We came to Casa de la Memoria– the memorial museum for the victims of Colombia’s civil wars- expecting answers. But when we arrived at the end of the exhibit less than an hour later, my friends and I were looking to each other, confused.
Wasn’t this exhibit supposed to give us some kind of explanation for Colombia’s long history of internal conflicts that left so many people dead and an entire nation traumatized? I expected something with a timeline that put events into context, the rise and fall of conflict, and an explanation for when and how things got so bad. There was no description of who exactly the good guys and bad guys were and what they did. There were only…. memories.
But we wanted an explanation.
Confused and unsatisfied, we approached one of the exhibit guards with our dilemma. “Excuse me?” we asked “I’m sorry but we’re confused. What is this? We feel like we are missing the explanation for what happened in Colombia’s civil war. We came here because we want to understand and, we just don’t.”
He didn’t have an explanation or a timeline, but his answer was perfect, and we left the Casa de la Memoria that day very satisfied and feeling that we in some way grasped what is extremely difficult to comprehend.
The exhibit doesn’t give a clear picture or explanation of the war because there isn’t one. Colombia’s internal conflict isn’t like the other wars we know about, between two sides, with a start and finish date and a clear sequence of events that pointed from one thing to the other. It has been going on forever. It is still going on. All that they can do is piece together the memories and testimonies that they have from different sources over the years and grieve.
“We don’t even know our own story” the guard, Sebastian, explains to us. “You wouldn’t believe how many Colombians come to visit this museum and are surprised by what they see. That’s because the media controls everything in this country and hides things from them. Whatever they don’t see on television doesn’t exist.”
“If Colombians know so little about their own story, imagine how little the rest of the world understands about what is going on here.” He raises a very good point.
I’m pretty sure that the rest of the world thinks there is one main culprit in Colombia’s drama: money and drugs. In reality, that is only one piece of the puzzle and the more recent one, coming into the picture in the 1980’s with the most notorious villain leading their battle: Pablo Escobar. But there has been conflict in Colombia since the first Spanish colonists arrived in 1543. The worst and longest running has been between the government and radical political groups: the far right wing radical paramilitary forces and the far left wing guerrillas. But there isn’t just one radical left and one radical right: there are lots of them fighting against each other. When cocaine and the drug wars entered the picture in the 80’s the battle got even bloodier. Recently a new player has emerged to further complicate the problem, criminal bands, who are also fighting for their share of land, power, and money. Now, imagine that all of this is taking place under a weak and corrupt government. All of these groups, plus the government, are working both with and against each other, and changing sides all the time. So we aren’t talking about one war between two sides. We are talking about many wars, between many sides of many different rebel groups, over the course of many years. The truth has been lost in the crossfire.
And so have millions of innocent people. Colombia is still traumatized by the murders, disappearances and displacements of millions of civilians over the years because of the conflict. The scale of the suffering is immense and beyond measurement.
Sebastian explains to us that in his opinion, it’s the millions of disappearances that weigh heaviest on the Colombian people today. This war has claimed more missing and displaced people as casualties than physical dead bodies. The pain inflicted on the families and loved ones of the abducted is cruel and unusual. They will never have answers. They won’t get to grieve properly.
When peace talks began and measures of compromise started being taken with the rebel groups to get them to lay down their arms, Colombians became outraged that the government was negotiating with the groups that destroyed their lives before they ever did anything to help the actual victims of their war. In 2011, the Colombian government responded to their indignation with the Victim’s Law, to protect the casualties of this legacy of violence. Part of this law was giving them a space to tell their stories. Casa de la Memoria is that space. The one that we visited in Medellin is the first of it’s kind but there is one being built in Bogota as well, and in the works for all the major cities around Colombia. Every city has suffered it’s own, distinct, history of violence and civil war. There isn’t enough space in all the world for the amount of grief Colombia is holding.
It was incredible how the exhibit which puzzled us so much in the beginning actually had a very clear agenda: to make us understand on the deepest level what we were dealing with when it comes to Colombia’s violent past. It is confusing, it’s unresolved, and there really aren’t clear answers or explanations. Only painful memories of a country that has been traumatized by a legacy of conflict and bloodshed and trying to heal itself.
While Colombia has come a long way in recent years, Sebastian reminds us that the Medellin and the Colombia that we experience as tourists is only one side of a country with many faces. Medellin has gained a name for itself as an “innovative city”, but there are plenty of problems still being dealt with that most tourists would come and go from the country without ever noticing. I believe him, but I do think that the fact that we can come here now and have that kind of experience is huge. Ten years ago we couldn’t step foot in the most dangerous city in the entire world, and if we had dared to do it, we would certainly be aware of the fact that there was conflict going on all around us. Now it’s #2 on Lonely Planet’s list of Best in Travel, adored by an increasing amount of visitors from all around the globe every year. So, while I believe him when he says they are still dealing with their fair share of problems, there’s simply no denying that they are doing something really right, or else thousands of traveler’s wouldn’t be here today, feeling safe, happy, and smitten.