When I lived in Bogota in 2009, authorities killed Pepe the Hippo, which was one the many exotic animals Pablo Escobar had in his personal zoo on his Napoles ranch estate. For a while, it seemed that cafe and restaurant conversations mouthed Pepe’s name at least once in between bites of ajiaco and sips of tinto. I also remember a newspaper image of a woman protester wearing a hippopotamus mask in solidarity with the poor animal. I was saddened by this. The episode in its entirety illustrated how desensitized Colombians had become to the loss of human life.
News and public discourse about the hippopotamus, along with outrage by some, was more prevalent than the humanitarian crisis plaguing the country. Victims of the violence have become so common that Colombians, and the world, quite possibly no longer feel as intensely about human death or human life than they may have if the armed conflict had not been a protagonist for lifetimes of succeeding generations.
Colombians need a cold shower to reawaken our senses, re-sensitize our hearts, and redirect our outrage.
It may be counter-intuitive, but I suggest one way to do this may be by taking a trip into Colombia’s heart of darkness: that place inside each one of us we do not want to unpack and unravel because what we may discover could be too disturbing. Feelings of shame, guilt, and hatred could commence to frolic freely, painting our realities with hues and shades we hoped remained hidden in the Crayola box.
We may be able to feel more about the loss of Colombian human life—and thus awaken us from our almost apathetic routine regarding this cancer keeping our people from being able to flourish like the colorful flora adorning our landscapes—if we can put names to combat body counts, if we can place faces on the victims, if we can provide flesh to the bones of the dead and the vulnerable. If we can do this, we may begin to feel sympathy and sadness for our conflict’s casualties.
Consider the following part a defense of terrorists.
Yes, someone must do it because if I don’t, considering the temperature of contemporary public discourse, who will? I speak about the nation’s youth, many of whom are identified as terrorists. As a consequence, the government has justified total war.
Various sources, including the government, claim that up to possibly a third of Colombian terrorist groups are made up of minors. Some have not even been alive long enough to have experienced the turn of the century. They make up the FARC and ELN. They embody city gangs. I ask you, are these terrorists?
Visualize your own child, or nephews, or nieces, or young neighbors kicking Postobon cans up the street. These are the faces of a significant number of Colombia’s terrorists. In turn, they are also many of the casualties of the country’s terror and subsequent war on terror.
When we think of Colombia’s terrorists we conveniently draw up images of Mono Jojoy or Salvatore Mancuso or George Bush or Álvaro Uribe. It is easy to channel that anger to such individuals depending on one’s political sensibilities. But we forget they are not on the front lines dodging bullets and sidestepping landmines. It is our children.
The same goes for those who fight terrorism in Colombia’s security forces. These too are made up of the country’s youth. Though they may not be minors, the clear majority of them are teenagers. Further, the reality is that because of Colombia’s legal loophole, which allows the wealthy to purchase military cards that exempt their children from so-called “mandatory” service, it is Colombia’s most vulnerable youth who end up statistics of death in this war on terror.
Let’s turn the page once again and recognize that only in the past 8 years alone, since Uribe first took office, almost 2.5 million Colombians were forcibly displaced internally and another 2 million left the country—hundreds of thousands of these Colombians were minors.
Who is speaking for their little voices? It is difficult to hear them when most of Colombia does not even want to see their faces. Heck, some high political officials have even publicly rejected their existence by labeling them “migrant workers” instead of refugees. But, even if they were simply “migrant workers,” we should still feel sympathy, especially because many of them are children.
We provide labels to these green mangoes that, many times, remove and hide their identities. Words like terrorist, like displaced, like disappeared, make it easier for us to go on with our days and just let the faceless armies of Santos and Cano fight it out.
We have to stop turning the other cheek in this respect in order to see the unwrinkled sadness printed on the canvases of the country’s youngest generations.
A couple of recent films—Pequeñas Voces (Little Voices) and Los Colores de la Montaña (The Colors of the Mountain)—have done well to give a voice and paint a face to this widespread and systematic humanitarian injustice. The films filter Colombia’s armed conflict through the eyes of our children. We must listen. We must ask them what they want. We must reconsider a diplomatic solution. We must end this conflict. We must demand it. If not for us, at least for the nation’s children. For our what is to come.
When we pay a war tax, when we say no to peaceful negotiations, when we receive U.S. military aid, when we recruit more soldiers to fight this incessant war that has desensitized so many, I want you to remember the face of at least one, just one, Colombian child or teenager—not the face of a hippopotamus or Cano or Santos—and meditate on that child’s face, and recognize this is the face of Colombia’s future, its legacy, our legacy, who we continue to send into the jungle and foothills to die.
These little voices on the mountain, they are my Pepes. And these words you read, they are the wrinkles on the mask I wear in solidarity.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.