Daviny sat next to me in the school’s cafeteria, her head bent closely to the paper as she bit her bottom lip in concentration. We were in La Aguada, a rural school in the FARC controlled mountains of northwest Colombia. She was showing me that she could write the letters of her name. Her parents do not read or write—but she does. Daviny is nine. She wants to be a teacher. She walks a couple of kilometers on mountain trails to school every day. Violence is part of Daviny’s life. Her older brothers have been recruited by the FARC. When a group of FARC militants showed up at the door of the family’s hut, they knew: they could either join the guerillas or be killed. As Daviny and I worked, one of the brothers was watching us from the edge of the jungle. In another world, at another time, he would have been a student in the school, too. He is fourteen. Now, he was a militant watching from the margins.
The school is three concrete-block rooms, painted bright yellow with blue trim—the colors of Colombia. Large windows look across a grassy field and out over the valley and jungle-wrapped mountains. There are no other buildings in sight. These mountains are exquisitely beautiful and they are exquisitely dangerous for outsiders. They are remote, undeveloped, sparsely inhabited and therefore a perfect hideout for the FARC. In the valley to the north, the paramilitaries remain in control. In the middle of that valley, a military base stands watch. Violence is commonplace.
This is the where the infamous Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio was stationed. He is called the ‘Pacificador’ (Peacemaker) because he orchestrated the murder of any opposition. He was the mastermind behind the massacres in Uraba between 1998 and 2002. Tens of thousands were displaced or murdered. During his trial, in 2010, evidence came to light that he systematically collaborated with paramilitary death squads in Uraba. Del Rio is serving a twenty-five year prison sentence for the beheading and dismemberment of a campesino. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Violence remains the backdrop to life here. But, now, my friend Diego told me, the people are returning and rebuilding. I thought of the Israelites returning to an annihilated Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile.
Certainly on this day, in this idyllic mountain setting, laughing and singing with the school children and enjoying their presentations of poems and songs and acrostics, and receiving from them a folded-paper flower, it seems as if the return has begun and hope is alive. Perhaps peace is possible. Perhaps Daviny will grow up to be a teacher. Perhaps she will remember this day, and think of peace, and invite her brother to come back in.