I remember watching it in the news and reading about it in the papers when I was 10. Tanks and helicopters surveilling the streets of my city. A four day war that began on October 16th, 2002. It is one thing seeing a tank parked by the road with a couple of soldiers greeting the tourists traveling by car, an image any Colombian is not foreign with, and a completely different one seeing it cruising up the streets of what used to be one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world: Comuna 13, in Medellín.
It was the year a new president got elected with the promise of military defeating the leftist guerrilla groups that had taken over a great portion of the Colombian territory. I remember one of my elementary school friends proudly wearing a backpack with his slogan: “Hard fist, big heart”. My memories from that time are, of course, blurry. A kid shouldn’t be worried about politics. I remember, though, the optimism that came with the “hard fist” part of his political platform: the country side would be pacified, cleared from the guerrillas. We would be able to return to our farms and country houses. I mean, my family didn’t have one, but most of my friends’ did, so it was a good thing. That was as far as my political judgment went at 10 years old.
The urban war that was fought exactly 13 years ago fitted perfectly in the elected president’s rhetoric. After the “narco” years, some guerrilla groups had taken over Medellin’s poorest neighborhoods. They were called “militias”, and acted like the de facto state for more than a decade, imposing order through violence, illegally taxing people and businesses, and recruiting children and youngsters for their own war. Operación Orión was the name given by the government to the military strategy set up to regain control of the Comuna 13 (though it technically never had it before). Conceived as a necessary effort to promote order and peace, to bring the state institutions to the neighborhood, it involved Black Hawks helicopters, M60 firearms, and more than 3000 man from both the police and the army. It was viewed by many as one step ahead in the “we would be able to travel safely by car again” goal. Many newspapers regarded Orión as a sound success. After all, the Colombian government controlled Comuna 13 again.
But what I remembered as a success, was indeed a failure. The excessive violence exerted by the army left not only bullet holes in the already precarious houses (try shooting accurately from a helicopter), but also more than 50 civilian victims including children. The militias were gone, but the paramilitaries (self-defense groups from the radical right) took over the Comuna after having teamed with the army during Orión. The Comuna 13 extends over a mountain, and while the army went up from the valley, the paramilitaries cornered the “milicianos” from the hill top. Once the Comuna was pacified, the paramilitaries hunted everyone who had any sort of relationship (even familiar) with the militias. More than a hundred inhabitants disappeared in the months after Orión. People suspect they are all buried in a construction dump site in the neighborhood.
Wyslawa Symborszka wrote a beautiful poem about war called “Reality demands”. Curiously enough, I first read its main verse in an academic paper about violence in Colombia:
“What moral flows from this? Probably none
Only that blood flows, drying quickly,
And, as always, a few rivers a few clouds”
Though as much as I think it is somehow truth, the whole point of this sort of personal catharsis of writing about Orión is getting some moral out of it. Maybe it is that I am ashamed of how I used to remember that infamous episode for a long time, even though I was just a kid then, but I came to three main conclusions:
First, building state capacity is not as easy as kicking the guerrilla’s ass with some Black Hawk helicopters. It involves less brute force and more social control. It demands the state to hear the people needs. Second, there is always something more to what is presented in the news. And there are definitely much more stories we ignore behind our collective and personal memories. Finally, we can always find people overcoming tragic situations, against all odds. There are thousands of such stories in the Comuna 13 right now, like the folks at Casa Kolacho who instead of firing arms, decided to paint dope graffiti and compose rap songs with their life stories. Here it is the full Symborszka poem. It should have a line about the daily miracles of tenacious people at the Medellin’s Comuna 13:
that we also mention this:
Life goes on.
It continues at Cannae and Borodino,
at Kosovo Polje and Guernica.
There’s a gas station
on a little square in Jericho,
and wet painton park benches in Bila Hora.
Letters fly back and forth
between Pearl Harbor and Hastings,
a moving van passes
beneath the eye of the lion at Chaeronea,
and the blooming orchards near Verdun
the approaching atmospheric front.
There is so much Everything
that Nothing is hidden quite nicely.
from the yachts moored at Actium
and couples dance on the sunlit decks.
So much is always going on,
that it must be going on all over.
Where not a stone still stands,
you see the Ice Cream Man
besieged by children.
Where Hiroshima had been
Hiroshima is again,
producing many products
for everyday use.
This terrifying world is not devoid of charms,
of the mornings
that make waking up worthwhile.
The grass is green
on Maciejowice’s fields,
and it is studded with dew,
as is normal grass.
Perhaps all fields are battlefields,
those we remember
and those that are forgotten:
the birch forests and the cedar forests,
the snow and the sand, the iridescent swamps
and the canyons of black defeat,
where now, when the need strikes, you don’t cower
under a bush but squat behind it.
What moral flows from this? Probably none.
Only that blood flows, drying quickly,
and, as always, a few rivers, a few clouds.
On tragic mountain passes
the wind rips hats from unwitting heads
and we can’t help
laughing at that.