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Between two waters
Gwen Burnyeat
Rupture_Burnyeat.jpg

Nicola Mazzuia

1.

Camilo stepped over the corpse blocking his doorway. He was too drunk to take in details, he was pretty sure he didn’t recognise the guy, but he registered the gaping hole in the cheek, the eyeballs frozen into an upward gaze, the tongue sticking out beyond the lips, swollen by the bullet, like a bee-sting. 

He slammed the front door behind him.

‘ Camilo? Is that you?’ his mother shouted from the kitchen. ‘Where have you been? You must stop staying out so late! It’s past curfew!’

 

Camilo staggered into the living room and onto the sofa. ‘Hi mum,’ he said. ‘I’m starving, is there any dinner? By the way, there’s a dead guy on the road outside our door.’

His mother came in and pulled back the curtain a crack.

 

¡Ay Santo Dios! Who is it?’

‘Dunno.’

 

‘We mustn’t go out, or say anything. Let’s hope they take it away tonight. Ugh Camilo, you stink of booze! Your father’s going to be furious. You’ve got to be careful. Otherwise you’ll be next, the way you’re carrying on!’ 

‘Ma, c’mon, I’m fine. Anyway, if they kill me, they kill me. Whatever. That’s life in this jungle.’

 

She was always worrying about him. He had scraped through his final high school exams that year, and though he worked with his dad on the farm and helped his mum in the farm supply shop during the day, he spent his free time partying.

 

‘Where were you?’

 

‘Just at the corner shop with some friends.’

 

‘Some of those so-called friends of yours are mixed up in drug-trafficking, it’s dangerous to get involved with them!’

 

‘I’m not doing anything wrong, Ma.’ 

 

Heavy footsteps came down the stairs, and Camilo’s father came into the room. 

 

‘Camilo! Look at the state of you! You’re a disgrace!’

His father’s broad face turned red, and a vein pulsed in his thick neck. He was a proud man, a cattle-rancher with a small plot of land south of the town where he drove each day to work. He had a reputation among the other cattle-ranchers for being fierce and standing up to both armed groups. The paramilitaries accused him of being a guerrilla collaborator because the farmland was on the eastern side of the road, a little way up into the mountains which were controlled by the guerrilla. The guerrilla accused him of being on the side of the paramilitaries, who controlled the town and forced the family to pay protection money to keep the shop open. ‘We’re trapped between two waters’, complained Camilo’s father.

‘You know what, Camilo? If you’ve got money to drink, you’ve got money to pay your own rent elsewhere. I’m sick of this. Your mother works herself to the bone in the shop and I’m out there killing myself with the cattle, and you’re off drinking with God knows who! That’s it. Tomorrow morning you can leave.’

‘Fine, Dad. Whatever. I’m going to bed.’

 

Camilo stood up unsteadily, and went upstairs to sleep.

 

When he woke up, his father had already gone to work. His mother told him he had better find somewhere else to stay. ‘Just for a while, until your dad calms down,’ she said. 

 

A friend lent him a spare room and he kept out of his dad’s way for a few days. So he wasn’t with his father the day the guerrilla kidnapped him on his drive to the farmland. Camilo’s mother called him and begged him to come home immediately, and told him an intermediary had called and said not to tell the police or they would kill the whole family. They were asking a million dollars for his release. 
 
There was no way they could pay that. Camilo and his mother spent three months negotiating with the kidnappers and got them down to $120,000, which they raised by selling all their cattle and their land, borrowing money from some cousins, and taking out a loan against the shop. 

When his father returned home, he was thin, bearded, and furious to have lost all his capital. He started up the business again from scratch, borrowing land from a friend, persuading a local politician to buy a hundred head of cattle which he would ranch, promising to give him an above-market rate on profits. He had got even fiercer, and spoke back defiantly now to the armed groups when they stopped him on the road or came into the shop. 

‘You’ve got to watch your mouth,’ Camilo’s mother told him. ‘You don’t want to make them angry!’

‘I won’t let them intimidate me!’ he growled.

One day, the paramilitaries summoned him to a meeting in their camp just outside the town. When he came home, he was flustered. 

‘What’s wrong?’ asked Camilo. 

‘On my way back, I saw a man on the road taking note of who was visiting the camp. I think he was a guerrilla spy.’

A few days later, the guerrilla came to the land where Camilo’s father kept the politician’s cows and shot him. He died with seven gunshots to the arm, chest and head. 

Camilo didn’t go to the funeral. He got drunk instead, filling his head with the loud music of the billiard halls.

‘If you stay here, you’ll end up dead, or in jail,’ his mother told him. ‘Why don’t you go and live with your aunt for a while, until things get better here?’

Camilo’s aunt lived on the other side of the country, where the conflict was less intense. It sounded like an adventure. He liked drinking beer and visiting prostitutes with his friends, and enjoyed the grim adrenaline of living on the knife edge, as they goaded each other to be tougher, competing over who could be more blasé about the violence surrounding them, but a little voice inside him did occasionally ask, isn’t there more to life than this? Also, he felt guilty about his mum: he saw how she worried about him. Now his dad was gone, he felt more protective of her. 

2.

In his new home, life felt different. The only armed actors in the town were the police, whom Camilo rarely saw. People were friendly and relaxed. There was no protection money, and no curfew. His aunt worked as a secretary in a small local university, and got family discounts for courses there, so Camilo decided to study a degree in Communication Studies – the course with the lowest high school grade requirements. 

Class discussions often turned to political communication and politics. Camilo was right-wing, like his father and all the cattle-ranchers he grew up with. The left was the guerrilla, communism, and the reason the country was wrecked by violence. That was common knowledge, surely? But he discovered it was more difficult to be on the right in his new home. Most students in his class saw things the other way around. For them, the paramilitaries and the army were the greater evil. When he said that the paramilitaries had done some bad things but were only trying to protect people from the guerrilla and wouldn’t have been created in the first place if it hadn’t been for them, they berated him and said he was ignorant. He stood up for himself, thinking how his father never took any shit from anyone. But, privately, he began to question himself. 

 

One of his classmates, Yohan, had a brother who had been killed by the army. They had dressed his body in guerrilla uniform and passed him off as an enemy death, even though he was a civilian. Their teacher said this was a common practice, a scandal known as ‘false positives’, to increase body count and make it seem like the army were winning the war. 

 

Camilo had never heard of such things. 

 

‘I think I’m brainwashing myself here,’ he told his aunt one evening. She raised an eyebrow. ‘In a good way, I mean. Back home, people behave like animals, and I was becoming part of that. I was cold as hell. I didn’t even cry when they killed dad. I just thought that was how things were. But it’s not normal, living like that.’ 

 

She understood. She had grown up there too, but left when she was eighteen to marry a cattle-rancher with land here. The marriage hadn’t lasted, but she had stayed. She rarely visited her sister because she didn’t feel safe back there.

 

One day, Yohan took Camilo home on his motorbike to visit his mother. They lived on the outskirts of town, up on the flanks of the mountain, where the houses were made of crumbling breezeblock and had zinc sheets for rooves. Camilo hadn’t realised Yohan was so poor. Yohan pulled up outside a little red-painted house at the end of a block, with geraniums hanging from the gutter in pots made of plastic bottles. 

 

Yohan’s mother welcomed Camilo with a hug, a big bowl of black beans, rice and shredded beef, and a cup of sweet tinto. Looking around the house, with its compressed earth floor and frayed curtains, he realised she – or Yohan – must have bought the beef specially for him. 

 

As they ate, Camilo looked around the kitchen, and saw several photographs clumped together on the wall. A couple on their wedding day. Two boys, smiling, in school uniform. A portrait of a teenaged Yohan posing in a studio with a backdrop of a fake desert island. And another boy, like Yohan but thinner-faced, younger, leaning against a motorbike with his arms folded. 

 

‘That’s Yohan’s brother, Daniel,’ said their mother, seeing Camilo looking at the picture. She laid down her cutlery and took it down from the wall and handed it to him. ‘He was seventeen in that picture. It was taken a year before they killed him.’ She stroked the boy’s face with her finger. ‘He loved that bike. Yohan rides it now.’ 

 

‘Yohan said the army killed him?’ said Camilo.

 

‘He was looking for a job. He didn’t finish school, he was never as bright as Yohan, so he did jobs around the neighbourhood, building and painting and things like that. He was so friendly, everyone loved him. Then the army came and told a bunch of the local boys there was work for them, several days’ worth of construction. He got his backpack, packed his clothes, he was all excited, “Ma,” he told me, “I’m gonna go and work with the army and then I’ll buy you a TV!”’

 

She sighed, and put the photograph back on the wall, turning away from Camilo. 

 

‘None of them came back. We heard on the radio there was a combat up on the mountain, and that the army had killed a bunch of guerrilla fighters. We all thought that was strange, ‘cause there’s never been any guerrilla up there, only on the next peak along.’

 

‘How did you find out he was dead?’

 

‘One of the other mothers was searching, asking questions, and because of that, a woman from an NGO came and took details of all the missing boys. Then a few weeks later she came back and showed us copies of the ID cards of the ones who had died, and Daniel was among them. We never got his body back.’

 

She closed her eyes for a moment and crossed herself, mouthing some words silently. Then she turned back to the table. ‘I just wish I could have buried my son in a Christian graveyard. Said goodbye to my baby properly.’ 

 

Camilo looked at her small, wrinkled face. ‘I’m so sorry, Doña,’ he said. ‘What a terrible story.’

 

Yohan picked up the bowls and took them over to the sink. ‘The worst thing is, the army has never admitted any wrongdoing,’ he said. ‘The NGO is trying to take them to court, to get justice. We just want recognition.’

 

Camilo was shaken. He thanked Yohan and his mother for their hospitality, and for their trust in sharing their story with him. Now I get why Yohan is left-wing, he thought. My mother lived in constant terror for me… but what Yohan’s mother has suffered is far worse

 

His mother called him every Sunday, but he rarely called her. That night he did. 

 

‘Are you OK Camilo? Why are you calling?’

 

‘Just to say hi,’ he said. 

 

‘Oh! How nice.’ He could hear her smiling.
 

3.

When Camilo graduated, the local army brigade was hiring civilian researchers for projects on truth and memory about the conflict. Around the country, organisations and communities were starting to do memory work, as they believed this could help bring the conflict to an end, rather than being something that could only happen once the violence stopped. The army didn’t want to be left without its own narrative about the past. Camilo got one of these jobs, and was given free rein to innovate, so he decided to organise a series of meetings between the mothers of the false positives and the army. Yohan helped him invite some of the mothers, and he managed to convince a group of young soldiers, who weren’t implicated in any trials, to meet the women and hear their stories. It wouldn’t get the families the justice they were seeking, but Camilo hoped it might help somehow. People need to talk, he thought. 

Hearing the mothers narrate their loss, one after the other, speaking directly to representatives of the institution that had caused them harm, made Camilo think about his father. In the middle of the third meeting he suddenly left the room, ran to the bathroom, locked himself in a cubicle, bent over the toilet bowl and retched. But instead of vomiting, he howled. Suddenly he couldn’t stop, he couldn’t breathe, the grief wouldn’t stay in his body, it was going to split him in two, he had to get it out, he scrunched his eyes, heaving. Then it subsided into tears. He sat on the toilet seat and wept into his hands, remembering his father’s face, and how disappointed he was when he threw him out of the house for coming home drunk.

 

He had no idea how long he stayed in that cubicle, but eventually the crying stopped. He blew his nose and went back into the meeting room. Everyone stopped talking and looked up at him. 

 

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘My father was killed by the guerrilla. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me, so I never made a big deal out of it. Maybe I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself. But listening to you all – it’s like seeing my own mother. And I realised that we’re victims of the conflict too.’ 

 

Yohan’s mother came over to him and put her arms around him. He felt her heart beating against his body. Ba-bam. Ba-bam. Ba-bam. The room was silent, and held him in an embrace. 

 

‘This country needs peace,’ said Yohan’s mother softly in his ear.

When the peace process began between the government and the guerrilla, Camilo was excited at first, but then he heard that the guerrilla would be given seats in Congress, and wouldn’t have to go to jail for their crimes, and he wasn’t so sure.  When the government called a referendum on the peace deal, he voted against it, hoping they would renegotiate it and give the guerrilla greater punishments for all the suffering they had caused. Yohan told him he and his mother were voting in support of the deal, and begged him to change his mind, but despite his sympathy for their suffering, he didn’t think it was right to reward the guerrilla for what they had done. And the country seemed to agree with him, as a majority voted to reject the deal. Camilo was annoyed when the government decided to go ahead and implement the deal anyway. They said they had made some changes, but his colleagues in the army brigade said that these were superficial, the guerrilla were still going to be let off the hook. 

But one day, his mum called, and told him the conflict in his hometown was getting better. There were still narcotrafficking groups, but with the guerrilla out of the picture there was no armed combat. If you kept out of trouble, trouble didn’t come looking for you, she said. Overall, the region was much safer than before. 

Maybe this peace process is actually the best thing that could have happened to us, thought Camilo. 

He decided it was time to go back home, and use his new skills and ideas to help his beloved region. He moved back to his mother’s house, helping her in the shop while he looked for longer-term prospects. And he wanted to get involved in the local peace initiatives that were springing up in the wake of the peace deal. Peace committees, victims’ boards, memory projects, reconciliation events – everyone was trying to take peace from an agreement signed on paper to a lived reality on the ground.

 

But Camilo discovered he was neither fish nor fowl. 

 

He went to a victims’ board meeting, confident after his experiences with the mothers of the false positives that he would be well-received. But when he said he was the son of a cattle-rancher, they wanted nothing to do with him. They accused him of being a right-wing paramilitary. ‘I’m on the same side as you,’ he said, ‘I want peace. Victims of each side need to work together.’ But they said he wasn’t welcome.

Next, he organised a working breakfast at a friend’s restaurant and invited a group of local cattle-ranchers to talk about peace. They came out of respect for his father, but told him he had been brainwashed by left-wing media. ‘Peace is good for business,’ Camilo insisted. ‘It will bring development, tourism, international investment. Isn’t that what we all want in the region?’ But they thought peace was the remit of left-wing politicians, and wanted to hear nothing about it. 

Thinking of his work with the army, he sought out a few cattle-ranchers who, like him, had suffered kidnapping and assassinations of family members, and suggested documenting cattle-ranchers’ memory of the conflict. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘The left is building their own memory of the conflict, we need to make sure that the history of the cattle-ranchers isn’t left out, otherwise they’ll just stigmatise us all and say we all supported the paramilitaries. We need to show everything that we’ve suffered as well.’ But they said this was too political. 

He went to all the meetings, public forums and conferences on peace happening in the region, and tried to get other ranchers to go along with him, but they refused: they didn’t want to be seen or photographed at one of these events, because they saw them as left-wing spaces, and peace itself as a left-wing political agenda.

I’m trapped between two waters, he thought, remembering his dad’s words about being stuck between the guerrilla and the paramilitaries. But at least in this case, neither side are trying to kill me. Maybe that’s what peace is.

He kept trying, talking to people from both sides one-on-one, going for coffees and lunches, and visiting people in their homes. Slowly, he began to make tiny inroads. One of the members of the victims’ board agreed to convince the board to invite him to tell them about the meetings he had organised between the army and the mothers of the false positives. Then the national cattle-ranching federation began research for a book about the cattle-ranchers’ experiences of the conflict, and visited the region to interview Camilo and record his father’s story. Camilo took the opportunity to tell them he thought that the cattle-ranchers should get involved in peacebuilding efforts. ‘We need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,’ he said. But the other cattle-ranchers weren’t keen being interviewed for the book. Camilo tried to help the researchers contact them, but only eleven others agreed to tell their story.

The work of trying to bridge two waters was not completely free of danger. Around the country, people who spoke out publicly in support of the peace process began to be killed. Tensions rose as the next elections loomed, as the candidates were divided over the peace agreement. The leader of the victims’ board, an outspoken activist campaigning for the left, received a threatening letter through her front door, giving her and her daughter twenty-four hours to leave the region. 

‘Do you need to go to all those peace meetings?’ asked Camilo’s mum. ‘I know you’re trying to help, but it might be better just to keep a low profile for the moment, at least until after the elections.’

But Camilo felt he had to keep on. ‘I’m being careful, mum,’ he said. ‘I’m respectful of both sides, and I’m keeping close relationships with the federation, which gives me legitimacy. That’s protection. I’m OK, really – try not to worry about me.’

 

On election day, Camilo voted for the right-wing candidate. I’ll always be right-wing, like dad, he thought, but I’m a bit more moderate than I used to be

But when the left-wing candidate won, he was happy, because the guy’s election promise was to implement the peace agreement with the guerrilla and negotiate with the remaining armed groups. 

 

 

4. 

The day after the elections, Camilo went to visit a friend who had a small ranch, whom he wanted to convince to join the municipal peace committee. He took the bus south from town, rehearsing his arguments in his head: now peace is going to be a central government priority, money is going to come to the regions for peace, and the cattle-ranchers need to get involved in local peace policy, otherwise we’ll be left out of local development planning.

He got off the bus at the place his friend described, and walked up the track leading away from the main road toward the ranch, the sun warming the back of his neck. 

Suddenly, he recognised it. This was the track he used to take with his father to their farmland, before they sold it to pay the ransom. The whole area looked more developed. Back then, the track had been muddy and pot-holed; now it was smooth and filled in with gravel. There were wooden fences on both sides, all the way up toward the mountain, and farm buildings dotted the horizon. Before, it was guerrilla territory, and no one wanted to live around here; the land was split into makeshift corrals divided with chicken-wire, one of which had belonged to his father, but he couldn’t picture exactly where, in this neat landscape. Chestnut-coloured cows grazed in the fields, long, white-tipped ears flopping against their cheeks, tails flicking away flies. 

He took a photo on his phone to show his mum and breathed in deeply, the warm air filling his lungs. Then he carried on walking.​

Dr Gwen Burnyeat is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and Principal Investigator of the ERC-selected research project Stories of Divided Politics. She is author of The Face of Peace (University of Chicago Press 2022), and Chocolate, Politics and Peace-Building (Palgrave Macmillan 2018). Gwen won the 2023 Public Anthropologist Award, and is the producer of award-winning ethnographic documentary Chocolate of Peace (2016).  Her fiction has appeared in The Dublin Review, Critical Muslim and Confluence Magazine. She is currently completing her first novel. Find her online at http://gwenburnyeat.com.

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Meet the author: Gwen Burnyeat

an interview conducted by Otherwise fiction and non-fiction editor, Rosa Sansone

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