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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Book Excerpt

Excerpt: Throwing Stones at the Moon

September 28, 2012 ·

How one internally displaced Colombian found himself caught between rebels and paramilitaries -- and how he suffered for it.

throwing-stones-at-the-moonThe following account is an excerpt from Throwing Stones at the Moon, a collection of interviews with internally displaced Colombians edited by Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening. We hope our Washington, DC readers will join us at Busboys and Poets on October 1 for a book signing and talk with the editors.

Rodrigo Mejía
AGE: 38
OCCUPATION: former mule driver, lumberjack
INTERVIEWED IN: Montelíbano, Córdoba

When the guerrillas were around, I fought for what was mine. When the paras came, I fought for what was mine. A guerilla commander once said to me, “Brother, you have to pick sides.” And I said, “No, I choose no side.” I was neither a para nor a guerrilla.

My life has been moving from one place to another, from here to there and there to here. When work is slow, or one armed group or another starts bothering me, I pick up and leave. Even when I got together with my wife Edith in 2003, I didn’t settle down. I told her, “I need a woman who’ll come with me.” When our daughter Darley was born in 2003 we were in a village called Versalles, in Antioquia. When Leidy was born in 2006 we were in El Bagre. And when Gustavo was born in 2009 we were living at a farm eight hours by mule from the nearest village, called Las Negritas, which is part of the municipality of El Bagre. That’s pure mountain, pure jungle, with some farms in the middle.

We’d gone to live there in 2007. At that time, it was covered in wild brush and jungle. The first year I cleared twenty hectares. We lived in a makeshift house and planted corn, rice, plantain, yucca, and yams. The first year you always suffer in the countryside but in the second year you’re harvesting food.

The Mountain That Went to Hell

Those two years were the most stable part of my life because things were calm. The guerrillas weren’t around, there were no paramilitaries. But around 2009, the whole mountain went to hell. That’s when huge machines started coming up the mountain to extract gold. And as the machines went up, the plague went down. Suddenly the guerrillas were everywhere. They would charge the miners 8 million pesos to allow the backhoes onto the mountain. And then they’d have to pay a percentage of production to the guerrillas.

One day I ran into the local FARC commander Jimmy on a part when I was on my way home with my mules. He was tall, with a heavy build and blue eyes. He was with two other guerrillas. He asked, “Are those your mules?” I said, “Thank God, yes they’re mine.” He asked me if I was selling them. I said, “Why would I want to sell them?” He said, “Okay,” and we each went on our way.

The following day two guerrillas showed up at the house and said, “Jimmy sent us to tell you we need a pig. You’ll either sell it to us or we’ll take it.” I said, “Well if you’re going to take it, take it. I’m not selling pigs.” They grabbed one of my pigs that weighed like 120 kilograms, tied him up, and took him.

My wife Edith said to me, “Oh dear. It looks like things are going to get complicated around here.” It came time to do a second clearing. I cut trees down with the chainsaw and cleared the brush. The guerrillas would come from time to time and say, “We need ten hens.” I’d say, “Take them, but I won’t take them to you.”

One day in late January or February of 2010 Jimmy came to the farmhouse with about fifty of his men. He hung his hammock and told the other guerrillas to go off and relax. Things started off cordial but then he said, “Are you very brave or what? What’s wrong with you? Every time I send for something at your farm you talk back.” I said to him, “Let’s talk man to man because I have the same equipment between my legs that you have. The only difference between you and me is that you have that rifle.

“I don’t give away things willingly because what I make with the sweat of my brow and what that woman over there makes with her hands should be respected. Around here the laws are made by those who carry the rifle. You guys are the law around here and you say you protect the peasants. But what you do is the opposite because what you do is steal from us.” He didn’t like what I was saying but he just walked away.

A Dog in the Manger

I ran into Jimmy again a few weeks later and he said, “Why don’t you work with us?” I said, “What do you mean, work with you?” He said that since I had twelve mules, he would put up eight more and we would work two teams of mules and split the earnings.  I told him no.

The thing is that a new para group called the Paisas had occupied the nearest village, Las Negritas. At any moment one of those guerrillas could switch sides and join the paras and then say, “Look, that guy used to give us guerrillas plantains and yucca. He would kill pigs for us and throw parties.” So the para’s might come and kill me, pa! pa!

Jimmy called a meeting early in March 2010 in a village up the mountains known as La Union. At the meeting he said that I was being a dog in the manger by not cooperating. Despite that, I made a complaint at the meeting. The guerrillas would charge us mule drivers a toll of 5,000 pesos per mule. They’d stop us at any point on the trails and if you didn’t have the money they’d take your goods. But the trails were in horrible shape. Imagine riding a mule and the stirrup dragging through the mud. So I stood up and said, “Since you are the law in these parts, you should organize things because those trails are in bad shape and not every mule can go up them. And you charge all the backhoes that go up 8 million pesos. Where does that money go?” Jimmy answered that the money went to support their cause and for their food and supplies. I knew I’d pissed him off but I didn’t think anything would happen.           

Your Body Feels It

A few weeks later, the Monday of Easter Week in 2010, a couple of guerrillas came to the house and told me that they needed four of my mules, saddled. I had ten mules then because I’d lost two. I said, “What do you mean you’re going to take the mules? Those mules are mine. It’s because of them that my children have something to eat.”

One of the guerrillas said, “Jimmy said to say to take them.” So I said, “Well, if you want, I’ll sell them all so you can take them and I won’t have to see you anymore.” I was fed up by then with the guerrillas. They left without the mules.

When something is about to happen, your body feels it. The night of Good Friday I didn’t sleep. I’d get up, drink sugar water. My wife Edith would say, “What is it?” I told her that I didn’t know. “My body itches all over.” I would get up and scratch myself against the wooden columns of the house.

On Saturday around 5:30 a.m.: toc, toc, toc. I was lying awake in bed. I said, “Who is it?” From behind the door, someone said, “Open up.”

I opened the door and recognized two FARC milicianos before I saw a machete coming down towards my head. I raised my right arm to protect myself and as soon as I lifted it, chas! My right hand fell to the floor. Then he swiped me with another machete chop to the legs. He got me in the knee and I fell to the ground bleeding. Then the other miliciano shot at me three times with his revolver, but didn’t hit me once. I didn’t move and they thought I was dead. I heard them outside rounding up my mules.

I called to my wife who was hiding upstairs in the bedroom. I said, “Hurry, tie something to my arm to stop the blood!” She put a piece of cloth over the wound. My hand had been cut off about three inches below the elbow. The second machete blow cut my knee but it didn’t slice through.  

“The kids woke up and saw me covered in blood. Darley, who was seven years old, ran around frightened yelling, “My dad is going to die, my dad is going to die!”

We all sat on the bed and cried together. We were all alone on the mountainside. The closest neighbor was three hours away by mule. But luckily my compadre Vicente had asked me the previous Sunday if he could come for some corn to plant on his farm. It’s the custom to plant corn on Saturday of Easter Week because the belief is if you plant it that day the harvest never fails.

We were huddled in the bedroom when Vicente arrived at about six in the morning. He knocked on the door and my wife opened and said, “Ay compadre! He’s dying in my arms. The guerrillas came to kill him this morning and look how he is.” She took him in to see me. He said, “Well we’re not going to let him die.” He tied a tourniquet tight above my elbow and put ground coffee on the wound to stop the bleeding. He packed my severed hand in a bag with water.…

Rodrigo El Mocho

As soon as the nurse saw me in the health clinic in Las Negritas, she ordered an express car service to take me to the town of Puerto Lopez, where I met up with Edith, who brought the jar with my hand. She had left the kids with Vicente’s wife.

I was given a referral for Caucasia, a bigger town with a better hospital a couple of hours away. I wanted to but a little coffin and bury my hand. But my hand stayed behind in Puerto Lopez.…

When I got released from the hospital we went to the town of Barbosa, which is 240 kilometers from Caucasia, close to Medellin. We stayed there with the aunt who raised me. I refused to leave the house. I was embarrassed because of my hand. But we realized that I had to work to feed my family. In July we went up to our farm.              

Our farm had been raided.  Another mule had been lost and someone—I suspect it was the FARC—had taken all the cattle and three fat pigs that were ready for the knife. I had been planning to sell them on Easter Sunday. I lost everything... I started trying to recover what I could.

About a month later, in August 2010, around 9:30 pm there was another toc, toc, toc at the door. It was two guys wearing face masks. One of them said, “We don’t want to see anyone around here. We give you twenty-four hours to get out.” I said, “Who are you? Guerrillas, paras, army?” One of them said, “We’ve delivered the message.”

It was 9:40 p.m. Edith grabbed the two mules, saddled them, we loaded them with what we could, and grabbed the children who were sleeping. We got to Puerto Lopez at eight in the morning.

I gave up. Apparently we’re not meant to be on that land….

These days we live in a squatter neighborhood on the outskirts of Monteliban. I get up at about one in the morning to collect wood for the fire. I’ve had to learn to use a hatchet with my left hand. Something like this, it traumatizes you. I’m always nervous, I don’t sleep at night. I used to weight ninety-seven kilos and now I weigh seventy-two…

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