The armed men came upon her village like a sudden storm. Paramilitary troupes announced that they were taking over this village in the Cauca region of Colombia, giving the two hundred inhabitants two hours to vacate or be shot. Eight year old Damaris and her family had just enough time to grab a single change of clothing.
Then they fled for their lives.
They spent almost a year finding shelter wherever they could, with relatives in other towns, or in church shelters. It was a time of numbing despair, Damaris recalls. “There was no time or space to think,” she says. “We pushed pain down inside our hearts, locked away in a cage.”
Months later, some of the displaced villagers risked returning to their village. There was little to return to: the paramilitary had moved on when there was nothing left to consume or destroy. One hundred villagers began the heartbreaking task of rebuilding their homes. They did so silently, avoiding eye contact, unable or unwilling to speak of the unspeakable. Nothing would ever be the same.
Damaris and her family stayed in Cali, thinking it would be safer. They were wrong.
“They came to the house of my aunt,” she says, sitting stiffly. “And took my aunt and my grandmother away. I watched the men, feeling afraid. Where was God?” Her aunt was two months pregnant at the time.
The kidnappers called a few hours later, demanding one million pesos, or both the aunt and grandmother would be tortured and killed. The family desperately tried to raise the money. The two women were taken to a remote camp, where for eight months they were imprisoned in a cage, two meters square. They were not allowed out, but were forced to live with their own excrement. As the months went by and it was obvious that the aunt was about to give birth, the men dragged her out and sent her away. The aunt somehow made her way to Cali, emaciated and fragile. Shaking, she warned the family that the kidnappers were coming to take the children.
Terrified, the family decided to risk informing the police, and with information from the aunt, the grandmother was found and rescued and the kidnappers imprisoned. Damaris hoped that everything would be alright now. But the stress of the experience caused her aunt to break with reality; she became psychotic and violent. The baby was taken away, and the aunt sent to a psychiatric hospital to recover.
“But no one recovered,” Damaris said. “They will not talk about anything. How can we heal, if we stay silent?”
Seventeen years later, Damaris is doing something to break this silence. With a degree in psychology, Damaris has gone back to her village to hold workshops and offer gentle therapy through art and story, slowly drawing out the toxic memories that paralyze survivors. She listens to them, weeps with them, then leads them to the only one who can take the twisted chapters of their lives and change the ending of their story. Jesus can bring beauty from ashes, she tells them. Many have believed, allowing their hearts to unfold and hope again. Damaris’ father is not one of them. He has rejected God, and clenches his heart like a fist around the pain.
“It is like he is in that cage, two meters square,” Damaris says, tears gathering in her eyes. “So many of my people are like him, angry and trapped, unable to forgive.” But As Colombia moves forward with the current terms of their peace accord, armed groups have disbanded and local churches are preparing to embrace the ultimate challenge of receiving those who have wounded them, and helping to somehow reintegrate them back into society.
Pray for the healing of Colombia.
By Nikki White