In 1991, Medellin earned the title “world’s most violent city”, with 6,809 homicides. Tens of thousands more have died in the decades preceding and since.
I visited Colombia may times during those years, and had but a peripheral knowledge of how extensive the violence was. For example, I’d heard friends describe Colombia as “dangerous”, and my parents rarely took us to the countryside. Instead, my childhood memories are that of a beautiful country with more geographic and biodiversity packed per square kilometer than any other in the world, and more family than I could count on my tiny fingers and toes combined.
Today, there is a museum in Medellin dedicated to the violence Colombia has known from the 1970s through the present. It is called La Casa de la Memoria (The Memory House). The museum trades not so much in facts and truths, but in stories.
As with so many things in life, the museum observes:
“One single truth does not exist. History is never complete. Everyone narrates from their point of view, from the role they have played in the scheme of things. And when they intertwine, these narratives are transformed, enriched, they become more complex… The conflict has damaged thousands of lives, [such that] we often forget small details, day to day rituals that now we cannot complete; to yearn for the taste of mangos, the caress of the mountain breeze, the voices of children, the smell of home, the peaceful sensation of a family, secure and complete …Understanding these losses allows us to understand the magnitude of damage, sense the immense universe of suffering, longing and lost love that becomes mixed up in the projection of the past, the solitude of the present, and in the challenge of building the future.”
Complex, indeed. On a large screen at the museum, I listen to an old woman standing before me head to toe, telling the story of her son who disappeared over twenty years ago. He was God’s gentle creation, she said; a hopeful young college student who wouldn’t hurt anyone. An enforcer, who may or may not have been involved in dismembering his body, tells a different story of a young man who was complicit with the cartel and would have continued hurting others; if it was, in fact, the same person they were talking about; no one is quite sure.
In the end, all we have are stories. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. In another room, a dark room, tiny lights litter the walls, each revealing nothing more than a name, a date, and a photo of the vanished — those who disappeared in Colombia with no explanation other than the stories of those who remember them.
I know the anguish of not knowing the truth of what happened to someone I’ve lost. And the solitude of some irreconcillable gap between my story and someone else’s that tears apart the fabric between us. We’ve all been there; we all know what that’s like, in some way big or small.
But here’s what the museum had to teach me: honor your own stories, as you’d honor others’. Without our stories to make sense of things, we risk losing ourselves in the search for meaning where there isn’t any to be found; or worse, in someone else’s narrative. But do listen to others’ stories, as you’d hold fast to your own; and empathize if you can, without losing yourself.
Colombia still has a long way to go. I left the Memory House thinking about the mother and the enforcer I met there; and how each of their stories help them, in their own ways, make peace with their past and (one hopes) build towards a better future. I left thinking about the stories of my own childhood in this country, and how different they are from the stories so many others remember of this place.
I want to honor them all.