Human Toll

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Colombia remains a country strangled by violence. What began in the 60s as a small separatist movement has stretched into the 21st century. The intense civil war between leftist guerrilla movements, right-wing paramilitary groups and the Colombian government rages on, while we hear little about it. Now both the paramilitary groups and the guerrillas fund themselves through the lucrative drug business.

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We hear about the kidnapping of politicians and contractors, but what rarely reaches our ears are the tales of the Colombian people who live in these guerrilla-controlled territories. Society, especially outside the capital city of Bogotá, is fragmented; neighbors are suspicious of each other. Anyone could be an informer.

The beauty of this Andean capital is lost amid distrust and violence. The joy, openness and friendliness of the Colombians is muted by uncertainty. Everyone has experienced or been touched in some way by the conflict.

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Last December I traveled to Bogotá to spend time with some beautiful women whose lives were turned upside down by their own brush with the political violence. Many of those affected aren’t politicians or upper-class people. They are just regular folks, struggling to make ends meet, pay the rent,  educate their children.

The women traveled hours by bus from all over the country to meet with me. We ate, laughed and explored the city together. In between, their stories came out.

One was the story of Miriam.

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Though it was 14 years since she lost her husband, Miriam’s pain was as fresh as if he died yesterday. The family lived on a farm in an area where the guerrillas and paramilitary troops battled for control. Miriam and her husband started a small church, though they knew neither side approved of religious groups.

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One day, a group of paramilitary soldiers came to the farm. Usually they demanded food or livestock. But on this day, the soldiers said nothing. They simply raised a gun and shot her husband. He died instantly.

Miriam was 23 years old. She had four children, ages 8 to 2 months.

Mother and children fled to a nearby city. The hardest part, Miriam said, was everyone refused to help them. They were afraid of the repercussions to their own families. Miriam struggled to find a job and a place to live. On her own, she bought a few household goods on credit and started a small store.

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More than 10 years later, Miriam scrapped together enough savings to build a small house. When I met with her, the walls were up, but she still needed to put in windows and doors. Her oldest child wants to study at the university, but Miriam doesn’t know where she’ll get the funds to pay for it. At the same time, she knows an education is crucial to her children’s success.

She openly shared her struggles with me, tears falling in the telling. We laughed as she and the others experienced an escalator and a mall food court for the first time. She teased me about not yet having children.

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At the end of our few days together, I told the women I wanted to buy them a gift. Miriam wanted something simple, that would benefit her whole family. She asked for a blender and told me, “I’ll think of you every time I make smoothies for my kids.”

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As I said goodbye to the women in the hotel lobby, I thought about the differences in our lives. Miriam would return to her still-windowless cement block home on the coast by bus, and I would ascend into the clouds by jet to a world that seems like Disneyland to her. She would remain alone, her children would still need to eat and pay school fees. I would return to my husband and my air-conditioned house. And yet, she didn’t begrudge me my life. She just asked for a promise.

Miriam hugged me tightly and kissed my cheek. “Don’t forget the suffering of the people of Colombia,” she said.

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