The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation
Hector Aristizábal, Diane Lefer
Four AM. A low-income housing project on the outskirts of Medellín, Colombia. The whole neighborhood shook as military trucks rumbled into the barrio on the hunt for subversives. It was 1982; I was twenty-two years old. We were living under the Estatuto de Seguridad, a repressive law that looked on almost any opposition to the government as Communist-inspired. It was dangerous to talk politics. Sometimes even more dangerous to create art. Friends of mine from the university had been seized and disappeared only to reappear as cadavers found in a ditch, bodies covered with cuts and burns, toes and fingers broken, tongues missing, eyes gouged out.
It could happen to me. With my theater company, I performed plays that encouraged dissent by poking merciless fun at the military and the rich, at presidents and priests. I’d participated in protests and human rights demonstrations and had organized cultural events where we sang the protest songs of Victor Jara and Mercedes Sosa and showed our revolutionary sympathies by watching Cuban films.
It could happen to my younger brother. It might have already happened. Juan Fernando had left the house two days before to go camping with three other kids. Then my family got word he’d been arrested. My father and I went searching for him and were told he’d been turned over to the army, but we hadn’t been able to learn his whereabouts or anything about his case. I’d spent a restless night, my sleep troubled by fear for my brother.
Now I was instantly alert. I pulled on a T-shirt and warm-up pants and ran to look out through the blinds. One of the trucks stopped in front of our house directly beneath my window. Should I try to escape? A cold mist made everything indistinct but by the light of the streetlamp, I could see Juan Fernando surrounded by soldiers in the open back of the truck. So, at least he was alive. But there was no running for it now. I couldn’t try to save myself if the army had my brother.
“Open the door! This is a raid!” A platoon of ten soldiers and a sergeant burst in, pointing their weapons at my terrified parents. My father grabbed our little dog, his beloved Chihuahua, trying to keep her still. “All of you! Sit there!” There was my teenage sister Estela, scared and embarrassed to be seen in the old nightclothes she slept in. There were my brothers—Hernán Darío who was fighting demons of his own that had nothing to do with politics, and Ignacio, the steady, reliable one who worked as a delivery boy to help support the family.
“You!” One of the soldiers pointed his rifle at me. “What’s up there?”
“It’s where the boys sleep. Me and my brothers.”
I led them up the stairs. They overturned furniture, threw clothes and papers everywhere, tossed my mattress as they ransacked my room. I started to calm down as I watched them search. This meant they weren’t after me for anything I’d done. They expected to find something and I knew they wouldn’t. I always cleaned the house when a government crackdown was expected. Pamphlets that criticized the president, leaflets demanding social justice, anything that mentioned trade unions or socialism—including books assigned at school—I’d gotten rid of everything. That’s what I thought, and I was wrong.
When I was fourteen years old, I’d written a letter to Radio Havana Cuba asking for books and magazines about the Revolution. I was so proud of that letter, I’d kept a copy for myself. I’d forgotten all about it. Now it was in the hands of the soldiers. And worse. Among my school papers, they found a booklet from the ELN, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional, the second largest guerrilla group in the country. This little pamphlet could mean a death sentence. It had to be Juan Fernando’s. No one else in the family had any interest in the ELN. Was he hiding it? Or had he left it for me to find, a follow-up to our recent disagreement? Then they picked up the photos. As a psychology student, I’d been documenting the degrading treatment of mental patients at the charity hospital. According to the sergeant, these wretched looking human beings were hostages held by the guerrillas.
My mother cried and begged the soldiers to let me go, but I was handcuffed and pushed out to the street where a cold gray dawn was breaking. All the world’s colors seemed washed out, gone. And it was quiet, abnormally quiet. No shouts, no street vendors, no radios. But hundreds of neighbors had come out of their houses to see what was happening. They watched in silence and I remember thinking, Witnesses, hoping that would make a difference, that the army would not be able to just disappear us when so many people had seen us detained.
I was put in the back of the truck with my brother.
“Mono!” I called him by his nickname. Soldiers kicked us and struck us with their rifle butts and told us to shut up, but I had to talk to him. If we couldn’t explain away that ELN booklet, one or both of us might die. “I’m going to say you’ve been in the mental hospital, okay?” We could admit yeah, he might have picked up some guerrilla propaganda, but he wasn’t capable of understanding what it meant. My brother said nothing, but his eyes were full of pain.
We were driven to Batallón Bomboná, an army post in another part of town. We entered the compound followed by three more trucks, each carrying one of the boys who’d gone camping with Mono. Soldiers ordered us out and stood us facing a wall. It was cold as hell out there in the yard. I shivered until the sun came up at last, throwing shadows against the whitewashed adobe. I can still remember the brief touches of warmth, now on my shoulders, now my back.
Comunistas! Subversivos! Soldiers ran by in formation, hollering insults: Hijueputas! The firing squad stopped and aimed their rifles. Someone shouted: The one with the red shirt! Bang! The one with the long hair! My heart exploded in my throat. Long hair meant me. Bullets slammed into the wall again and again just above our head, but didn’t hit us.
What were they going to do to us? We stood under guard for hours at that wall. The morning went on and on and I waited.
“Don’t look!” But I looked, and saw a short fat man lead my brother’s friends away, one by one. They were so young, just kids. What would happen to them? At last the soldiers brought them back. “Don’t look!” But I saw the boys were soaking wet and trembling. “Shut up! Don’t talk!” But there were whispers. We were tortured. They were tortured. They were tortured.
The man took Juan Fernando. Minutes went by. Hours. He didn’t bring my brother back. Images roared through my mind: mutilated bodies, my brother’s face. Torture. When the man came back, he was alone.
The man came for me.
He led me up a hill to a cell at the end of a long, one-story building. He blindfolded me. He demanded information. “Where are you keeping the hostages?” He beat me. He kicked me. He forced my head underwater again and again, bringing me to the verge of drowning.
“Your brother has told us everything,” he said. “So have his little friends. We know you’re an urban guerrilla commander. You’re the one who’s training those kids.”
The son-of-a-bitch had to be lying. Juan Fernando would never have said such a thing.
“He’s crazy,” I said. “My brother has been hospitalized.” The worst pain was imagining what they might do to him. “Please don’t hurt him.”
I thought of Mono’s growing sympathy for the guerrilla movement. It was what we argued about. Maybe he was more involved than I’d realized or had wanted to know. So what? He was my brother and I would do what I could to protect him.
“He’s not responsible. He has mental problems.”
Soldiers attached electrodes to my testicles and sent jolts of electricity tearing through every nerve. They twisted my arms up behind my back and left me hanging until the pain and helplessness became so great, I was blown right out of my body and mind. Soldiers drove me around in a small jeep. One forced the barrel of his rifle into my mouth. “You’re going to die now,” he said. “Just like your brother.”
Instead, they forced me into an underground passage where I found Mono, alive, and his friends, all of us hidden from view—as we later learned—while a human rights delegation searched for us somewhere above our heads. The ceiling of our dungeon was so low we had to crawl. The air was hot, thick, and the stench unbearable from human waste and from the festering wounds of a black man from Chocó we found chained and shackled there, bleeding to death in the dark. He told us he had no idea why he’d been arrested and tortured. “Worse than a street animal,” he said. Nothing we could do could help him or ease his pain till it turned out another prisoner had bribed a guard for marijuana. “Here, brother.” The dying man filled his lungs and began to laugh and the smoke filled the dark and filthy crawlspace. We all filled our lungs and laughed and I believe I’ll hear our laughter echoing in that cave and in my nightmares for the rest of my life.
* * *
It must have been the witnesses and the human rights delegation that saved us. We could have been executed in secret. Instead we were brought before a judge. Our mental hospital story worked. The ELN booklet was deemed harmless, but my brother and the other boys went to prison for carrying a subversive weapon—a machete. He went in an idealistic young man. He came out a committed revolutionary, convinced no alternative existed to the armed struggle.
As for me, ten days after my arrest, the army let me go, but the ordeal marked me. It marks me still.
I’m marked as well by my self-inflicted wounds. Years later, in California, my life was a shambles. My marriage had collapsed and the identity I’d so painstakingly constructed in exile had shattered. I was overwhelmed by my history of loss: I’d lost my country and my language and so many people I loved to violent death. Then the photographs from Abu Ghraib seared themselves into the nation’s consciousness and I was galvanized back into action. I was asked to participate in an anti-torture event. When I improvised a few scenes about my experience, I saw immediately that I’d brought home to the audience the human reality of torture in a way no newspaper account or news broadcast could do. The pain I’d suffered was now a source of power—the blessing next to the wound. To carry the message further I asked my friends Diane Lefer, BJ Dodge, and Enzo Fina—a writer, a director, and a musician—to collaborate with me. We created the play Nightwind, which I’ve now performed all over the United States and around the world.
This work helped me heal from torture, but offstage I was still a mess. Some days, I felt myself disintegrating, plunging into the void, but I always knew for the sake of my two young children I had to regain my footing.
When I worked as a therapist, I often asked clients to tell me the story of their lives. I would then offer them narratives in which they could recognize not just themselves, but their strengths. I would invite them to discover what they’d learned and could make use of from the most difficult experiences. And so I began to tell Diane my story—all of it—and I asked her to write it.
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