to know how my family was doing. But they never knew. I lost their phone number, my papers, everything.
I came to learn about my family just recently. It was when this process began, not that long ago. That was when we were in the pre-camps and we talked about becoming civilians again. They explained the agreements to us and told us we would receive a national ID, papers, all that stuff. You’ll be able to see your families again, they said. But I thought to myself, “After all this time, I don’t even know if my family is still alive.” I knew about my father, for he came to see me. But he has another family and he already knew what I was.
While being here, I started asking around and, one day, a man approached me. He told me:
-I have the number of a woman for you
–Whose number? I don’t know anyone.
He showed me a picture on his phone. The woman looked like my mom, but I couldn’t recall her that well.
-Call her, but be careful when you talk to her. Because it’s going be hard. They haven’t heard from you in so long. It’s going to be as if a dead man called. If she has a heart problem, you will probably kill her.
When she heard my voice, she started crying. I also called my brother and my niece. It’s hard… I told them I was going to see them. I asked for a permission to leave and I left.
I reached the place where I was supposed to meet my brother. He walked past me without recognizing me, and I walked past him without recognizing him either. I told him over the phone:
-I am here.
-I’m here as well. He answered.
-I am wearing a blue shirt.
-I am wearing a yellow one.
-You are the man standing next to me!
It was a nice meeting. Mom is very old. She is worn down. She had five kids and she thought three of them were dead. But after I appeared, her spirits are up. Only two are dead now. My family thought I wasn’t going to return. But I was born again after a long time. Seventeen years had passed.
When I go there now, they tell me to take care and all that stuff. They listen to me, but it’s not easy to start telling them everything. It’s not easy, even though it’s not a secret who we were. At first, it was a crime for me to be out in the city, but it isn’t anymore.
When I left, my niece was very young. Now, she has a son. It’s hard. I have family and friends, but it’s not quite right.
In the neighborhood, I also heard about El Curita, that long-gone friend. When I asked my mom about him, she started crying.
-Did they kill him? I asked her.
No, she said, he is locked up. He is in jail because of his sister. Her husband was going to kill her, and he wouldn’t stand for it. I am not sure how it went, but, either way, El Curita was captured and he is now in jail. My friend kept my secret, I learned. When my mom asked him about me, he said,
-The only thing I know is that he has a woman, and they are living I don’t know where.
I gathered my family and I told them, and they didn’t reject me or despise me. I thought they were going to, that they would send me away. But they didn’t. They welcomed me back into the family. They said:
-Regardless, you already lived your experience and we respect it. The only thing we ask is that you don’t get involved in an armed group or anything similar again.
I told them that no. Whatever happened, happened, but that’s it.
Returning to civilian life is not easy. You think that society will despise you, that many people will despise you. But that’s not true. You talk to people and there are some who love you and who want to hear you story. Because our story is an immense story. You start telling that story and it never ends. It’s the story of what you lived.
Now I can go and see my family, my friends. But a few days after I arrive, I am bored. I can’t find myself… Here, on the other hand, I have my friends. Here we are like a big family. Everything is different over there. Everything is different in the city.
And I came from the city. When I was a kid, I studied and I worked in a shoe factory. I left afterwards, because working in the city is very hard.
I admit that I am from the city, but I am also from the Catatumbo. Thing is, I already know a lot about the countryside, much more than about the city. I came from the city. I came to work and I ended up in the guerrillas. But I returned.
We’ve gone through a lot of experiences. And they are all different. Some of us died in one place, and others died in another. Some of us traveled through this place, and others through that other place. There are many stories, each one lived differently, but the goal was the same.
What matters, though, is what’s coming, what we will live. Right?