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 1963-65) 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.