Victims' Voices From Colombia: A Review of <i>Throwing Stones At The Moon</i>

The soon-to-be-released bookreads like a collection of literary short stories, but, in this case, the stories are both real and horrifying.
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The soon-to-be-released book, Throwing Stones At The Moon ("Moon")(Voice of Witness, 2012) reads like a collection of literary short stories, but, in this case, the stories are both real and horrifying. The stories of those gathered in Moon are told by the Colombian victims of human rights abuses themselves. As the introduction notes, "the narrators are black, white, mestizo, and indigenous, poor and wealthy; they are peasant farmers and urbanites; they have been driven from their homes by guerillas, paramilitaries, army abuses, and the random act of drug traffickers. Their common experience is having been caught up in a seemingly inescapable spiral of violence."

Given that these voices are rarely heard, this book is invaluable.

The reason these voices largely go unheeded is because they are voices of the "unworthy victims," as Noam Chomsky has explained - that is, the victims of the failed policy of the United States as contrasted with the "worthy victims" of the U.S.'s adversaries and ostensible enemies which the media reports every day. The introduction to the book, told by the authors Sibylla Brodzinsky & Max Schoening, at least touch upon this phenomenon. While Colombia [and the U.S. as well] have attempted to hold Colombia out to the world as "an apparent success story in the War on Terror," the authors relate, "[t]his turned out to be more wishful thinking than reality." As they explain:

Without a doubt the number of massacres, murders and kidnappings dropped sharply [in recent years]. But in its zeal to fight the guerillas, Colombia's army murdered innocent civilians and presented them as members of illegal groups killed in combat; thousands of such cases of alleged extrajudicial killings by the military are currently under investigation. The paramilitary demobilization ceremonies turned out to be filled with stand-ins rather than actual fighters. Many former AUC members reorganized into neo-paramilitary groups, which are far less ideological than their predecessors, but continue to target civilians. The FARC, after suffering crushing military blows to its leadership and rank and file, regrouped and kept up its relentless attacks on both civilians and the military.

What's more, the accounts make it clear that the alleged "War on Terror" being waged by the U.S. and its Colombian client state is in fact a "War of Terror" - that indeed, this war against the guerillas is one of combating insurgent violence with extreme terror by the Colombian state and its paramilitary allies. Indeed, while the authors take great pains to be even-handed when treating with the three main armed actors in Colombia - the left-wing guerillas, the official military and the right-wing paramilitaries aligned with this military - it is the paramilitaries (otherwise known as "death squads") which come off as the most cruel and insanely violent force in Colombia.

And indeed, it is the paramilitaries, aided by the military which the U.S. has been funding to the tune of over $8 billion since 2000, which are defending the economic interests of the U.S. in Colombia. As the book notes, such interests, include "land, gold, bananas, coal, oil, emeralds, and palm oil . . . ." As for bananas, Moon explains quite well how banana companies such as Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International provided support (in the case of Chiquita $1.7 billion and 3,000 weapons) to paramilitary groups in the department of Uraba in return for security, thereby helping these groups to gain "dominance throughout the country" through the use of forced displacement and murder.

Given the paramilitary defense of multi-national interests, the U.S., while claiming to be at odds with the paramilitaries and left-wing guerillas alike, in fact focuses its military efforts in Colombia almost exclusively against the guerillas, thereby leaving the paramilitaries to continue their cruel handiwork. And, this should come as no surprise given that the Colombian paramilitaries were in fact the brain-child of the John F. Kennedy Administration back in 1962 - even before the official formation of the left-wing FARC guerillas in 1964.

A flavor of the U.S.-backed paramilitary violence is given in the first story told by Emilia González. Emilia tells the story of the paramilitary massacres which took place in her town of El Salado with the complicity of the Colombian military, including the Colombian Air Force which, quite symbolically, flew "a U.S.-made Vietnam-era airplane" (referred to by the Colombians as the "avion fantasma," or "ghost plane") to surveil the town and intimidate the residents in advance of the paramilitary incursion. Emilia describes the events of February 18, 2000, in which the paramilitaries "gathered all of its residents on the town's micro-soccer court and committed one of the most gruesome massacres in Colombia's bloody conflict, killing sixty people over the course of four days." As Emilia explains, "the paras went on killing and killing and killing." And, they did so with glee. "They celebrated each killing. They danced, they sang, they played the drums and the accordion. They turned on a stereo and danced on the court." The paramilitaries, as they are of wont to do, also took away Emilia's 12-year old daughter and gang raped her.

And, as Moon explains in a footnote, "twenty-five marines [of the Colombian armed forces] participated in the paramilitary operation that concluded in the El Salado massacre. According to the New York Times, 'not only did the armed forces and the police not come to the aid of the villagers here, but the roadblock they set up prevented humanitarian aid from entering the village.'" And, mind you, these are military forces sponsored by the United States - this is indeed your tax dollars at work.

While there are many moving stories in the book, describing in detail the abuses civilians have suffered at the hands of paramilitaries, guerillas and the army alike, the most affecting story for me was that of union leader Maria Victoria Jimenez who was attacked, and her face mutilated, by paramilitaries. As the book explains, more than 2900 unionists have been killed in Colombia since 1986, and "it is widely believed that right-wing paramilitaries are the principal perpetrator of the slayings." In the case of Maria, she was elected president of the local chapter of the union (known as ANTHOC) at the hospital in which she worked in 2007. Indeed, she helped to rebuild this chapter after it had collapsed when members quit en masse in 1998 after the president of a chapter of the union in a nearby municipality was assassinated. After Maria took over as president and began raising issues of mismanagement and corruption in the hospital, she was attacked by paramilitaries who stabbed her seven times and ended up slicing off most of her nose and part of her upper lip. Maria's story is one of tragedy, but also bravery as she continues to lead the union even after this attack. However, she is left feeling alone at the end of the story after the criminal investigator, Jaime, who she trusted so, was himself a victim of a paramilitary assassination.

In the end, there is one inexorable conclusion which one must draw from this book - that Colombia must find a peaceful, political solution to the armed conflict which has plagued that country and its civilian population for over 50 years. There is growing support for such a solution amongst Colombians, led by such groups as the Patriotic March, and both the FARC and even President Santos have expressed interest in such a solution. Sadly, the U.S. has never supported such a peace process in that country, and it is that support which is critical as the U.S. is by far the largest benefactor of the Colombian state and its military forces. Hopefully this book will help to lead policy makers -- including U.S. National Security Council member Samantha Power who is listed as a Founding Adviser of the publisher of Moon - to decide to finally support a peace process for Colombia in order to end the spiral of violence described so well in the book.

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