Memories and Museums

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I once brought a stack of photos to a Justapaz meetings. I asked each member of the team to pick a photo and describe a feeling.  The one answer that still stands out, because I couldn’t quite believe it, is of a group of kids wearing matching soccer jerseys and kicking a ball. “You can tell that the kids in this photo are very poor, but they are still playing, despite not having a lot.”

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I took the photo on one of my happiest days in Mampujan.  There were no community meetings or Victim Unit drama. Instead of walking the streets to document the need for reparations or the increasing number of motorcycles, I was capturing the everyday excitement of watching soccer.  Everyone was wearing their jersey. Down each street, people invited me in by name to take their photo and remember their joy. As the sun sank, the group of kids from my block gathered to re-enact their favourite plays. For one golden moment, no one was poor. Or I had, at least, forgotten.  

But of course Mampujan was poor. Yersenida would count her coins before her children came home from school everyday. “Is there enough for bread or only plantains?” she would calculate aloud. I would buy eggs from one neighbour, bananas from another, trying to spread my own wealth among the community. “Do you think reparations will arrive tomorrow?” Alex, Yersenida’s husband would ask me each day. “Things are hard.”

Much of that poverty could be blamed on violence. Displacement by the paramilitaries in 2000. Life in a wider context of state abandonment and structural racism. Memories of massacres and false positives. Once fertile farmland turned into the acres and acres of palm oil plantations stretching down the highway leading to and from the community.

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After a while of living, however, the first shocks of a new context wear off. Strangers become neighbours. Old Mampujan switches from a site of terror to the location of Holy Weeks picnics. Poverty and victims of violence move to the bottom of the list of adjectives to describe a place, replaced by: resistance, friendship, laughter, frustration, work, golden hour.  Hardship is not romanticized, but it is nuanced by a thousand interactions. 

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There is a particular feeling of pain that lodges between your ribcage and the base of your throat when you see faces and places you know on display in a museum, simply because they suffered violence. As I walk through Juan Manuel Echevarria’s photo exhibit on La Violencia on the top two floors of the Bogota Museum of Modern Art, I want to throw up. This is the Montes de Maria without any soccer celebrations, without the quilts, the marches, the daily trips to the tienda.  It is Mampujan, and an entire region, divorced from everything else I know about it, leaving only violence. This is a history that must be told, but without a san cocho on the banks of an arroyo, the stories flowing alongside daily lives, La Violencia is unbearable.

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I forget that La Violencia was, actually, unbearable. Massacre. Displacement. Torture. Kidnap. Rape. Bodies in ditches and children who never came home. Old Mampujan was a site of terror. On March 12, 2000, the AUC killed twelve members of Las Brisas underneath the tamarind tree framed in the museum.  

Mampujan and Las Brisas’s commemoration of twelves years of displacement and massacre in 2012 is hot, long and chaotic. If I shake my head too hard, dust flies everywhere.  Juan Manuel Echevarria arrives in the community the day before the commemoration with the two photos to display alongside the tapices, one of the blackboard in the abandoned school in Old Mampujan and one of the Tamarind tree. I don’t remember a lot about his presentation to those gathered for a logistics meeting beforehand. I am too busy trying to organize food and dying turtles as the community leaders figure out how to inform the community that reparations have been, yet again, delayed. Throughout the never ending days of commemoration that follow, as I clutch my clipboard and frantically make phone calls, I see Echevarria taking photos with different community leaders and his work.

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Photo on display in the Museum of Modern Art, Bogota. Wilson is on the far left, the day of the commemoration.

There is Wilson Seguanes, who is organizing a return to Las Brisas, with or without state accompaniment. There is Rafael Posso, whose own sketches of donkeys arriving to San Cayetano, burdened with the dead of Las Brisas, is also on display. His tiny son carries a photo of his uncle, one of those bodies. There are Alex Villareal, Juana Ruiz, Gabriel Pulido, Tulio Maza, Delfa Pulido of Mampujan. Two nights ago, we had sat together and ate tiny fried fish, crunching through salty bone and making schedules. There are those who never make it in any photo. The countless women in the background, waiting for the rice to arrive so they can finally feed their families. There is El Caballito, whose last name I never figure out, who finds wild honeycomb in the surrounding woods and brings me a piece. There is my ten year old neighbour, Yesit Rodriguez, who will later wow me with his soccer moves, sitting on a plastic chair in the middle of a ruined home in a site of terror.

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“What does it mean to experience a hunger, thirst, wetness, or cold so profound and unrelenting that its memory causes one to shiver?” Victoria Sanford writes about hearing testimonies of genocide in her book, Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. I refuse to define my neighbours and friends as simply part of a history of violence, yet violence is still a vivid part of their history that carries over to the present.  Two hours in a museum reminded me all over again of the terror they have faced, and the terror that those in many parts of Colombia continue to live.

Yet where is the space for the rest of the lives? Who tells these stories?  I have lived two years of my life in the Montes de Maria, six years in Colombia. What is my responsibility and response? It is possible to be a witness to both the stories of sick-inducing horror and the game of dominoes? To know that, twelve years earlier, that same group of men was playing dominoes the night the AUC descended the hills?  These may be my life long questions.

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