The Rumpus Interview with Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening

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Five decades ago, a violent power struggle between conservative and liberal factions in Colombia mutated into a countrywide turf war among paramilitary, government, and guerrilla groups. Aided and aggravated at different times by foreign involvement, the cocaine trade, and shaky internal reform, the conflict continues to this day. The human consequences have been catastrophic: an estimated 200,000 killed, and over four million displaced by threats and violence perpetrated by government and privately backed paramilitary groups, as well as leftist guerrilla organizations. These citizen stories are the subject of Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives From Colombians Displaced by Violence, the tenth volume in the Voice of Witness series, which illustrates human rights crises through oral history.

The conflict among Colombia’s armed groups has been so prolonged that its resultant human rights abuses are essentially normalized in the lives of millions of civilians. The twenty-three narratives in Throwing Stones at the Moon illustrate the effects of systematic violence, and the traumas that persist despite its familiarity. I spoke with the book’s editors, journalist Sibylla Brodzinsky and researcher Max Schoening, to shed light on the human rights crisis in Colombia, the future of peace negotiations, and the power of bringing voices of survivors to the forefront of a conversation dominated by the perpetrators and beneficiaries of Colombia’s conflict.

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The Rumpus: Tell me about how you got involved in this project.

Max Schoening: I had done some volunteer work for Voice of Witness. When I moved to Colombia, I got in touch with Sibylla because I knew that she was an experienced journalist, and covered human rights issues here. So I knew about the Voice of Witness series and thought that Colombia would be a great country to include.

I think one of the main reasons we thought it would be a great book in the series is that Colombia’s human rights problems and internal conflict, as geographically close as it is to the United States, and as intertwined as Colombia is with the U.S. as a top ally in South America and as recipient of billions in aid—mostly military aid—the human rights problems, the forced displacement, and the war remains largely unknown in the U.S. and abroad. And when it is known, it’s often thought of through the stereotype of senseless violence or just drug-related violence, and not [in consideration of] the full complexities of the history of the country. So we thought this would be a great addition to the series, particularly through the voices of Colombians who have been displaced by the violence

Sibylla Brodzinsky: I’ve been in Colombia for 13 years now, and have talked to a lot of victims over the years, and it came to a point where I actually thought about oral history, because I wanted to dig a little deeper and understand people’s stories better. You know, sitting with somebody and having them tell their story and knowing that in a journalism article it was [only] going to be one or two paragraphs in the story. And I felt the limitations of that. And so when Max came to me with this idea—I didn’t know about Voice of Witness—I thought it would be perfect. It just seemed that no series on human rights, and human rights abuses around the world, is complete without something on Colombia. It’s just had such a long history of violence and victimization. So I jumped at the idea.

Rumpus: How did each of the stories end up in this volume? Were they all interviews done specifically for this book, or were they compiled before the project developed?

Brodzinsky: They were all done for the book. We did many more than what made it onto the book, so there was a process of selection. We came upon some incredible stories that we later couldn’t, for some reason or another, reach the person again to fill in gaps or details in the story, or get questions answered to bring the narrative together in a cohesive way, so unfortunately there are some interviews that didn’t make it in for that reason. There are also people who didn’t want to share the level of detail that we wanted to include in the book, in order to have a literary quality to the story. So we probably did about 60 interviews in total, and 23 made it in the book.

Rumpus: How did you find the individuals who you did end up interviewing for the book?

Schoening: From the start we set out with a plan of the regions we wanted to capture in the book to give a representative depiction of the country, because Colombia is country that is really divided between regions. The culture is completely different in the Andean regions, the Caribbean coast, the Pacific coast, the Amazon, the Eastern Plains region—so there’s a diversity of culture, and in terms of the human rights problems, there’s very specific problems in different areas. We started with that premise, and also types of topics we knew we wanted to cover. For instance, one topic would be land restitution. Colombia is trying to push through implementing a law that aims to return stolen and abandoned land to internally displaced people. We wanted to have a narrative that reflected that process.

And then NGOs helped us find some people. Sometimes, we would just show up. The first narrative in the book is in El Salado. It’s where one of the most well-known atrocities in the recent conflict happened. It’s a major massacre that occurred in 2000 on the Caribbean coast, and we knew we wanted to get a story from one of the survivors. So we went there, to the nearest town, and took a Jeep out to this village. We kind of just showed up.

Brodzinsky: We had some names and we contacted two women who didn’t even know we were coming. We showed up and said, “So-and-so told us to look here.” We ended up doing four or five interviews there, and used one of them.

Schoening: That was a case where we knew the village we knew we wanted to go to. In other cases, [we worked with] NGOs; in one case I read in an article, the last narrative in the book. [The narrator] is a land restitution leader who was shot in the face in October 2010, and it was this article about how he was living in hiding. So through contacts here, I got to meet with him.

Brodzinsky: Others were absolutely random. Max found someone on the street whose story made it in the book. So it’s been a little bit of everything.

Schoening: A lot of people helped us along the way. Offering directions, homes to meet in and interview people.

Rumpus: One of the perhaps more random ones that stuck out to me was the individual who had been a cocaine processing lab manager, who was interviewed with his pet rabbit. In the introduction to his story, it mentioned that you had just met him on the street, and taken him out for coffee. It was an interesting idea that made me think about where these people came from and the diversity of their stories.

Brodzinsky: Part of doing that too, when we thought about where to go and who to approach, was to show all the facets and faces of displacement in Colombia. Obviously we can’t show them all. But there’s a very good sampling in the book of the different manifestations, the different reasons behind it. So that’s what we’re aiming for.

Rumpus: There’s so much packed into this book. Its structure by region conveys the reach of the paramilitary, guerrilla, and government-sanctioned activity that begets this widespread human displacement, and while the overarching narratives definitely come across, processing it, I found, could be overwhelming. I want to know what your understanding of the pervasive nature of the conflict is. Within this huge diversity of narrators, of stories, what sort of framework is important for people to keep in mind when they approach this much information and this much history?

Brodzinsky: In a way I think the stories in the book—and this may sound cliché—they’re almost a quilt. And each individual piece helps build the quilt of this conflict. No two experiences are the same; I think that’s really clear in the book. And it shows the often random, and in other cases very targeted, nature of the conflict for the victims, I think that what a reader can take away is how complex it is. I think we can’t stress enough: it’s not a drug war. It’s not just an insurgency. It’s not just a repressive government. It’s all of those things at different times, and in tandem.

Schoening: It can be a dizzying array of armed groups in the conflict, and it’s not always clear if it’s politically driven, economically driven, ideologically driven or just over resources. But if you ask me how we organized the information in a way that would make it accessible for people who don’t necessarily come to the book knowing a ton about Colombia, the introduction explains the basic contours of the internal conflict, and also the different human rights problems in the country, particularly recent human rights scandals and abuses. And with the regional introductions, we’ve tried to give an overview of the history of each region, and the salient characteristics. And then with the individual narratives, there’s also introductions where we summarize what happens to the person in a way that can hopefully make it more accessible.

Rumpus: Something you said about the introduction made me think of a line in the forward which basically stated that part of the purpose not just of this volume, but of the Voice of Witness series as a whole, is to allow survivors to tell their stories for the purpose of distancing themselves from what the crisis was at the time of trauma. It’s hard to overestimate the stress that this conflict has put on citizens over so many decades, and it’s almost unfathomable how many times people in these stories have had to leave and lose everything and start again. Can you take a few minutes to speak about what a displaced person experiences in crisis and afterwards?

Brodzinsky: Again every experience is different, but I think some of the common experiences are, first, terror over whatever it is that causes displacement. You don’t leave [your home] just because. And then I think, obviously, fear of the unknown. Again, it’s different. Some people end up with family, others end up on the streets of Bogotá. But all of it involves experiencing upheaval, and being forced to flee some very extreme situation of violence or threat. It’s a complete upheaval of everyone’s life, in every case.

There is a very weak social safety net for the displaced. It doesn’t work. It’s very complicated. In theory, people are eligible for emergency aid as soon as they declare themselves displaced. In reality, it can take 6 months to a year. By that time you’ve figured it out or you’ve…you know. The aid that’s meant to cushion the initial arrival of people to their place of displacement is basically nonexistent. There are some humanitarian organizations that do give some aid. But government aid is not very helpful in most cases. So basically people are left to fend for themselves. If they’re rural workers who have come to the city, obviously they’re at a huge disadvantage trying to find work.

Schoening: I would agree in that it’s impossible to reduce the experiences of all the displaced to one experience. There are some overarching themes. One was a theme of loss. You lose, from a material context, if you’re a farmer—and most displaced people are displaced from the countryside—you lose your life savings that you’ve invested in your farm, in building your house, in buying cattle, things like that. A lot of the displaced people lose a family member; sometimes more than one loved one. You’re also losing a community. So there’s a lot of loss when you have to leave where you’re from. And when you move to the new place, there’s social dislocation. You don’t have the safety net of community that you used to have, you’re thrown into an environment where it’s hard to find work, you don’t necessarily trust your neighbors, and it can affect your family life. Loss and dislocation.

It’s also transformative. This comes through in some stories. These people have incredible willpower to seek justice for something that happened against them. So, there is a newfound strength. Whether it’s just the strength to survive and provide food for your family, or strength you find to confront your perpetrators to make sure they’re brought to justice. I think that resilience comes through in the book, as well.

Brodzinsky: A lot of times the displaced leave the situation of violence and some of the areas they end up, especially in the large cities, are violent themselves. So they’re faced with a new type of violence, in street gangs. They’ve fled from one really extreme situation trying to safeguard their lives, and end up in a different but equally threatening situation.

Schoening: Right, they’re more vulnerable, and it exposes them to new abuses.

Rumpus: Have you kept in touch with any of the narrators, or been able to see if anyone’s situations have changed drastically from when you interviewed them?

Brodzinsky: We are in contact with quite a few of the narrators.

Schoening: One example of someone we kept in touch with was Felipe, whose ex-wife and three of his children were killed in a massacre in 2010. We met with him in the beginning of 2011. He was pretty destroyed at that point. He was with one of his surviving sons, he was physically sick. An amazing storyteller, and someone who can also really crack a joke. When we first met up with him, his other son had had his hand nearly chopped off by an armed group trying to recruit him. His 14-year-old son. And the most recent time we talked to him, he didn’t even know where this son was anymore.

Rumpus: One of the results of being exposed to the diversity of voices in this book is that I got a clear sense of the people as well as of the geography of the country and the conflict. I’m wondering if you considered including a narrative by someone involved in a guerilla group or a paramilitary group. Or if that would’ve even been a possibility, to fill this diverse illustration in even more.

Brodzinsky: Well, we did include Ramon, the person who we found on the street. When we listened to his story we found that he had been involved with the paramilitaries. We talked about whether to include it or not. We weren’t sure. We ultimately thought that it was a good idea, to show that it’s just—everybody. I mean, he, as a former paramilitary, was displaced by the guerillas who came in. So we talked about it, because he wasn’t our favorite person, he isn’t as sympathetic an individual as others. But we thought this story was very powerful and important to tell.

Schoening: Not the most sympathetic, but incredibly friendly with us. But, he clearly collaborated with paramilitaries and disposed of bodies in the river.

Brodzinsky: And [was] really unapologetic about it.

Schoening: Yeah, really unapologetic. I do think that to include those stories of perpetrators would enrich an understanding of Colombia. But I think that wasn’t what this book was about. In Colombia, there’s a lot more space given to the voices of perpetrators; there’s TV shows about them, you know. And the experiences of people who are dispossessed by them, who feel like victims, don’t get as much space.

Brodzinsky: But I do think that’s interesting. There are two narratives where civilians play with the idea of joining one or the other armed groups, the guerrillas or the paramilitaries. Not for ideological purposes, and I think that’s what makes it interesting. This is just one of the options, one of the very few options they have in their lives. One chooses to join, and then backs out—Danny. The other, Alicia, [thought] about it and decided not to, but she lived with the guerrillas all her life, and there was nothing strange about living among guerillas for her. So, in that sense we wanted to focus on civilians, but I think those two narratives in particular show the normalcy of these armed groups in the everyday lives of normal individuals.

Rumpus: This book covers a significantly longer period of time than most other Voice of Witness books, with violence related to this conflict beginning in the ’40s and not ending with the demobilization of paramilitary groups in 2004 to 2005. What are your thoughts on whether or not the sources of violence and displacement have remained the same? How have things changed, if at all?

Schoening: I think that the violence in the country is constantly transforming: the groups are mutating, they change names. They may have different motivations over time, the ideology might change over time. But there’s also continuity, which is quite evident in the time leading back to La Violencia, which was the period of fighting between conservative and liberal parties where the majority of people who killed each other were poor peasants. There was very little ideological division between the two parties. A lot of it was about land. That theme persists today. It’s at the heart of the conflict. You can look at it as well in terms of intergenerational cycles of violence—people seeking revenge for deaths of family members—and they can later turn into leaders of groups as well. But I think, without a doubt, there is continuity dating back to the violence in the ’40s and ’50s.

Brodzinsky: To summarize, it’s a constantly evolving conflict and one of the constants is displacement of civilians. I think that in the book, one of the narratives that best illustrates that is Alberto, who was displaced as a young child during La Violencia, then as a grown man had his farms taken away from him by the guerillas. And really the FARC [1] was born from the guerillas that actually helped his family escape during La Violencia. So there’s this odd cycle in his life, that’s repeated in many lives. I think that illustrates how the violence changes. He says he’s not afraid of dead people because he’s been through that, he knows that.

Rumpus: This is clearly a real-time human rights crisis, which is coming to light again just in recent days, as the Colombian government announced that it’s preparing for a new round of peace talks with the FARC. Do you have any insights into this development?

Brodzinsky: It’s kind of a whole new ballgame for both sides. The FARC is not the same as it was during the last attempt at peace talks, which was from ‘99 to 2002. They’re half the size, they’re weakened, they’ve lost a lot of their legendary leaders, and the current leaders are not as ideological as some of their predecessors. Some people consider Alfonso Cano, the previous FARC leader who was killed last November, a Stalinist. The current leader is a little more open to talks, open to putting an end to the conflict. It seems to me, without wanting to be overly optimistic, that for the first time there is a very real intent to reach a peace agreement, and to end the conflict. I’ve covered previous peace talks, and it was a circus. Nobody ever took it seriously. And I do get the feeling that this is a serious effort. It’s going to be really difficult, and there’s going to be a lot of problems along the way, but I do think this is the most serious effort in recent history.

Rumpus: To bring it back to Throwing Stones, I’d like to ask what your goals are for this book. How do you see it being used, and what do you hope it achieves?

Schoening: One of the chief purposes of the book is to make people aware. We’re exclusively touring the book in the U.S. We want to put this on the map. The human rights problems, the human consequences of the conflict here. And not only the conflict; a lot of the narratives aren’t necessarily directly related to what we’d consider the armed conflict between the guerrillas and the state. It’s other types of violence that can be associated with the conflict but not necessarily part of warfare between guerillas and the government. But I think that the human rights issues in Colombia have been somewhat overshadowed, particularly in recent years, by this recent narrative that Colombia has overcome its problems, it’s this emerging economy. We want to really show that these abuses and displacement continue to go on, and that the scars of the violence are still there, and there’s a lot there that will be very difficult to repair. To achieve justice for those who are documented in this book because ending the conflict doesn’t necessarily mean achieving justice for the victims. It’s an important issue whether the victims in this book, and millions of other victims, will see their day in court, and see justice achieved.

A final ingredient would be to build complexity. Our goal isn’t just to raise awareness for the sake of awareness, but to add depth to the way people understand Colombia. Human rights in Colombia can often be a polarizing subject, often in the context of the free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia. Hopefully with these highly personal narratives, we can really empathize with the narrators: see them as people that can break through the preconceptions that people have about Colombia, from whatever position they’re taking, whatever lens they have on the country.

Brodzinsky: I think that’s the general purpose of the book. When I first started, the idea behind it was to highlight the fact that these victims exist, and every day there are new victims of the conflict. And to a large extent they were either being ignored or, outside Colombia, their existence wasn’t acknowledged. So that was a big purpose of doing this. And also, some of these people have told their stories quite a few times, probably not in this level of detail, but many of these people are just anonymous, random people we found. And they hadn’t told their story, either in a really long time, or ever, and no one had really been interested in hearing it. And I think on that level, the impact on the individual level with the narrators is also important. I think it is liberating for people to tell their stories, to know that people care to hear them and care what happened to them.

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Author’s Note: responses reflect editors’ personal opinions, and are not reflective of the institutions they represent elsewhere (including The Economist and Human Rights Watch).

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[1] The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, one of the dominant Marxist guerilla groups.


Emmy Komada is a translator and assistant editor at Two Lines Press, part of the Center for the Art of Translation. She likes languages, and reading, and trying to read in various languages. More from this author →