*I changed the names of some people, but not all of them.
In February 1983, Colombia's state security agency, DAS, warned my parents that the spies ofan urban guerrilla group, the M-19 or the Movement 19th of April, were trailing our family and studying our routines. Their intention was to kidnap one of us; maybe even me, and I was then eight years old. Three days after DAS informed my parents, our family moved to Canada and I grew up Canadian, a schoolgirl with a green kilt and green tights who walked to school in the snow or biked on warmer days.
In 2001, Colombian intellectuals helped me set up a meeting with Vera Grave, once a top M-19 commander. I prepared our meeting on the pretense that I was a freelance reporter for Maclean’s magazine. Nine years prior, the M-19 had signed a peace accord, and Vera was granted immunity from her role as one of only two women in the group’s leadership.
In the hallways leading to Vera’s office, the whispers followed me: “She’s blonde, she must be Vera’s daughter.” “She and Vera have the same blue eyes.”
Vera began by telling me that hatred has to do with fear, and fear comes from ignorance or arrogance. Facing her, I burnt with fear. She explained her participation in M-19 arose from a love for people.
Two years before I was born, in 1972, Vera Grave was twenty years old when she decided to take up arms and launch a socialist revolution. She made the decision on a damp afternoon in Bogotá when she was volunteering to teach adult literacy in a slum. The classroom was a shack with punctured brick walls and a zinc roof, and it was nearly destroying Vera to witness the fading hopes of the poor. Her students were day laborers, bricklayers, mechanics, artisans, shop keepers, and single mothers. In her memoir, Razones de Vida, Vera described the anger that assaulted her when she peered in their homes, with dirt floors, communal outhouses, and electricity hijacked from city lamp posts. Her students bought their water from wagons pulled by mules, and their children were malnourished. To do nothing to help them would be inhuman. She felt she could not do enough.
She shared her indignation with her classmates at La Nacional University. Many, like Vera’s literacy students, were from the countryside and it’d been an effort for them to migrate for school. Her classmates were the Mao followers in black ponchos and black rubber boots, Che’s admirers in black berets, and the Trotskyites with small frameless eyeglasses. They told Vera, Pay attention, Blondie, change is happening in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and North Korea. Change comes only when the social and political framework is replaced, compañera. Because the oligarchs, comrade, lack social sensibility. One moment, Vera was in love with her peers; the next moment, they discriminated against Blondie—“bourgeois spy!”— because she graduated from El Andino, Bogotá’s German private school. Compañeros and comrades taunted her for enjoying Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, for praying, and for speaking German, which she’d learned from her immigrant parents. Soon, her classmates became a source of anguish and pressure.
It was the time of the Cold War and because La Nacional University was known as a Communist nesting ground, there was some repression. Classes were often cancelled because students and professors were throwing rocks at the police, and the police responded with tear gas. Suspicion and hostility permeated Vera’s circle: Maoists attacked all Trotskyites as traitors. Cubans yelled Maoism was not for Latin America. The ambience of the campus contributed to Vera’s low self-esteem because she could not find acceptance in any group of friends.
Yet Vera continued with her commitment to a socialist revolution, she told me. She gave in to her father and transferred to the private and much calmer Los Andes University (also my father’s alma mater). Early in the semester, one afternoon in January 1974, she brought home social activists who also volunteered in the slum. She sensed her father taking in their rural accents and ratty clothes, and she read his thoughts: Los Andes students drive BMWs and wear cashmere sweaters, who were these friends of Vera? But Vera was following Che’s number one rule of guerrilla warfare: compartmentalization. As few people as possible needed to know what you were doing. Vera often left the house at five in the morning and told her father she had an early class. She received random phone calls, carried out in whispers or code words, after which she took the car keys and disappeared for hours. She was the only one in the group with access to a car. Her clandestine life included graffitiing walls to protest the murder of Salvador Allende, target shooting, and discussions of the writings of Mao, Che, and Fidel. The pistol she was asked to guard, locked in a drawer in her dresser, excited her: “Power comes from the barrel of a gun.”
Vera told her father she and her friends were going to work on a school project, and she rushed the group into her bedroom. She locked the door. Simon and Garfunkel blocked out their voices. She had hidden her cello because another social activist, Benjamin, had said, “Blondie, you were brought up with the cello while I was lullabied with the kena,” she wrote in her memoir. Among them, it was important to identify your social class, and Vera was at a loss: too rich for La Nacional and too poor for Los Andes. She told me that she also did not consider herself Colombian enough because of her German background; her parents immigrated to Colombia before Vera was born.
The group had been convincing her for weeks to spy on her classmates from Los Andes. To hurt the rich was the only way for things to change, one said. Only Vera had access to them, another added. But Vera had resisted because Los Andes remained the only place where she was a normal student.
Vera cleared her throat, I will spy on the oligarchs in Los Andes. She hesitated for a moment and her voice weakened, I thought about it and I will do it.
A few high-fived each other. The group drank coffee from one mug and they passed it around, lip to lip, until it reached Vera’s. Vera glowed: Their acceptance granted her a sense of belonging.
The compañeros around her bed became the compas and within a year, they formed part of the Movement 19th of April, or M-19.
Vera was a founding member of the M-19 and that instantly made her a commander though low-ranked because she was a woman, she told me. She was in a rush to get to class, she wrote in her memoir, and the men in the café scoffed at her. The men were friends of other M-19s, and top commanders had delegated Vera to find them something to do. They were well-dressed middle-class lawyers, and they fantasized about becoming rebels. They’d expected a rebel commander to arrive on a speeding motorcycle, with a beret and a leather jacket. Instead, anthropology notes flooded from her bag. The lawyers knew her as Cristina. She wore a mini-skirt. Her disobedient curls jutted in all directions. She handed the men a stack of M-19 newspapers and told them to distribute it outside factories. Her timidity was apparent, and the men refused. They were meant for bigger things, they told her. After much discussion, the men agreed to set off aluminum cookie tins, filled with explosives and M-19 newspapers, in movie theaters. The explosives were minuscule, enough to pop the lid and flush the papers out like a tiny volcano. When they reported back a week later, Vera found it endearing the way the men’s faces lit up, she confided in her memoir. They were like kids playing. A month later, she had the men running five miles per day. During Holy Week, under her supervision, the lawyers hijacked dairy delivery trucks and distributed milk to children in slums. In her spare time, Vera was learning to handle a pistol.
Vera did the minimum to pass her classes at Los Andes. Meanwhile, she wrote for the M-19 newspaper, developed physical strength, and mastered target-shooting. One day in March 1978, the father held the daughter’s diploma in his hands. He was a carpenter of high-end furniture. He made decent pay and he’d saved to pay her tuition, and now, the government was contracting her to gather data from the countryside. For her, it was the ideal cover—plus, a paycheck.
The job of the revolutionary leaders, wrote Fidel and El Che, is to organize and so unfold the tyranny. Vera took on the indoctrination of factory workers, cattle herders, and one professional cattle inseminator. They were about two decades older than her, and they told her about their childhoods, in the 1950s, when crimson rivers flushed down corpses. The victims were the men’s fathers, brothers and uncles, and their crime had been—literally, in some cases—to wear the color red in an oligarchic blue town. The men were early members of the Communist Youth Movement, the JUCO, and often, their question was: Commandante, how best do we combine all forms of struggle?
Vera thought about the question, and during a meeting of M-19 higher-ups, she said the M-19 should be the armed sect of a legitimate political party. She suggested the ANAPO, the National Popular Alliance Party, because the ANAPO shared M-19’s belief in instruction of the masses, nationalization of natural resources, land expropriation in favor of campesino co-ops, state control of the central bank, and expulsion of the oligarchy! The compañeros ignored her. Unlike her, few had a college degree; most were drop-outs. But one man, Pablo, winked at her and repeated her suggestion, and then the men agreed. She’d been sharing weekday nights with Pablo but didn’t know much about him. He was nicknamed the Twig because he was scrawny. His nose was like a beak. He would tell Vera, No, I can’t tell you where I’m going, so that on Friday afternoons he could freely go see his wife, Esmeralda, and their two daughters (scrutinized his biographer, Darío Villamizar). His real name was Jaime Bateman, and he was M-19’s leader.
The group soon discovered Vera’s relationship with Jaime, and the whispers began: She’s ranked only because she’s one of the Twig’s girls. In the Eme, you were greeted with a long kiss on the mouth and you swapped lovers every few months. When loneliness gripped Vera, she consoled herself: Why would I want to be stuck in stereotype roles that society assigned to women? Still, the woman in her longed for a child, she confessed in her memoir, and soon, Vera, radiant as a full moon, announced she carried the Twig’s baby. But the M-19’s male leadership—including the Twig—reprimanded her. It was time to liberate women from domestic slavery! La Comandante must think of herself as a states-person. She felt hatred and envy, too; the Twig, and all the other men in the Eme were free to be commanders and fathers while their wives and girlfriends raised their children. And yet, Vera, four months pregnant, did what the Twig ordered her to do, and she regretted it her whole life. She struggled to keep up a relationship with the Twig for eight years until his death in a plane accident. Despite all, or I imagined perhaps because of his early death, she called him the love of her life.
The revolution is a party! said the Twig (as quoted by journalist Laura Restrepo). Everyone drank Cuba Libres. The Twig said, You have to be crazy, passionately crazy! M-19 meetings often turned into late-night parties.
Another man said, Viva the Eme! The muchachas of the Eme are the best-looking girls!
One guy pinched Vera’s behind; another would punish her because she rejected him, she wrote.
Another man said, Women must wear mini-skirts. To distract the enemy. Vera’s uniform included over-sized jeans. In the M-19, no one wore fatigues.
The rage built inside the female commander. While others followed compartmentalization and hid behind masks, hats and sunglasses, Vera went about freely and took on more risk. She hid M-19 newspapers and plans of government buildings in her apartment. She falsified ID cards. She volunteered her car, for whatever mission. Years later, looking back, Vera told me she was like a mother or a wife who gives herself up for her family. The Eme’s were her family.
The interrogator asked, Why are there stamps for Panama in your passport?
The authorities had searched her apartment. Vera was barefoot and the floor of the improvised cell in a horse stable in Bogotá’s Thirteenth Military Brigade was wet and cold. The mildewed blindfold squeezed her eyeballs. She felt herself being lifted, and the hand-cuffs clicked, and she hung from a rod. The blanket dropped and she was left naked.
Commander Vera Grave was arrested at five-thirty p.m., on October 26, 1979—during rain season; the newspapers printed news of her detention alongside photos of zinc-roofed huts swallowed by land slides. Weeks prior, the compas had stolen nearly six thousand arms from a military arsenal.
The interrogator asked, Where are the stolen arms? She wouldn’t talk.
The compas were smuggling them to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Marx wrote: Proletariats of all countries, unite!
The more blows she received, the less she felt her body.
The others talked, the interrogator said.
Breaking down would be worse than death.
Next her head was covered with a pillowcase and dunked for a few seconds in the horses’ drinking fountain. Sometimes the interrogators showed up without masks; did that mean they would kill her?
The night guard was of high school age. Occasionally, furtively, jittery, he brought her a cup of hot chocolate and a piece of cake, Vera’s only food in days, she recalled. Please, eat quickly, señora, he said.
The cries of the compa, of a male commander, in the stable next to hers were like a stab, and Vera began to sing: boleros, childhood songs, nursery rhymes, whatever crossed her mind. Nine years later, the man thanked her, she told me.
On Halloween night, two men with alcohol breath and a ghetto blaster came into her cell and cackled something about a witch hunt, she wrote in her memoir. They blindfolded her again, and tore the blanket away from her. Rock music blasted. They pinched her breasts and kicked her in the stomach. She told me that she repeated to herself, My body is one thing, my mind is another. They next flung her on the floor and shoved a broomstick up her vagina. She was sweating and panting. She heard them talking about raping her. Breathe, she told herself, waiting for something or someone to change the horror, make it all right again. Vera told me she’d seen one of the rapists not long before we talked and she felt nothing, but when she said it her face flushed.
The incident with the broomstick caused her to bleed for some time; ten days later, when Commander Vera Grave was tried and found guilty of rebellion and sentenced to one year in “the Good Shepherd,” Bogotá’s women’s prison, she still could not sit upright. Except for the few compas who blamed their imprisonment on Vera breaking down, Vera felt much community with the rest of the political prisoners, she described in her memoir. Her father visited every Sunday and brought her meat and potato balls, which he’d spent all day on Saturday cooking. Vera was relieved to tell him everything—he said, Hija, is it true what they tell me? My daughter is a commander! That is more than I’ve done with my life. Her father’s approval got her thinking, and prison gave her months to think. Reading the Bible, knitting, cooking, washing her clothes, walking the patio back and forth—plenty of time to decide what was to come. After six in the afternoon, the cells were locked, and Vera, stretched out on a mattress under a white lightbulb, thought: We will move forward on the path of the revolution, on the path of socialism, on the path of Marxism-Leninism. Nation or Death! We will win! Her father demanded that if she were to remain in the M-19, she had to leave the country for a few years after her release. He died before the two saw each other again.
The waves of the Pacific crashed into the wooden fishing boat. Three days passed: green reefs on the right, the horizon on the left, and the fisherman dropped Vera off in Panama. Her German passport made her the M-19’s international liaison. Proletariats of all countries: unite! She traveled to Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, Chile, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Peru, Venezuela, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy, and Vera did what she could—Fidel on her mind: Unite because of the class enemies, the imperialist enemies!—as long as the male contacts did not ask her to continue the meeting in a motel room, as she put it. Away from the compas, during the brief visits to her mother in Hamburg, Vera picked up the cello again, she recalled. With the bow vibrating the strings, the cellist returned to childhood, to the afternoons in Bogotá when a scrawny curly-blond girl towed a cello uphill and mounted the streetcar to her weekly lesson at the National Conservatory.
In 1984, Vera returned to Colombia. As a commander, she was required to spend time in the mountains with the masses. Biding the moment to march triumphantly into the cities. Patria o muerte! Venceremos! During a long march, a love note passed hand-to-hand. It was from Juan, another commander, and it was addressed to “Blondie.” By the end of the week, Vera and Juan shared a tent.
The compas perceived that Vera was pregnant before she did. Juan worried: was his baby still moving? Was Vera getting enough to eat? She continued the long walks. In the late afternoons, after helping the compas set up camp for another night, Vera drank hot chocolate and ate rice and meat that the compas prepared. Then, she laid back to enjoy the baby leaping inside her. In the evenings, under the stars, by the fire, she cuddled with Juan. The compas serenaded and told jokes.
One morning, the army surprised them. There was heavy shooting. Vera was forced to run across a clear pasture, her heart skipping beats, both hands supporting her belly. Bullets zoomed past her and she remembered: if you can hear the bullet, it is not meant for you. That evening, she held wounded compas, calming them, waiting for them to take their last breath, all while the baby kicked inside her.
The group had to vacate the region as soon as they could, she wrote in her memoir. The marches now lasted sixteen hours per day or more, up mountains and down precipices. Vera held on to branches and tree roots, careful not to slip, her arms guarding her growing belly. There was not enough food, and some days Vera starved.
Three months before Juanita’s due date, on April 26, 1986, Vera’s water broke. A doctor, an Eme sympathizer, risked his freedom to hide Vera in a private clinic in Medellin, she confided in her memoir. Her fever surged and the contractions continued, and the sound of army choppers outside, going after the compas, churned Vera’s anguish. There was no one to hold her hand. Juan was with the compas, robbing the bank vault of a nearby town, burning judicial archives, shooting down security guards and police. From nowhere, the black memory of the torture and rape came over her. Tears blurred the clock on the wall. Juanita was premature and easy to push out. The baby was taken to a hospital incubator to be cared for by strangers, and the mother, heavy with thoughts of the other baby she’d almost had with the Twig, she wrote in her memoir, she rushed back to her guerrilla work. Juanita grew up to despise Vera and refused to acknowledge her. Perhaps it was because of Vera’s physical absence, or perhaps because Juanita had to endure the media stories of Vera, the guerrillera, and Vera, the murderer. Once Vera told me, “I never speak about my daughter. That’s my weakness.”
When her assistant, Nelly, commented that I physically resembled Juanita—blue eyes, fair skin—I perceived a light dimming inside Vera.
I felt sorry for Vera. I understood the anger that arose in her from witnessing poverty up close; when I saw sheds with punctured walls and zinc roofs, I had the same reaction—not only anger, but also grief and guilt, and, I, too, felt to do nothing to help them would be inhuman. I had experienced these feelings, first as a teen when I did volunteer work at a foundation in Bogotá, and more recently, as I spent more time in my home country. Like Vera, it caused me much anguish to hear stories of fading hope. I, too, asked myself: could I ever do enough?
But it was difficult for me to reconcile any congeniality with Vera. Her decisions as a commander had dictated the direction of my life, and she and the M-19s displaced me from my homeland.
Vera’s parents kept their ties with Germany, and in part, Vera became a guerrillera because it was important for her to feel a sense of belonging in her homeland, Colombia. I understood that: I, too, sought to reconnect with my home. But Vera’s need to feel a part of the M-19 and take up arms also led her to shun her life of relative privilege. Vera had asked herself if she was Colombian or German. I asked myself if I could be Colombian and Canadian?
For weeks, Vera and I met occasionally in her office. She and another former M-19 had formed a think-tank and they wrote papers and books about Colombia’s challenges. They said they were experts on the subject because they’d experienced it in the front-lines. But it seemed more of a way to have a paying job and to feel less alone in the world.
“Nice to see you, Vera. Even though I don’t believe I’m voluntarily spending time with you,” I said one morning, and laughed. “I told you I’m a Canadian reporter. I am also Colombian.”
She was puzzled, and I told her who my grandfather was. In 1970, my grandfather, Fernando Mazuera, who’d been mayor of Bogotá four times and had done much to bring roads, transportation, and running water to the slums in southern Bogotá, turned down an offer from a populist political party, the ANAPO, to run for vice-president on their ticket. Three years later, in 1973, the M-19 declared themselves the military arm of the ANAPO though the ANAPO never formally embraced them. By 1983, my grandfather’s renown attracted the M-19s interest.
I told Vera, “Your group wanted to kidnap someone in my family.” I’d done it. I’d come clean. But I wasn’t feeling the peace of mind I’d hoped.
Vera stayed quiet for a moment, and said, “We still fight for the same beliefs. Many things still have to change.” She fidgeted, pulling the ends of her sleeves to cover her hands.
“I agree,” I said. In light of headlines that spoke of war and violence, no one could disagree that Colombia needed deep changes.
If my parents had known that I met with Vera, that I heard her out, they would have reminded me of the details of our family friend Amalia’s kidnapping. Amalia* was held for fourteen months in what the M-19 called a “prison of the people.” Her crime was to be her father’s daughter: He was a banker. Though the M-19 said Amalia was a political prisoner, they asked for a $10 million dollar ransom. There was a negotiation in Panama, and a much lower number was agreed.
On July 31, 1987, Amalia, just released by her kidnappers, came to our house straight from the T.V. studio where Commander Vera had ordered her dropped off in the middle of the seven o’clock news. Vera chose that drop off because she feared the authorities would fire shots if Amalia was randomly released in a city intersection. Amalia came to our house because when she left the T.V. studio, cameras were thrust in her face. Her brother-in-law drove her to us.
Amalia’s mother arrived with a hairdresser. She asked him to make her daughter blonder, to tweeze her eyebrows, to do her make-up. Amalia stood in front of a full-length mirror. Red fleabites made her thighs resemble a colander. Amalia tucked and released her gut. With disgust she recalled that she’d eaten, almost robotically, pyramids of boxes of Corn Flakes.
“Please, give me back my Amalia,” her mother was telling the hairdresser. Amalia’s mother was shocked that her daughter smoked and swore.
Pop! The champagne bottles opened. Amalia’s relatives and friends showed up. The Kleenex boxes passed hand-to-hand. Amalia rotated a ring on her finger. Her jewelry, zip-locked in a plastic baggy, was returned to the family at the beginning of the captivity, as part of a proof of life, and no one recognized this new ring.
Top army commanders introduced themselves to Amalia, and President Betancur called and told her she was a brave girl. The gathering was suddenly very loud and chaotic, and the photo flashes of Cromos were constant. A snap of my father’s fingers ordered me upstairs, out of the cameras’ reach. I was thirteen, on summer vacation from Canada.
There was supposed to be an aura of terror and roaring about tall, long-limbed Vera Grave. But there was not. She was pale and bony, and I saw that all the fight was drained from her. Her hair roots were white, her lips chapped. Blue veins popped under her eyes. The air around her smelled like her face cream, like roses. If a cat spoke, it would have Vera’s voice.
It was eleven in the morning, and Vera and Nelly, her assistant, were eating cream cheese on rolls. Nelly was proud she’d been an M-19. But Vera berated her as just another sympathizer housewife who hid a bunch of rifles once or twice.
I pulled up a chair.
“Are you glad to be home?” Vera asked me.
“Is Bogotá home? I’m not sure anymore.”
“Paula, so, like how many languages do you speak?” Nelly asked.
I told them I spoke four languages. “And I have to thank Vera for that,” I said. I told them that the first time I rode a bike around our new Toronto neighborhood, my mother oversaw from the window, and she felt blessed that Canada gifted her children this kind of freedom. “No bodyguards!” I said. “Gracias, Vera. I would have never learned to fly on a bike here in Bogotá.”
Vera peered at me. Nelly tensed up, bringing her hand up to her mouth.
“Really, Vera. You guys opened up a lot of opportunities for me,” I said, and stared into her eyes. My throat was dry.
Vera’s laugh was measured. This time I was satisfied with the reaction my honesty produced in Vera.
“That settled, I have to ask you something,” I said.
“That kidnapping you did, Amalia. That was my friend.”
Vera took her time responding. Yes, she remembered. Amalia was the hostage who assigned cardboard boxes to be pieces of furniture in the room. When Amalia told the compas she liked tea, they bought her some with their own money, and in turn, she shared it with them. And when Amalia found out she was being held by the M-19, she suggested they should raise money through bingos, raffles, and carnivals, instead of kidnappings.
“I never met Amalia,” Vera said. Then she told me about one of Amalia’s guards, whose nom de guerre was Camilo. He wanted to show Amalia his face without the mask, and Amalia refused. She wouldn’t be forced to pick him out in a line-up later. The ring was his parting gift to Amalia.
Why had Vera shared this tale with me? I didn’t know what to make of it.
So instead I told Vera that the M-19s actions had displaced me from Colombia. I loved Colombia, I said. I knew Colombians as passionate, cheery people. Papayas, mangoes, lemons, and guavas grew in Colombia, and Colombian people were as vibrant and wholesome as the fruits they ate. The average Colombian overflowed with laughter and a need to live to the fullest. But I had not been able to grow up in Colombia, amidst the happy people, because of Vera and her friends.
I was honest with her because although she and her compas repulsed me, I wanted Vera to like me. At another time, and under different circumstances, she’d asked herself the same questions that were crossing my mind: How was economic inequality hurting Colombians? What could I do about it?
When I left, I accepted Vera’s hug. I was the only civilian who’d ever reached out to her. On the street, people shouted at her, “Guerrillera!” “Murderer!” She feared being assassinated, but she persisted.
Paula Delgado-Kling holds degrees in comparative literature, international affairs, and creative writing from Brown, Columbia, and the Newschool, respectively. This is an excerpt from a longer nonfiction manuscript, Here Are My Girls and I Have To Stay Alive for Them: An Unlikely Friendship and the Search for Peace in Colombia. Other excerpts have appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Literary Review, and Pacifica Literary Review. You can follow her blog at www.talkingaboutcolombia.com or connect via Twitter @ColombiaTalk.