June 16th, 2013
Yesterday I was in La Loma, a comuna perched on the verdant hills above Medellín. Last month los BACRIM — nebulous, ill-defined, lethally armed criminal groups — swept through the town, giving people 48 hours to pack up and leave. Some people did flee, especially those families with young men at risk of appearing on the hit lists. People carried out what they could, and one photo sparked particular outrage. The soldiers were walking in pairs down the steep slopes from La Loma, AK 47s strapped around their chests in order to free up their arms to carry a dozen mattresses down the steep sides of the mountains. What to make of soldiers participating in the collective flight rather than protecting people so that they could stay in the homes they had carefully constructed over several decades? Some people took out machetes and hacked up their furniture, determined not to leave anything for the BACRIM who would soon move into their “abandoned” homes. Others roasted chickens all night long, compelled by a steadfast refusal to let their animals end up in the bellies of the very people who were forcing them to flee.
But not everyone left. Some families sent their young people to the relative safety of Medellín, leaving behind a striking contrast of pre-adolescent children and elderly women, some alone in their homes and insisting they would die there before anyone could make them leave. Doñas Dolores, María, Angélica — their homes carefully swept, family photos hanging from the walls, Jesús bleeding on the cross, flower pots full of defiantly blossoming orchids: house after house, widows invited us in to sit for awhile and talk through their audacious decision to remain in La Loma.
And those young children, especially the little boys, crowded around with questions about life in the Estados Unidos, life somewhere far away. I spoke at length with a group of 10-12 year old boys, full of life and so eager to exchange Facebook names and send our friend requests. I was struck by their sweetness and curiosity about the world, and cried the entire way back to my hotel. I had not done that in awhile. I realize that in a couple of years, most of them will have been forced into one of the armed groups, forced to leave their families behind, or killed for refusing to take up a gun. Their faces took me back a decade to my first trip to Urabá and the pueblos I visited as we traveled the length of Río Atrato and Río Sucio. Guerrillas from the FARC would pass through, carefully sizing up the adolescent boys. They watched for the brightest, the most outgoing, “los más habiles.” They were just waiting for them to grow up a little bit more. I hate thinking about a social world in which just growing up can get a child killed.
Off to Apartadó tomorrow, but unable to get La Loma out of my mind.
This is a powerful piece. It makes me think back on the times a colleague at Harvard told me that the way to make it at Harvard is by being “a dutiful daughter.” This sums up the academic culture at the institution, and the toll it takes on female and minority faculty. Thank god for my supportive anthropology colleagues for buffering me, to the extent that they could, at Harvard.
During my conference at the University of London, I visited the British Museum and stumbled upon a powerful exhibit on living and dying in various cultures. This poem accompanied a series of poignant photos, and I was compelled to write the poem on the palms of my two hands.
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail.
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war,
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best intentions do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.
— Sheenan Pugh