Territorios by Lisa Colorado

Original Text: Naturaleza común; relatos de no ficción de excombatientes para la reconciliación [Common Nature: Non-fiction Stories for Reconciliation by Ex-combatants] Ministry of Culture, Instituto Caro y Cuervo, and Center for Memory, Peace, & Reconciliation, 2021 (Colombia)

Translator’s Note: In 2020, four years after the Final Agreement to End the Armed Conflict and Build a Stable and Lasting Peace was signed in Havana, Cuba, by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), something remarkable took place: a group of demobilized combatants, in collaboration with the Master’s in Creative Writing at the Instituto Caro y Cuervo and the Center for Memory, Peace, & Reconciliation undertook a collective writing process.

The concept that united the writers featured in Common Nature was the environment itself and how it had “been a victim, but also, paradoxically, a beneficiary of the armed conflict.” The following translation features two of the eleven ex-combatants who participated in the workshop, reflecting on a contradiction—that the majority of their time in the insurgency revolved around a relationship with nature, not combat.

The offering provided here by Disney Cardoso and Doris Suárez Guzmán is a complex one. It is the result of a multi-faceted writing process of many participants, of annotated pages wrapped in plastic for safe passage over rivers, of grief, reverence, and trust in compassionate readers.

I myself, as someone who has translated for victims of the armed conflict in Colombia since 2011, wish to bring these words to an English readership to extend the “reparative tapestry” envisioned by its creators.

Common Nature is an opportunity to engage intimately with complexity, to humanize the dizzying statistics of a Colombian “post-conflict” roiled by setbacks (according the United Nations, close to three hundred ex-combatants have been assassinated since the 2016 peace agreement). What follows, more than a practice in memory preservation, is a challenge to dominant narratives about public order in Colombia. What does it mean to an ex-combatant to have experienced kinship and camaraderie in the guerrilla, having been previously orphaned or estranged from family? What does it mean to lay down a history of having answered to different names, to diverse forms of literacy, to “nature’s punctuation,” to contend with the rigors of urbanity and civilian life? What does it mean to truly “break the spiral” of violence and state abandonment in Colombia?

In the words of Juan Álvarez, project coordinator of Naturaleza Común, “Just as castaways have returned over the centuries with stories to tell, this group of ex-combatants offer us their lived experience within the bowels of a diverse geography through which, perhaps, it is not too late to roam in a bid for reconciliation.”

Encuentros con fauna by Sergio Roman

The Snail’s Spiral

By Disney Cardoso
(in collaboration with Christian Rincón)

The Snail’s Spiral

by Disney Cardoso—in collaboration with Christian Rincón (Read by Jeanine Legato)

I met Gato six months after joining the guerrilla. We saw each other for the first time in La Llaneta, a rural settlement near Marquetalia. We were attending a training for new recruits and he and I were covered in mud from head to toe. We couldn’t stop looking at each other, intuiting a certain complicity or maybe the common solitude of those of us who arrive young to the guerrilla. The afternoon drawing to a close, we went for a swim in one of the nearby rivers. We began talking as the water cleansed our faces, and right then we knew we would be friends. We were fifteen years old and laughed uncontrollably as we tore through the landscape that, through play, revealed itself to us.

One afternoon as we were making chontos—latrines dug in the earth in the middle of the jungle—we saw the snails for the first time. They were as big as coins and their shells had spirals that slowly receded before culminating in a center beyond view. Gato and I looked at each other, began gathering them in our hands, and tossed them at one another. Chucking and ducking, laughing, lobbing them again. At that moment, Gato came up with the game with which we would horse around on so many days that followed this one. It was simple: we traced a square in the earth and put various snails in it. I held another snail in my hand, stroking it with my fingertips, warming it in my grip, and then threw it at the square so it would collide there with another. One life against another.  The one who managed to break one of the shells within the square won, breaking the spiral.

I had attempted suicide five times. That was before joining the guerrilla. It’s just that so many things went on in my house. My sister didn’t love me, for example, and when my mom left with her partner for weeks on end, she would take control and throw me out of the house. On those days I had to sleep up in a mango tree. The nights, the days, the water, the heat—it’s incredible how a neglected person adapts to any situation. For this reason, when the guerrilla passed by my house, I went running after them so they would take me. The commander leading the unit said that I was too young but I insisted that I was already fifteen, that I would never regret having gone. I told them about everything going on in my house, the days and nights, and they finally agreed. I didn’t want to look back.

Today, I can still remember Gato in great detail. I squint my eyes and see him beside me: he had light hair and green eyes framed by abundant lashes. I remember his many freckles and his nose that sloped into a small nub capable of predicting flare-ups in the weather. His sister who, for practical reasons we called Gata, was much shorter than he and wore her hair shoulder length.

They both shared those freckles and the trenches, and it was odd not to see them together at any hour of the day. She had protruding canine teeth, which is perhaps why she hardly smiled.

Gato, on the other hand, would laugh at the slightest opportunity. I can remember him, snail in hand, and his nervous gaze when we were before the commander.

“Comrade Betty! You two know that you can’t go on behaving like children.”

“Comrade Betty, you’re disruptive!”

“Comrade Betty acts like a child.”

“You are a young woman, Betty, not a kid. Betty, you are a se-ño-ri-ta.”

“It turns out we have some disorderly comrades. Take a step forward, comrade Betty.”

And I would step forward.

“What is it you need? Do you two want me to get you dolls so you can behave? Why are you acting like this?”

“You two need to bring some order to your lives. I’m going to read you the code again.”

They read us the code over and over again. After we repeated it aloud, they punished us with gathering the firewood or guarding the animal traps. Gato would look at me, stifling his laughter.

Those years were cloaked in unexpected happiness, thanks to the snails. I had them in my pockets, my hands, I stuck them to tree bark during the night and the next day retrieved them from slightly higher on their slow escape, restarting the game.  The first time I went to the shooting range and saw the circles closing around the target, I thought again of the snail, and the shot fired straight. To grow is to retreat from the center and move outward.

That first year in the FARC was really tough. I thought of my mom constantly, even though she was never around and had never helped me when I needed her most. I cried every night because, one way or another, I was beginning to miss everything from which I’d escaped. I tried not to make noise and dried my tears as soon as they fell, but my memory was open-ended, filling me with illusions and deceptions. Cast it off, avoid it, laugh, cry, cast it off again.

I remember they gave us sweets or cigarettes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Since I didn’t smoke, I chose sweets which I used afterwards to make bets with Gato. Every once in a while, other kids filled out our group but we generally ended up playing just we three. So many times were we publicly or secretly called out and punished that the rest preferred to keep their distance.

They were afraid of the penance the commanders so often assigned us, so Gato, his sister, and I became a spiral that closed in on itself.

The nature that surrounded me was cold with lush, grand trees. I had learned how to distinguish many kinds of green and to remember some of the names of the trees from those long expeditions we took: guamo, cucharo, guásimo, arrayán, bejucos.  When we finished our chores, and sometimes sooner, we climbed up and balanced ourselves in the crown of the trees to experience fear. We were rabidly happy and didn’t care about falling because it was going to happen to us anyway in the war, and we were better off if it happened due to a decision rather than by accident. Rehearse the mistake. I recall entwining the branches to walk between trees, I recall a heavy Gato, lowering himself from a treetop, and Gata climbing in a hurry. One of those many times, it so happened that Gata couldn’t hold herself up well and the weight of the tree sent her flying into a mulberry bush. Its small thorns had embedded themselves in her face and legs, and she nearly fainted while we removed them. Gato and I laughed with panic.

I knew that my sister had also joined the guerrilla a little while after I had left. I was in the 21st Front and she in the Daniel Aldana Bloc. We didn’t see each other for twenty-two years. Every so often we received vague news, one about the other, but it wasn’t until the peace process was finalized that we met again. When we saw each other, we hugged as if by instinct, and we agreed that we had survived for so long because of our mother’s prayers, words that care, conceal, grasp. That long journey had ended. We would go home again. Gato and Gata ended up in the guerrilla because they were left parentless. Their parents were well known for their practice of black magic. When the guerrilla snatched the books on witchcraft with which they had worked, Gato secretly held on to one. For a year he carried it hidden in the seat of his underwear or in his boots, until one day, led by who knows what desire, he wanted to cast a spell. He decided to gather the hearts of three black hens, three hearts of swallows, and other exotic elements. He, as well as I, knew that this type of thing wasn’t allowed. When our comrades grew suspicious and found the book, they burned it before his eyes. Amidst his rage and grief, Gato was harshly sentenced to fetch firewood two hundred fifty times. I asked to go with him to soften his punishment and, on one of these trips, dropping the wood to the ground, he said:

“Let’s leave, Betty. Gata and I are going to leave.”

“No, I can’t. I still have a lot to lose.”

“I know you won’t tell anyone.”

I shook my head, grabbed the wood that had been dropped, and turned my back to them, knowing that I would never see them again.

Hours later, the others went looking for them, but they were too far ahead. From the others, I learned that they had confronted their old comrades with rifles that same night to save their lives and that, after a long battle, they had escaped unharmed.

My nom de guerre was Betty and the name given me by my mom is Pabliny. So as not to forget this transition, I carried a notebook in which I wrote everything that happened to me. I haven’t forgotten how, twenty days after arriving, Gato gave me a notepad that sank soon after. The river took longer carrying it away than I did in looking for another because, one way or another, I always found a way to put my thoughts on paper.

“Why do you write down that nonsense?” Gato would ask me.

“So that I don’t forget it.”

“You must be crazy if you can’t remember.”

But what I carried in those notebooks wasn’t my memory but my heart, which is another way of going back and moving forward. I remember that I often had to write in secret on sheets of paper I saved in baggies so they wouldn’t get wet when I crossed rivers and streams. I had even made a new pocket in my pack so they wouldn’t find anything during inspections.

The last notebook I got, one that I still have, I got through Guzmán, who was my partner during many years and who was in charge of distributing supplies to us. He would ask me to help him keep a record of the things doled out, and I took advantage and asked him to bring me more notebooks.

One day he asked me about it, and I told him that they had gotten wet. He never mentioned it again even if in the end he knew what I was doing. Every page was an imprint, a scene unfinished in my eyes that survived by my hand, by writing it, by commenting on it, so that every page of the notebook had a different title: Tatiana, Kisses, Clouds, Between Branches, Names of Flowers, Espeletia Genus.

“Comrade Betty, playing with snails again?”

The struggle was something I also waged within. Alone, within myself. I feel the breeze come down from the mountain and I think I, too, am this drizzle that cleans my face, I am this AK-47 to which I cling effortlessly because the years have gone by, and I am also on the other side of the gunfire but I am also here. I am a tree that seemingly does not move but tells its story undaunted from beneath the soil. It is my way of arriving home more quickly, of telling my mother that I am on my way, to heal my hands, to kiss my forehead, to tell me that I am not so alone and to forgive each other the silence of having answered to different names. Conquer or die, goes the battle cry. Conquer dying, I say. I am already here, farther still.

Nature Reader (A Tribute)

By Doris Suárez Guzmán

Nature Reader (A Tribute)

by Doris Suárez Guzmán (Read by Jeanine Legato)

Burro, simpleton, brute, ignoramus, illiter-ape. If you belong to Generation Guayaba you know that these descriptors, which would horrify the modern pedagogue, were used against those persons who weren’t given to reading and writing. Years later I discovered that the graphic symbols we learned in school weren’t the only way to read. Many ways to read exist. Many people exist who, far from being brutes, have developed other kinds of abilities that the majority of the literate don’t possess. I say so especially because of Rollito, “El Gordo,” “Roger,” or “Tomate” as we called him in camp, depending on the mood and the urgency of the moment. I preferred calling him Rollito, and now that I wish to recall that son of farmers, simple, humble, and solid as a small tree, I’ll continue calling him Rollito, my Roger. He, unlearned, was an instinctual reader and conversant with nature. Rapidly and without missing a beat, his feline eyes read the aroma of the plants, birdsong, the thickness of the trees, the size of the rocks—an infinite number of subtle signs that escaped my illiterate eyes.

Rollito recognized nature whether convulsive or silent. He identified the soft and distant murmur of trees and the different smells of green with as much naturalness as the reticence he had for reading and writing. Conversely, I was born with a wayward sense of direction. I’m not perceptive. I am unseasoned in the art of observing. To me, the trees had no personality. I couldn’t distinguish them despite my efforts to assign them some trait that could be used for reference. To me, they were simply green ceilings in all their hues, a sometimes exaggeratingly tall ceiling that protected us in war like an enormous blanket, and that allowed us to see the sky.

One of the few comrades who was close to Rollito—and who still lives—is Octavio, who helped me remember him here. He began his evocations a little nostalgically. They had a very close relationship, despite it being hierarchical. More than one of subordination, Octavio and Rollito wove a relationship of friendship. He admired that kind of feral Mr. Natural in Rollito that allowed him to know if people were honest or only motivated by personal interest. Though he seemed to exist halfway between innocence and astuteness, he was difficult to fool.

A fundamental task of a guerrilla is to learn how to orient oneself in the terrain, to find a dominant position to face off or fall back without being left at a disadvantage against the enemy. Some of the commanders had maps, coordinates, and compasses to orient themselves. We had Rollito, our lighthouse, our unflagging tracker who explored by day and guided us through trails by night. The commanders frequently consulted him, “Where can we make camp?” Rollito always had an exact answer because the terrain was bored into his brain. Even absent a fat moon to accompany us, through fog and rain, in the mud, and without shining a flashlight, he was capable of orienting himself in the most fragile and dangerous terrain. His geographical memory was uncanny. He lived on high alert, always on guard. He never quivered, or if he did, he played it off well.

When we moved through unknown or unsafe terrain, we couldn’t even turn on one of those small, very high-quality mini-Maglite flashlights, with which you can adjust the stream of light. Those of us who didn’t have flashlights used leaves that illuminated very tenuously; we would put them on the back of the comrade ahead of us and move in silence.

“We’re almost there, Monita,” Rollito whispered to me, even though I knew it was to give me, exhausted, a boost. Then I would ask him, a little annoyed:

“And how do you know? You can’t see jack and we’ve never taken this trail.”

“By the smell,” he would say, with the greatest naturalness.

“Smell of what?”

Of the air itself, the overgrowth, the leaves, the trails, the earth. Rollito didn’t answer me. I came to understand all about smell later.

We trusted in the accuracy of his nose that smelled everything, even the void. We trusted in his hands, thick and resistant as pliers, the same ones with which he wrung the neck of a hen for lunch, kneaded cancharinas—a sort of guerrilla bread—or gently packsaddled an old and tired donkey of which the guerrillas had grown fond. Sometimes he balled his fists and said to me:

“Monita, if you can open my hands, I’ll bring you a cheese arepa from Rosita’s when I go.”

Yeah right! No matter how I struggled and used my two hands and body and even tried to trick him by tickling, I was never able to open them. Anyway, he brought me an arepa when he could because Rosita, a farmer from the region, was fond of us. There was an almost familial relationship established, especially with three of us, but since she didn’t have enough to give to us all, she called on us separately and would allow us to taste a piece of pork with arepa or some tasty morsel, which to us was a treasure.

The majority of the FARC community is of farmer origin, that’s why when a person joined the FARC-EP, they were asked about their level of schooling. If they were illiterate, they would be met with one of our slogans: “The first duty of every revolutionary is to learn to read and write.” That meant that person should dedicate numerous additional hours to that practice every day. But Rollito never learned. He was so clever he managed to hide it. He recognized letters on their own. He would line them up and look at them from a distance with an expression of great concentration.

“My vision stings,” he’d say when some farmer as illiterate as he would ask him to read some text. With that pretext, he’d hold up the paper to one of his comrades:

“Read this to our friend because my vision stings,” he’d say.

He didn’t read phrases, but Rollito read all of nature’s punctuation without a stammer. He read with all his senses plus one: cunning, for which learning new words was useful. When they named him the groomer of the camp, he first slyly asked the meaning of the word, palafrenero, and then he flaunted it proudly, especially to impress the farmers.

Human beings are namers by nature, and guerrillas even more so. We rename everything. You can already guess the reason behind nicknames like “Gordo” or “Rollito.” By contrast, “Tomate” came from Rollito’s itch to go unnoticed when he had to “civilian-ize,” meaning get provisions, run errands, or simply talk with someone who did the organization’s administrative or political work. Dressing like farmers, who sometimes wore attention-grabbing colors, seemed sensible but wearing a flaming red shirt while trying to mimic them was another thing.

From a distance, the guerrillas would watch a red ball begin to emerge on the path alongside other black spots and later, once better made out, they would discover it was Rollito. Rather than imitate, he made himself more visible with his famous red shirt, something it would seem he didn’t realize because many times we saw him preen proudly over his capacity to camouflage. For Octavio and the other comrades who watched him from a distance with that vivid red cupping his belly, a metaphor arose.

“Just like a tomato.” Everyone reveled in it between roars of laughter and that’s how, between jape and jive, the nickname came to stick.

Roger was well accepted among civilians. They thought highly of him, trusted him because of his friendliness and willingness to help split and carry wood, milk cows, chitchat, packsaddle donkeys, or help harvest coffee. Better said, he wasn’t lazy about working, and that quality is highly respected among farmers. That’s why he earned their affection. The daughter of some collaborators who had some mental delays hugged him with open contentment every time she saw him. Her parents, aware of the norms around respect that existed in the guerrilla, took care of it without any malice. Once, Octavio, his commander, saw them talking. He walked up slowly and heard the girl say to Roger: “Make like a fox and I’ll scratch you.” Seeing Octavio’s surprise, Roger began to justify himself:

“Ay, comrade, I’m sorry. Were you listening? I swear there’s nothing between this girl and me. I have respected her, she says she wants to marry me, but I haven’t done anything, comrade.”

After that, every time Octavio wanted to intimidate him, he’d say “make like a fox and I’ll scratch you,” and Roger would grow red and slip away from the group as soon as possible.

Like the majority of guerrillas, Rollito would get caught up sometimes in nostalgia thinking of his family. I think it was the only root he tripped over every once in a while. Especially when he scouted. Far from camp with the valley in the background, stretched out on our backs, very close to the sky in the embrace of whimsical clouds, we contemplated the beating wings of the hummingbirds, practically feeling their accelerated hearts, as if in eternal orgasm. It was then that he would talk a little about his childhood, about his dreams, and I confessed to him my fear of not being able to find the path again after being sent on a mission. “How do you do it, Rollito?” I’d ask him. “All of the pines are the same to me.” He would patiently begin to stroke his budding stubble. He was thirty-five years old and was a seasoned and valiant guerrilla. That beard, however, made him look like a curious, mischievous boy as he described all of the signals he was capable of reading in nature. What wouldn’t I give today to be able to take notes or to have recorded his various readings of the landscape.

I never heard him sing, but he knew all the Antonio Aguilar corridos about horses. He liked to gallop, though he’d been able to on few occasions. He liked to observe horses and sometimes he would ask a farmer if he could saddle train. At first, we bought or asked to borrow the draught animals from farmers. When the paramilitaries or army figured it out, they would accuse the farmers of being collaborators and kill them. To avoid this, the tactic was changed. We began to recover the animals of the paramilitaries’ allies. That’s how we gathered our fleet to transport wares without putting our farmer friends at risk.

Rollito was the best groomer. He was on top of clipping the animals, treating them for parasites, and giving them vitamins and molasses. He treated their bald patches with Neguvon. He kept them well cared for and beautiful. For a man as agile as he, rounding them up was like a game, even though he sometimes cursed in a low voice when they burrowed themselves in the mud or were rascally on the trails.

Of course, the guerrillas—rechristeners—gave names to these animals according to their characteristics. For example, an animal that was yellow in color and very bad tempered was called “Gringa” because she resembled a light-haired guerrilla who was infamous for her short temper.  A big bellied male, a bit dull but good with cargo and work, was called “Pipelón.” (Just between us, we also called that beast Roger in hushed voices.) Another of blackish color was called “Moro.” He was quite ferocious. Apparently, he had been hit in the head a lot when he had been broken, so cropping him was very difficult. But Rollito had his ways. He would patiently fasten a rope to his muzzle and crop him. El Moro was small and lazy, practically useless, but he was the favorite among the guerrillas, who felt apologetic about burdening him with cargo. Yet there he was, in the troop, receiving the same care as the rest.

Rollito liked aguardiente. Drinking was forbidden, but he did. He had his methods for having the civilians do his bidding and every once in a while they brought him a fifth of aguardiente. He rarely shared it for fear of being reported or sanctioned.

I didn’t see Rollito again. He was in prison for more than a decade. I heard about his death by chance, and even though many years had since gone by, it hurt as if he had recently gone. His death is muddled for me with those of the thousands who died in this war. It was a death of which no one is aware. But here is my testimony about a wise illiterate, a loving reader of landscapes who has gone back to the earth to which we all return. Never again will he sense the trees or guide us on the trails.

Even though we signed the peace agreement with the Colombian state in 2016 to lay the foundation for a true democracy and to facilitate a civilized end to the conflict, my comrades continue being assassinated. They continue dying. We have decided not to return to war and to try and conquer through political means the transformations of which we dream. Now that we have laid down our weapons, there is a new kind of fear. But returning to war is more fear-inducing still, so we each resist from the space from which we chose to confront this chapter. Personally, I feel reconciled with humanity when I see and feel that, in spite of a small but powerful sector of war hawks, there are many more people rallying around this battered peace agreement. This lends comfort, and it is contagious.

I would have liked for Rollito to be here. Narrating about him, I think, is a way of never forgetting this wise, unlettered man. I imagine him listening raptly to this reading and saying, “Monita, did you write all of that? How clever you are!”

This text is part of the mourning I didn’t do. It is also my sincere homage to those who have walked alongside me and opened other pages to me, other means of reading the world.

Doris Suárez and Disney Cardoso (Authors) / Jeanine Legato (Translator)

Doris is a cosigner of the peace agreement and ex-combatant of the former FARC-EP. She now heads the productive project La Trocha, a brewery: instagram.com/latrochacerveza. She has published texts in the books Naturaleza común: relatos de no ficción de excombatientes para la reconciliación (2021) and Resistiendo al encierro (2019).

Disney is a cosigner of the peace agreement and ex-combatant of the former FARC-EP. She holds a degree in Early Childhood Education and is a student of Business Administration. In addition to the non-fiction account she published in Naturaleza común: relatos de no ficción de excombatientes para la reconciliación (2021), her story of experiencing homelessness appears in the volume Sin habitación propia (2022).

Jeanine was born in Washington, D.C. in 1986. She holds a BA in English from the University of Vermont and an MA in Cultural Studies from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, where she has lived since 2010. She specializes in Colombian literary and academic translation, particularly pertaining to issues of human rights and the armed conflict.

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