“In That Time of Our Life” by Jeremiah North (Colombia)

 


By Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65)

 

One night into my assignment to La Plata, Huila in 1963, I was reading in the dimness of a 40 watt light bulb a banned copy of La Violencia en Colombia. I was riveted by its 1948 description of the lunch-time assassination of Jorge Gaitan, the liberal leader, at a side-walk restaurant next to the country’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo. As its principal author, Orlando Fals Borda wrote: “it was a lone act which stripped with a single bullet the thin veneer of civility from an entire society”.

La Violencia then goes on to detail a country’s descent into anarchy. By nightfall, Bogota was in flames. The country’s elite troops were standing shoulder to shoulder, rank upon rank, on the steps of the Ministry of Justice, firing volley after volley into the maddening crowd. They had long given up on shooting people in the legs and were now firing into upper torsos and heads, but to no avail. Cali went up in flames the next night, then city after city, town after town, followed in an uncontrollable flood of internecine political warfare, sufficiently so to mark a time that became for survivors an enduring argument against remembrance.

Before it abated, some 13 years later, the lowest official mortality count stood at 367,000 from a country of less than 14 million. That’s nearly equal to the 390,000 of U. S. fatalities in WW II, from a population base of 145 million. In that war, death was delivered through highly advance technological weaponry. In Colombia, it was as often by the machete and knife as it was by rifle and hand gun.

Was there a home in Colombia without a red swath running through it, a family untouched from this political fratricide? All this violent death with no honor to it, no trumpet to call forth a defense of national interests, however vague this might have been—and no subsequent footnote in any Western history book to mark its passing. La Violencia didn’t find its way into our training program, as the official response was to ban it and exile Fals Borda. The government preferred to have silence fill this void.

When we arrived in Colombia, the fires of La Violencia lingered at a low simmer. The emotions of an entire people were spent. We were often clueless as we moved at will throughout the entire country without fear for our personal safety; most of us were unaware of the country’s dark soul, or that we were atop a blown horse of history.  We remained virginal in our belief that we were there to help the ever enigmatic campesinos, who could hardly comprehend why Volunteers had come to a country they were so desperate to leave if ever the opportunity presented itself.

We arrived in their lives without recognizing that they had been traumatized into a near-stupor of complacency. Their benign acceptance of us was interpreted as validation for our legitimacy, for the superiority of our great nation.  One of my site partners was asked by a young campesino to explain his birth place. He responded: Montana, in the United States of America. The man thought about this for a moment, then inquired:

Is that as far away as Bogota!

Many of us came from a generation deeply conflicted by the moral dilemma of our country’s war in Viet Nam. We could be volunteers and enrolled into an ‘army of

Peace’, as Theodore Sorensen described the Peace Corps concept to newly elected President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Still others of our generation, who were less advantaged and with limited choices, had to serve in distant armies on far shores and jungles, in places they never could have found or pronounced correctly in their 6th grade geography books. They were treated with such distain by their fellow countrymen that if an epitaph for that generation had been written then—and even now, a simple declarative sentence would suffice:  they were lost to us. We, though, were privileged to find in Colombia a spiritual home for our aspirations, even if unable to fully fathom the currency that value was to represent in our future lives. Some twenty years later, in 1983, as Colombia gravitated into a near-narco state, Peace Corps volunteers had to leave; there was no choice. (They returned some two+ decades later.)

La Violencia had made everyone fatalistic. It had numbed people’s sensitivities. Once, on a bus going to Popayan, we crossed a provincial border and passed through a police checkpoint. On the way, two campesinos up front had been involved in a heated argument. Time didn’t dampen their tempers. When the bus stopped, they were the first to get out. I was in the back and heard no gunfire, just a simple ‘pop’, which didn’t seem out of the ordinary. When I got off the bus, the men lay spread eagle-like on the ground, dead as Julius Caesar. The other passengers compared notes with a clinical detachment in the calmest language, no screaming, no calling the police. Look, one said, that machete thrust—right to the heart, no pain, eh. Another commented, but see there, that bullet went straight between his eyes—an excellent shot, muy bien hecho, no!

Obviously, they had seen so much violence that they had become completely inured to it.

Every one of any means carried a gun. I was in one verada for a religious holiday when a  priest from Popayan made his annual visit. He rode in on a fine horse. The weather was misty, a soft rain falling. The padre got off his horse, and reaching down pulled a rain slicker over his head. As his arms went up, two .45 caliber automatic pistols cross-strapped across his chest came into view. The Shepherd, now one with his flock and suitable attired for the occasion, invited everyone to attend Mass.

We are in the midst of the Peace Corps 60th Anniversary and the inevitable celebratory coronation of an ideal that sent our hearts into the highlands. Our thoughts of that then turbulent country are steeped in the romanticism of youthful exuberance: of those nights we danced into the dawn to the sensuous and teasingly expressive beat of the bambuco; of those euphoric Hemingwayesque moments at the Cali bullfights during Christmas, and the more somber Semana Santas in Popayan; of viewing on rare days the full majesty in the snow-capped Sierra Nevada del Huila when its 18,000+ foot dome poked through low lying clouds; of those terrifying rides on los transitos de muerte amarilla (the yellow bus of death) with more chickens and pigs than passengers; of trouble nights when we wondered just what it was we were doing there—and being released from doubt at first light by that quick grasp of youth; of being received by children as long-lost relatives; of those accion comunal meetings that never started on time or on the day they were scheduled; of unknowingly writing that first rough draft of the Peace Corps history; of the wonderment and invigorating sense of possibility that filled our every day with a meaning and purpose, through we weren’t yet capable of comprehending how rare this would be in our lives afterward. We can be forgiven if we remember these occasions now more with nostalgia than accuracy.

In this time, as we reminisce on the way we were, we could do worse than to raise a glass to those of our generation who didn’t have the equivalent career choices offered to us, yet served this nation under the same flag.

Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-85)

Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65) developed agricultural and marketing cooperatives in rural areas of the country and was promoted to direct the PCVs in cooperative development. Returning home he worked in PC HQ as a Special Assistant in its Public Affairs Office, and as a Program Officer in its Office of Private and International Organizations.

After the Peace Corps, he worked as a Senior Consultant with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Programme of Action on Cancer Therapy in Vienna, Austria; Senior Consultant for International Operations with the WebMD Foundation; Senior Consultant to Harvard Medical School’s International programs; and for Project HOPE as Director for International Affairs.

When the Berlin Wall came down, he joined the Department of State as its Director, Office of Human Resources, Bureau for Europe, where he managed the U. S. Government’s response for social investments in the former states of the USSR and Central and Eastern Europe. He later served as Director of Hudson Institute’ Center for Science in Public Policy and was involved in global economic development issues.

 

 

 

12 Comments

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  • This is a stunning piece of writing. It is reminiscent of my own experience in Ecuador at that same time (1963-65) with its underbelly of dark political history juxtaposed with our, as Peace Corps Volunteers, ahistorical knowledge of the country we were entering and our naivete, which sometimes resulted in dangerous consequences for the people we were there to serve. Is there more of his writing on the subject available to read?

    • Marnie,

      I’m sure that there are many volunteers that had somewhat similar experiences, though they remain dormant at present.
      In terms of a ‘bit of a near thing’, I had one such experience.
      In taking the bus from the provincial capital in Neiva to my site in La Plata, its driver was Guillermo who had served with the Colombian Battalion in Korea at the same time that I had served there. About half-way to my site, as the bus rounded a corner on a dirt road, we ran into a road block set up by military looking personnel dressed in combat style jungle fatigues . We were ordered off the bus. Scenes from “La Violence” danced into my head.

      We were asked to show our IDs. The Colombian Government had issued each volunteer a ‘cedula’ which was a small blue ID card stamped by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, containing our picture. When I produced it to a soldier carrying a B. A. R. (Browning Automatic Rifle), he then mentioned me to get over to the side with other young men. He could not have been more than 16-17 years old, and he was using the B. A. R. as a crutch, with its barrel stuck firmly into the ground. I moved in the direction he indicated, then went around him when he wasn’t looking and got back on the bus.

      Only women were on board. Guillermo silently directed me to an open sat towards the back. When I got in, a woman in the last seat put both her hands on my shoulders and pushed me down below the window’s rim. She then placed her straw hat on my head. Soon I heard the unit commander step up into the front of the bus, asking Guillermo if everyone had gotten off. There was silence and I guessed he was looking up and down the aisle. Guillermo quickly said: “si, si, Capitan, todas” (all). The commander stepped off the bus and told Guillermo to clear out.

      For the remainder of the way back to La Plata, not one word was spoken by anyone. Outside of Guillermo, I became acutely aware that I was the only other male on the bus. When we arrived in La Plata, I went up to the front of the bus and walked off. Guillermo let his eyes do most of the talking: a near run thing … don’t mention it, Korea all over again, eh. His most memorable comment to me was: Que suerte, eh, Geronimo. In the days that followed, when I could get people to talk, they would simply say: “oh, maybe it was the real army dragooning young men; or the rebel army doing the same thing, or bandits wanting to hold young men for ransom. But why talk about it, it happens every day and you got away–be grateful.

      And I was!

      • I, too, had an ecounter with men dressed as Soldiers in May of 1965, It was on the Pan Am and I was going to a medical appointment in Cali. I was hours away from my site and not known in the area where the bus was. There was a road block and all the men were ordered off the bus. I was in the back of the bus, wearing my worn ruana and glasses. My Colombian ID was in my purse and when I traveled by bus, I always sat on my purse, to avoid having it stolen. I was sitting on it.

        A very young soldier walked down the aisle looking at each seat. Most of the women were barefoot, carrying babies and market goods. No one, of course, wore glasses.

        The solder stopped at me, cocked his rifle, although he did not directly point it at me. I do not know who was shaking more, he or I . He said “Quien is?” Who are you? I knew that any move to try and get my purse from from under me, might be seen as trying to get a weapon. He looked at me, and I replied, “Cuerpo de Paz” Peace Corps. He nodded and turned around and walked off the bus. I thought when I said Cuerpo de Paz, I was speaking for every Volunteer that this soldier or his commander had encountered in five years. I was grateful for all of them because they were trusted and that is why I was, too.

  • Thank you so much for this recounting of La Violencia in Colombia. I, too, served in Colombia 1963-65. My training and actual experience was different than yours. I do not have your writing gift, but I will recount my experiences. I was a member of Colombia 11 Health Education/Rural Community Development. We trained at the University of New Mexico and were to be a supplement to the Colombia 8 Rural Community Developement with the same mission. We were an all female group. Some of our members were assigned to Huiia. We completed training October 11, 1963 and were in our sites a bare three and half weeks when Kennedy was killed.

    We were absolutely taught about the Violence in Colombia. I believe it was explained as a fight between Liberal and Conservative groups and even villages identified as Liberal or Conservative. In 1958, a truce was made between the waring factions and it was agreed that every four years, the two parties would alternate power. The party in charge would leave and the other party would take over the government. I believe that the Liberals had been in charge for the first four years and when we arrive in the Fall of 1963, the Conservatives were in power. I may have the sequencing wrong. I do know it was a Conservative time when we arrived. The women of Colombia VIII and our Group Colombia 11 were to be the first female Volunteers to work in the rural areas and it was our job to show Colombians that the rural areas of the country were safe again. My partner and I were assigned to a town on the Pam Am, just a hour north of Popayan. When Kennedy was killed, we learned the news from the teenager “Coco Colas” with their transitor radios. We had a short wave radio and we quickly learned that Oswald had been apprehended. However. people were convinced that Castro had done the deed and the Communists were there to take over the country.

    We did not cry nor were we concerned about the fate of our families. The Padre hurried out of town and told us to go into the capital. He told people that we had left to be with our compatriots, which was true. There was a gathering of PCVs in the capitol. We returned four days later and were welcomed with hugs and expressions of sorrow for our loss.

    It was a year before we understood what had happened. When the Assassination happened, we had just begun to meet people and we were not known in our site. When we expressed no fear for the fate of our families or our country, it has been decided that we were Communists and were part of a Cuban contingent to take over the country. There was evidently talk of killing us which is why the Padre wanted us gone.

    What happened? In our absence, the newspapers from Bogota had arrived on the bus and the front page showed John John standing on the steps of St. Matthews, saluting the coffin of his father, with his mother and his sister. The people of our site decided that if Mrs. Kennedy was not afraid for the safety of her family, then perhaps our reaction was American and not suspect. I think of that time as the “whole world watching” as a grieving United States, said Farewell to a popular President and watched the transfer of power, without tanks in the streets or armed soldiers shooting at civilivans. I thought that was beginning of the end of Communinist dictatorships and the whole world saw how a grief striken Democracy accepted the horror of the Assassination.

  • Dear Joanne,

    You are correct in remembrance of the mandated political split between ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ elements of power that finally put something of a lid on the restoration of law and order in the country. The other element that helped was assistance from the U. S. military. A key ingredient of their Advisory assistance was to teach Colombian military to always buy what it needed from campesinos and never to confiscate their crops, or chickens, pigs and cows for their personal gain. Before this training, Colombian troops would take what they wanted from campesinos, who could see no difference between the military’s behavior and that of the rebels. After the military started paying for what they needed in the field, the campesinos began telling them where the rebels were holed up. In large measure, this eventually led to a temporary pacification of Huila province.

  • Thank you so much for that information. Many of the people in our site were refugees from further North in Colombia. Our town felt it had not been directly involved with the Violencia. However, in the Spring of 1965, a new terrorist group emerged which was to dominate Colombia for decades. A market bus on its way to the market in our town was stopped by what we thought were simpley outlaws. They machine gunned the bus and 50 peasnats were killed.

  • The assassination of President Kennedy must have had similar reverberations in other Peace Corps venues. In Ethiopia, we experienced the genuine grief of strangers who identified PCVs as “Kennedy kids.” It was surreal to hear news of the President’s death via shortwave radio and to view the newsreel images of the funeral many months later. I remember the president’s death as one of the most depressing times of my life. Paradoxically, it was also one of my most productive periods. I wrote an entire textbook, taught with a passion I could scarcely comprehend, and prepared an amazing group of students to succeed in their later lives. Thank you, fellow PCVs, for the clarity and poignance of your own shared memories.

    • John,

      Right, the assassination of JFK must have resonated within every Peace Corps site in 1963. In my case, I was in the Provincial capital, waiting for a bus to take me back to my site in La Plata. Like most every bus in our area, firmly set above the driver’s head were three pictures with little Christmas tree lights around them: Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and President J. F. K. Later in the afternoon, before boarding the bus, I stopped at a newsstand to see if it had any recent copies of Time left. There was one lone copy left!

      In my excitement to read while paying for it, I paid little attention to a wildly gesturing sales clerk, arms all akimbo, shouting at me in desperation, words like: muerto (dead); John Kennedy asesino (assassinated); en la cabeza (in the head)–japping his fingers to his head for added effect, etc. I thought the man was either deranged or just anti-American, gave him no attention and left rather than create a scene. He kept shouting after me, obviously quite upset at my dismissive attitude. I was self-absorbed, focused entirely on having Time magazine all to myself during the three hour wide back to my site before having to share it with my partners.

      Upon arriving in La Plata, I noticed that the streets were empty in the main plaza but a large crowd had formed at the front door of our house, just down the street. There were some 3,000 residents living in La Plata and they all seemed to be at our front door. My first thought was that something dire had happened to my partners. As I moved closer, the crowd made way for me. No one spoke. Some reached out to put a gentle hand on my shoulder, lightly touch my hand, or to murmur something as I passed by, their faces prefiguring something that had to be unspeakable. No thought crossed my mind about anything the sales clerk had said back in Neiva.

      Once inside, I was relieved to see that both partners looked just fine, no different than when I had left them earlier in the morning. They were huddled around a short wave radio, running through the dials, picking up short bursts of news from BBC, then VOA, then Radio Cali, then Radio Bogota. But nothing consistent, just “shots in Dallas or Air Force One leaving for Washington D. C”, etc. At one point, the front door opened and plates of food and coffee were silently slipped in to us. No faces, just extended arms.

      Before midnight, there was a knock at our door. It was the Mayor, asking if we might take a moment to step outside. Upon doing so, it became clear that the entire town of La Plata was out there. The Mayor, hesitant and clearing his throat for what must have been a long minute before reading a Proclamation, expressing a deep and profound sorrow on the part of every citizen in La Plata for the incomprehensible news that “the sons of John F. Kennedy now had to bear”.

      The three of us still had not understood fully what had happened. We stood there rather bewildered. Then, Dona Lucia Perez, a poor woman that lived down the street, stepped forward. She asked us to look back and upwards at our front door. There, stretched above it was an American flag. To make sure we could see it in the darkness, everyone who had a flash light put their beams onto it. The effect was rather sureal.

      It was at this point that our denial finally gave way to the inevitable and we connected the dots: the man who with one simple sentence had compelled us to reach into the unknown was no longer with us.

      My site partners entrusted the flag to my care. I fly it every July 4th, Memorial Day, etc. from my house. How Dona Lucia had obtained the materials to stich it together by the dim light of candles, and how she knew that it had to have an exact number of bars and stars, I never knew nor did I ask. In spite of its 60+ years of exposure to sun, rain and wind, it has never been in need of repair. When I see it, the flag reminds me of JFK’s comment that “the burden of a long twilight struggle” is ever with us, its outcome always uncertain, painful and costly.

  • Excellent writing, Jeremiah. Thanks for making it available to all of us.

  • Incredible recollections and writing, Jerry. I am in awe of your facility with the written word. I was a volunteer close to Ibague, Tolima, a sister state to Huila. My Colombian girlfriend was from Paicol, a small town near La Plata, and she used to tell me stories about living there and their ultimate leaving because they were liberals and much of the town was conservative. She recounted how the priest told the congregation one Sunday in church that killing liberals like her and her family was not a sin. They were then forced to leave the church in that instant and their farm and flee to Ibague.

    Upon arrival at our site, we learned that Ibague was in one of the hearts of La Violencia, where groups of marauding disaffected gangs known as “bandoleros” roamed the countryside, killing and pillaging. I was convinced we would not get out of there alive, and the collateral emotions prompted by that knowledge. However, when I learned that they shot you before they cut you in their unique way, I was at peace with it. Each bandolero leader had a distinctive name, such as Tiro Fijo (Dead Eye), Chispas (sparks), Desquite (the avenger), and their particular way of killing, e.g., the “corte de franela”: a form of post-mortem mutilation in which the victim’s tongue is pulled through a deep cut beneath the jaw and left dangling on the neck, and others. Chispas, for example, had witnessed his family locked in their home and burned alive by Colombian Soldiers.

    I lived on a Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers’ experimental farm close to Ibague. I worked with one of the Cafetero’s rural extension teams of an MD, nurse, dentist, agronomist, home economist, and community development worker in the rural coffee grower villages. I recall one night at about 3:00 in the morning, the mayordomo (farm manager) banged on my door and said, “Gary, los muchachos están en el cafetal”. The bandoleros are in the coffee grove. In any event, the mayordomo slapped a thirty-eight in my hand, and off the farm workers and I went to protect the farm. Fortunately, they fled as we approached and there was no firefight. Life was lived on the edge. I remember traveling over a road one day by bus and reading t that the bandoleros had stopped the bus the next day, taken everyone off, and killed them.

    It was an unforgettable experience living in Tolima from many perspectives and not just of La Violencia. When I was transferred to Bogota in my second year, I remember, when referring to Tolima, I always referred to it in the first person plural, “we”.

    Thanks to everyone for the commentaries on the time we lived in Colombia. It was truly unforgettable.

  • Gary,

    Wow, I got a tinge of fear once more reading your well-recorded close encounters. It reminded me of my first meeting with Padre Ovies. Two other Volunteers were in my site awaiting their final days in service. Because I was a Catholic and they weren’t, they asked me to accompany them to see the Padre and get his blessings on a project they were promoting. As we sat in front of the Padre, he held an open newspaper in front of his face and covered it when any of the two spoke to him. But when I addressed him, he would lower the newspaper and look at me directly.

    He had something of a meter for attending burials. I attended one in which as the Padre was reading off a series of prayers as we approached the cemetery, he suddenly stopped, turned around and went back to the
    church. I asked a friend to explain what had happened. and He explained it this way. The poor family had only enough money to pay for him to go half-way to the cemetery!

    God does work in mysterious ways, eh.

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