By Rev. Kathryn Ray
Grief is a communal process.
This thought echoed louder and louder through my mind and heart as we toured the museum and memorials in Trujillo, Colombia. A father and son who had lost family members in the government-sponsored massacre that took place in that community from 1986-1994 guided our small delegation from the Global Baptist Peace Conference. They literally led us along the path this community had taken in search of healing and justice in the face of the unimaginable. With each step we took, each different monument we visited, I saw new visions of the transformational, defiant power of a community that comes together to grieve, to tell their story, and to refuse to stop telling it.
A Brief History of the Trujillo Massacre
Our younger guide explained that Colombia has been caught in a war between ideologies for decades. One side is capitalism, represented by the government, and the other is communism, represented by paramilitary forces. Drug traffickers also caught up in the warring. While these are the primary actors in the fight, it is the people who live in the combat zones- often rural, indigenous or Afrodescendant communities- who end up being the war's main victims.
Padre Tiberio Fernández was a Roman Catholic priest who served for only five years as the head of the Trujillo parish. During this time, he organized community development projects-family microenterprises, cooperatives, and block associations. As our guide put it, the warring forces in the area- the government, the paramilitary groups, and the drug traffickers- collectively decided it would be easier to take out this community than to contend with them as an empowered stakeholder.
Over a period of eight years, under the leadership of paramilitary leader Henry Loaiza Ceballos, nicknamed "The Scorpion," these combined forces led a series of operations to disappear and assassinate between 300-400 members of the Trujillo community, including Padre Tiberio himself. Their bodies were dismembered and thrown in a local river.
As international outcry over the human rights situation in Colombia grew, the case was taken up by the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, which laid suit and found the government complicit in the massacre. Among other requirements, the Commission demanded the government create a symbolic memorial to the victims of the massacre, and the land was given for the Victims of Trujillo Monument Park to be built.
To this day, those responsible for the massacre still have not been held to account.
The Past is Present
One of these victims was the father and grandfather of our respective guides. His son paused in the museum by his photo, and told us how his father had been dismembered alive and then shot. I had been called upon to translate on this excursion, and this was the one moment I had to pause, and step outside myself in order to translate his words. I cannot imagine what it meant for our guide to tell this story to so many visitors like us.
I pulled aside after this story, and a young boy from Cali who had accompanied our trip came up to me.
"I saw you crying."
"Yes, I was crying because I am very sad."
"Because they tortured that man?"
"Yes, because they tortured him."
"It's hard to imagine why anyone would do that."
"Yes, it is."
Piecing the Stories Together
Our guide told us that even though Padre Tiberio had been killed, the roots of his organizing work remained. The people of Trujillo organized to build this monument park to tell the story of their lost loved ones. As they came together, they began to tell their own stories of loved ones kidnapped, disappeared, murdered. "They would tell, and then listen. Tell, and then listen." In the process of claiming the individual variations and particularities of their stories, a communal identity and shared story began to emerge. AFAVIT- the association of relatives of the victims of Trujillo- was born.
Playing Out New Possibilities
As we left the museum and walked toward the monument park, our guide gestured to a building and play area near the road. This is where AFAVIT leads children's programs, in which they learn the stories of their community. "But it's not just remembering. There is also the dimension of the lúdico. They play games and do activities around conflict resolution, to imagine new ways of moving forward to create a society where this never happens again."
The word lúdico resonated deep within me. I first learned the word while spending several months in Nicaragua accompanying NGOs who were putting on popular workshops around the country to help communities grapple with gender-based violence. For these organizations, "el lúdico" was a key methodology.
Lúdico means "play," but it is so much more. It means using games and other imaginative activities like drama and art to surface deep pains and wounds, which a person may not be able to articulate verbally, and to hold them in a safe space. El lúdico creates space to imagine and try out new ways of engaging with others and the world that break apart the oppressions that govern our daily lives. It follows the pedagogy of Paulo Freire, engaging people in the work of conscientization: the process by which an oppressed person becomes aware of her oppression, defines herself and her story independently of the oppressors' narrative, and names her own world.
Ever since then, I have identified la dimensión lúdica as the work of the Holy Spirit in our world, creating new possibilities and breaking down structures of injustice.
This work was everywhere in Trujillo- from the murals, to the ritual pilgrimages to the river where the bodies were thrown, to the sharing of stories. And everywhere in Trujillo was the stark evidence of how threatening this work is to dominant structures and narratives. The man who recovered the body of Padre Tiberio was murdered; the artist who created the image of his cruciform, mutilated body was threatened with death. To this day, the monuments in the memorial park are repeatedly vandalized, and its advocates repeatedly threatened.
Through it all, the families of Trujillo refuse to stop naming their own world.
Grieving As an Act of Creation
In the terrace where victims have been laid to rest, white slabs show the names of each person. Beneath their names of each person, their family members sculpted their images in clay doing what they did in life. If they were woodworkers, they sculpted them as woodworkers; mechanics were shown as mechanics.
This terrace is not called a cemetery, it is called a garden. As the guide explained it is the place where families have planted memories of their loved ones, the images they had when they were alive, and their dreams for them, in the hope that their lives may continue to bear fruit. Even beyond death, their lives continue to create.
This communal process of grieving, storytelling, and world-naming opened up space for a complex set of individual experiences. A monument was erected in honor of the massacre victims who had died of pena moral- those so devastated by the grief of losing their children that they died of sorrow and guilt. Another monument honored the particular grief of those whose loved ones had simply disappeared. These people are left wondering where their loved ones are, if they are alive, what they are dong, if they will return.
"Behind each person lie so many realities," our guide explained. An ocean of memories, hopes, and dreams.
Grieving is a Communal Process
It seems like a simple statement. But somehow, as we walked through this garden of memories and dreams, I realized that I have primarily seen grief as a solitary act. Trujillo showed me something else entirely. Their grieving process is radical solidarity. It is co-creation in the face of annihilation. It is telling a story and refusing to be silenced. It is an ongoing call for those who perpetrated these crimes to be brought to justice. Trujillo is "the drop of hope in a sea of impunity."
And as we walked this path with them, the humbling, awe-full implication became clear: by bearing witness, we were being invited into this communal process. We were being invited to tell the story, and to call for justice with Trujillo.