In December almost every night in Medellin there are several sharp blasts of “polvora” fired, fireworks (with no colors) fired usually because a favorite team has won a soccer game, or someone is getting married, or someone is drunk. It’s not december yet, but the holiday spirit is already getting the better of many and bangs that range from pops to grenade-esque depending on how close they are can already be heard with more frequency than usual in the city. My tolerant, fun-loving/explosive side at first wanted to defend this as raucous fun…but really I’ve decided it’s terrible. Last year from December 1 to 5 in Antioquia alone (the region Medellin is within) 38 people were injured by these fireworks. I met a gum-vendor who had lost his hand from these explosives as a kid; and there are many like him. Beyond that, as I was reflecting with my friend, hearing something so similar to gunshots continually in a society where most people have lost a relative if not direct family member to violence, where there are actual gun wars many nights, is a recipe for repeated trauma.
In any case, Saturday I woke up several times to explosions, not for the first time, but this time I really didn’t think it was polvera. At least not all of it. The next day as I walked down my hill and glanced at the headlines I saw that the police had arrested a head militia leader in the Comuna 8, Gomelo; possibly at least some of the gunshots I was hearing. Two weeks ago I had participated in a commission of “clearing up” the abuses of human rights and systemic impunity during and after Operation Orion in Medellin’s most notorious Comuna 13. Operation Orion was a joint military/paramilitary day-long clearing of guerilla influence in the Comuna (to replace it with paramilitary) whose goal was ostensibly to “pacify”the infamous comuna, though it proved not only ineffective but, as this commission saw, intentionally malevolent in both purpose and effect. The point is Gomelo wasn’t even from the currently powder keg Comuna 8, but rather the Comuna 13, come to take control of another territory.
Last week my co-worker and friend, let’s call her Stella, was in tears because she has just been to the funeral of a young rapper/artist she had known, killed in a series of killings of rappers, and hip hop artists and youth in the Comuna 8. What she said more than anything was how hard the impotence was, seeing the other youth using art as resistance unsure how to keep going faced with the very real possibility of death.
Anyway, Sunday night a friend and I walked from my house to a plaza called “Parque de los Deseos”, Desire Park, where they show open-air movies once or twice a week. Sunday was “Up”, so I bought cotton candy and empanadas to enjoy the movie. Stella and I were helping coordinate a workshop the next day so she was going to come and have a last-minute meeting with me and the facilitator. When she called, though, I could hear how upset she was from the moment she spoke. “One of the local gang-members that knows my mom told her there’s an order out for my brother’s death”, she told me. I knew her brother had made some bad choices and it wasn’t the first time I’d heard about problems related to him, but this was something else. I asked what I could do and she said pray. I asked if they could contact the person who gave the order and she said maybe. In any case we had our meeting, we went to see a concert that was neither what we thought, plus was over by the time we got there and then I went home and she went to her mom’s. An hour later she called and told me she was out with her mom and cousin walking the streets to find the gang-leader they thought they could talk to about it.
Monday morning as I was coordinating getting my computer back from my flaky-fixer-friend (another hard drive problem) and accompanying the facilitator to the workshop location (which I’d never been to) Stella called and told me the gang-leader said he hadn’t sent the order, her brother showed up out of nowhere, and they were going to look into where the threat had come from, but it seemed things were relatively ok for now.
Then we had a workshop about civic responsibility and advocacy in the church all day (a holiday) in the Comuna 13. Nearly 20 people who were supposed to come didn’t and so Stella and I passed out uneaten lunches to homeless people on our way out. Since I was leaving for 2 weeks of MCC retreat and Seed visits the next day, I took her and my other friend out for ice cream. While we were sitting there for 20 minutes 3 beggars and 2 drunks came to ask for money or offer conversation; my friend received a call telling him a friend of a friend was arrested for collecting extorsion-money, something he was coerced into doing; needless to say it wasn’t a very relaxing ice-cream break. Stella was tired, so she went home, meanwhile my friend and I walked for a while and then he decided to go as well.
I called him a little after he left and heard intense crying on the other end of the line (not his), he said he’d call back. Worried, and knowing he couldn’t be far yet, I went walking to find him. He was standing in front of a woman holding a sobbing teenager; when I asked what had happened, he told me she had been raped. Turns out he knew the woman, and the woman knew the girl who was 18 and part of a Christian organization taking care of girls who had been on the street and had babies or were pregnant. This girl already had a 2-year-old son, and had already been raped once in her young life. She sobbed and I just sat down next to her, scared to touch her at first, not knowing what in the world to say. The woman kept telling her it wasn’t her fault, that it wasn’t God’s fault either, that it was terrible, that we were here, that she needed to be brave during the process of declaring it, that it wasn’t her fault, that she should think about forgiving the rapist…she held her and rubbed her head; she and my friend coordinating with the ineffective and insulting police who flat-out said they thought she was lying. (My friends comment was that ‘the neighborhood where it happened is largely “untouchable” it’s so firmly controlled by the gangs there…) It broke my heart. “Why me?” she kept saying “No! Not again…” this 18-year-old beautiful child said. It was 5pm when it happened, daylight, in a park. She had to take a bus back to her neighborhood alone right after. It broke my heart.
Eventually I got up the nerve to give her a back masage, to find out her son was born the same month I was, to find out she liked to swim. They were going to go to the hospital so I asked her if she’d rather I leave or stay and go to the hospital (accompaniment is awkward in times like these– who’s needed? Who’s wanted? What is helpful? What is voyeuristic?) she could barely walk or keep her eyes open, but she told me to come, so I did. We were in the hospital till about 10:30pm. She spent the night there, protocol. Today they’ll do the legal errands, and eventually she’ll be with her son again, and still in the care of this loving organization. But it will still have happened. Just like my friends’ friend is still arrested. Stella’s brother is still teetering the brink of danger. The comunas are still in warfare. And once or twice a week there are open-air movies. And there are concerts, and there’s ice cream and there are friends.
Today the world is focused on who will win: Obama or Romney. I care, I can’t say I don’t care. And it’s relevant, of course it’s relevant: whether we keep selling weapons and buying drugs to and from Colombia, whether we focus aid on human rights and institution building or keep funneling it into military aid is very relevant to nearly all of these situations. But my heart’s not in it. My heart is torn between all these different worlds and pains, injustices, knotted cycles of violence and vengeance and the faint flickering seems-like-nothing solutions and band-aids and embracing love I have put all of my faith in.