All names in this narrative, except María Victoria and Jaime Henao, have been changed. Some locations in this narrative have been changed to protect the security of the narrator.
Maybe if I’d participated more when I was a student, I’d have had a well formed outlook about who people really are, and I would have better grasped evil. I wouldn’t have committed as many errors as I have. I knew that people in Colombia killed, but I never thought that people I knew would be capable of going so far.
I was born in Sopetrán, Antioquia province, but I grew up in Medellín because my dad got a job there as a school treasurer. I have an older brother and a younger sister. I went to a convent school and I was well behaved and straight. I was the one who the nuns loved.
In 1987, when I was sixteen, I began studying bacteriology at the University of Antioquia. University was terrifying to me – I was just a girl, and I didn’t know anything about life then. The students there were always going on strike. Even though I was a leader among my friends, I tried to stay away from the strikes and student organizing. I’d often hear that the student assembly was meeting to discuss the university’s problems, but for me, there weren’t any problems there. I simply wanted to work hard and graduate.
I was twenty-one years old when I graduated from college as a bacteriologist. There were 120 students ahead of me on the waiting list for the mandatory rural internship in Antioquia province. So first I worked for a private blood lab in Puerto Berrío, Antioquia, for seven months. In September 1993 I started writing letters to the health departments in Caquetá, Putumayo and Amazonas provinces. It was easier to get an internship in those places because they were considered dangerous; they had the reputation of being guerrilla areas where you could get killed or kidnapped. A week after sending the letters, I received a call from the Caquetá health department asking if I wanted to go there. I was in a hurry to begin working and get ahead, so I told them I would go. I was assigned to do an internship in a little town called Belén de los Andaquies. I moved there in October 1993.
Since Caquetá is considered a conflict zone, I was only required to do a six-month rural internship. But I ended up staying for a year and three months, until January 1995. I left Caquetá and in April 1995 I started working at the San Juan de Dios hospital in the town of Santa Fe de Antoquia.
Santa Fe de Antoquia, or Santa Fe, is where my mom’s family is from, so when I first arrived, I lived at my grandfather’s house with him and my Aunt Lilia. Several months later, my mom moved to Santa Fe, and she built a house two blocks from my grandfather’s place. When it was finished, I started living there with her.
When I started working at the hospital, I joined the social welfare committee, which is in charge of the welfare of the employees, the staff parties at the end of the year, and classes that aren’t related to work. At that time, the Santa Fe chapter of the National Association of Hospital Workers of Colombia (ANTHOC) union had more or less seventy members. But around 1997, paramilitaries started threatening the members. The intention was for the workers to leave the unions and to lose all the rights they’d won in bargaining agreements. In 1998, the leader of the ANTHOC chapter in a nearby municipality was killed. When that happened, the president of the Santa Fe chapter quit the union; she told me she had to resign before she got killed too. By 2002, only three people remained in the union, and the Santa Fe chapter of ANTHOC was dissolved.
From then on, everything began to change. Management started taking away a lot of workers’ bonuses, and they wouldn’t let us take breaks. When we had staff meetings, no one could say anything; we had to listen to what the hospital manager had to say, and that was it. If you complained about something, the manager would immediately say, ‘Whoever isn’t with me has to leave.’ He’d even get red if someone raised his hand. I was one of the two or three people who’d speak out.
In 2005 I met a man named Iván and I started a relationship with him. On Mother’s Day in 2006 I realized I was pregnant. I was very happy because I really wanted to have a child. I remember looking up at the sky and saying, ‘I didn’t know I could be so happy in life.’ Everyone at the hospital spoiled me and bought me food. I put on twenty-five kilos, but it was nice. I saw myself as the picture of health.
My son was born prematurely, six months into my pregnancy. He weighed just over a kilo and was born crying, so I thought his lungs were fine. When I held him I understood what mothers call the greatest joy in the world. It’s something you can’t explain. On the third day after he was born, the doctor told us that he’d had a brain hemorrhage overnight. But he was still moving, and he was responsive. We baptized him on the fifth day and the doctor removed the respirator to see how he would react. On the sixth day the blood clot began to move and he started to choke. And on the eighth day, on 1 November, 2006, he died.
I entered into postpartum depression. Living together with Iván became very hard. By December Iván was telling me that he wanted to leave. I told him not to, but in January 2007, he finally left me.
Eventually I began to recover from my son’s death and see it in another way – that I’d been so fortunate to have had an angel. In March 2007, a co-worker at the hospital told me, ‘María Victoria, we need twenty-five workers to reactivate the union.’ People had doubts. They said that they’d been threatened before, and that maybe the same thing would happen again. It took us until October 2007 to get twenty-five people, and the Santa Fe chapter of the union was finally reactivated in December 2007. I was elected president of the chapter. I accepted, because my son’s death made me feel very strong. I had overcome the greatest pain that I’d ever felt, and I thought, Now nothing can knock me down.
That year, I learned through several patients that a colleague of mine named Luis had been taking blood exams for people outside of the hospital, processing the samples at the blood lab, and then charging the patients and keeping the money for himself. I made various complaints during the hospital’s board meetings but no action was taken. In November, I had also been elected to represent workers from the scientific sector before the hospital’s board of directors. A few months later the hospital director finished his term, and the mayor decided to appoint a woman named Rocío to be the director of the hospital for a three-month period. By June 2008, when the three months were almost up, there was a hospital board meeting. At the meeting I asked the mayor, ‘When are we going to take applications for the position of hospital director?’ The mayor said that he didn’t want to take applications for the post because there was a lot of pressure over who to appoint. He said that the governor’s office had even offered him money so that he’d choose the person they wanted. So I said, ‘Tell us who’s been offering you money, and we can denounce them for bribery.’ But he said, ‘No, no, no, I can’t do that.’ He said that he’d already told them he wouldn’t accept the money.
In September 2008, we had another hospital board meeting. Again, the mayor said that he didn’t want to take applications for the post because there was still a lot of pressure, and it was better to keep Rocío as the director until a transparent application process could be held. The mayor called a vote to decide whether Rocío would stay as interim director. All my other colleagues from the board of directors voted in favour, but I voted against her.
In early 2009, I came into work one Monday and noticed that the racks where you process patients’ blood samples were completely full. I went to the registry book and saw that only six exams had been recorded for the whole weekend. So the tray should have had six samples, but it had ninety-eight. I said to myself, Here I have proof. When I saw the tray of blood samples that morning, I thought, Now the board of directors will have to pay attention to me.
I went to the next board meeting on 11 June, 2009 with a packet of information describing the irregularities in the lab. I handed the packet over to the mayor and asked him to deliver it to either the Inspector General’s office or the Attorney General’s office. Instead, the mayor handed the packet over to Rocío and said, ‘Doctor, you’re in charge of the investigation.’
On 15 August, I left for vacation and returned about twenty days later to find that I’d been assigned the on-call shift for an entire week. It bothered me because I’d have to work my regular shift and also be on-call all night. I knew I’d be overworked. So on 14 September I filed a complaint of labour harassment at the Ministry of Health and Social Protection. The harassment had started since I voted against Rocío’s interim management in September 2008, and the complaint described my stigmatization at the hospital for belonging to the union, because each time we had a board meeting, the director would say that I was the only one in the hospital who caused problems. The board members would also say that I was a thorn in their side, because I often voted against them.
I’ve always thought that you have to denounce bad things; that’s always been clear to me. I loved the hospital because it was my first job after my rural internship and it’s in my mother’s hometown. I didn’t like the fact that the director and board were destroying the hospital. I said to myself, Where are we headed? All these people are going to be left without work. I wanted to protect what little there was, and because of this, the workers began to trust me.
At that time, I felt very protected, too protected, by my family’s position in the town. My grandfather was a local councilman for forty-five years, and had sold his farm to finance the then-mayor’s first campaign in 1995. I thought that the mayor had a lot to be grateful for, and during his first term, he’d actually helped me get my job. So I felt safe because of this, and because I was the president of the union and I felt the support of all my colleagues.
And the other thing is that the government couldn’t catalogue me as a member of an illegal group. For a long time the government has said that trade unionists are related to the FARC, (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] is the largest left-wing guerrilla group in Colombia) that they’re guerrillas or leftists. And I’m not a leftist trade unionist, by God. My family is Conservative (the Liberal and Conservative parties were Colombia’s two main political parties until the 2000s). I even voted for President Álvaro Uribe (a hard-line conservative, Álvaro Uribe served two terms as president between 2002 and 2010) the first time.
So everything around me was like a protective shell. I thought, I can talk and talk and talk and nothing will happen to me. I didn’t imagine that people were so bad. I never felt that evil would reach me. And it turns out that the shell wasn’t such a shell because they didn’t even threaten me; what they came for was to kill me.
On Thursday 24 September, 2009, I left work at around 9.15 p.m. and went to my Aunt Lilia’s house, where my mom usually waited for me. When I got there, my aunt told me that my mom had already left for her farm. So I began walking down the street to my mom’s farm, which is two blocks away. It’s an unpaved road with no public lighting, and there are other farms along the side.
As I was approaching my mom’s farm, I noticed that everything was dark. I thought that my mom had probably turned off the house lights thinking that I was going to stay at my Aunt Lilia’s house.
Then I had a very strange premonition. I thought, What if I were here and two guys came and grabbed me? Right as I was opening the farm gate, two guys attacked me, one covering my mouth and the other hitting me. I thought that they were going to kidnap me, and I started biting their fingers. Then I freed up my mouth and began screaming, ‘Help! Help!’ I dodged their blows and I kicked and screamed really loud until I fell on the ground. Then I looked up and saw the guys had masks on; they covered their faces until below their noses. As I looked up I felt the last blow against my face. That’s when my mom turned on the house lights and ran out screaming, and the attackers took off.
I stood up, and when I touched my face I felt my nose dangling by a thread. That’s when I thought, By God, what were they hitting me with? When I looked down at myself I was completely covered in blood. I saw a knife lying on the ground. I began screaming, ‘They killed me, they killed me, they killed me!’ My mother yelled out desperately, ‘Ay, they’re killing my girl!’ We walked to the house, which was about a hundred metres from the gate. The whole time I held and covered my nose with my hand so that my mom wouldn’t see that it wasn’t attached. I was bleeding horribly from my waist so I told my mom to get a sheet and tie it tight. Then I grabbed the wireless phone and we called the hospital. We called twice until it finished ringing and still no one answered, so we left the house. I told my mom, ‘Keep dialling, keep dialling, we’ll see who can take me to the hospital.’
The whole time my mom was screaming, ‘They killed her! They killed her! They killed her!’ The caretaker of the farm next door saw us and asked what had happened. He was going for his motorcycle to take me to the hospital when a guy and a girl on another motorcycle started coming towards us. The girl got off and told the driver, ‘Ay! It’s the bacteriologist, pick her up!’ So I got on the motorcycle and the guy drove me up to the hospital. When I entered the hospital, Rocío and the doorman were both at the reception desk next to the phone. I don’t know why they hadn’t answered when my mom and I called. I entered the emergency room and said that I’d been stabbed. My colleagues were shocked to see me there, covered in blood, just twenty minutes after I had left work. The nurses laid me down on a stretcher and tried to stop the bleeding. At that point, I started to feel dizzy and cold. I said to myself, If I die, I’m going to where my son is. Then my mom arrived at the hospital and I heard her screaming, ‘My girl died! Tell me the truth! She’s dead!’ When I heard her I felt horrible; I stopped thinking about being with my son, but rather that I was going to leave behind a family that was suffering because of me. A technician took X-rays, which showed that none of the wounds had penetrated my vital organs. They sutured up my chest and hooked me up to fluids. I said, ‘My nose – send me to a plastic surgeon.’ Rocío called Juan Carlos, a surgeon in Medellín who had worked at the hospital. I left in an ambulance at 12.30 a.m. and I arrived in Medellín at two in the morning. Everyone at the clinic was touching my nose and I didn’t want them to. When they lifted it I said, ‘You’re going to take it off, you’re going to take it off!’ It was hanging by a thread.
I woke up after the operation at six the next morning, and my surgeon, Juan Carlos, told me that he had reattached my nose. He also said that the silicone – I’d had breast implants at the time – had deflected the knife towards my ribs. If not, the knife would have entered my lung. The knife was so long that I’m now missing a piece of my first rib.
I had felt the attackers stabbing and stabbing and stabbing. But there’s an explanation for why the stabs didn’t all enter my body. I generally dress in tight clothes, but that day it was really hot, so I’d put on a loose dress. Because of this, many of the stabs landed in the air, and many of them broke through the dress but nothing else. In total I’d been stabbed seven times: twice in my left side towards my kidneys; twice in my back, close to my lungs; once close to my spine; once in my breast, and once in the face. I lost the tissue in my breast and it looked crushed, as if I had breast cancer. The stab to my face cut my nose, upper lip, and left cheek. My upper lip had also been left dangling, but I hadn’t realized it when it happened.
On Tuesday, five days after the attack, Juan Carlos, my doctor, told me, ‘I need to check you because there’s a fifty per cent chance that your nose will die.’ That day, my nose did die from necrosis – it had gone too long without receiving blood. When that happened, Juan Carlos told me, ‘You’ll never return to being the same as you were.’ When he said that, I thought about my mom. I thought, She’s going to cry. I remembered her screams when she arrived at the hospital the night of the attack.
A few days later I had the first reconstructive surgery on my nose. I left the surgery with everything covered but my eyes. I told my mom that the surgeons had just fixed a little piece of my nose, but in fact, they’d reconstructed half of my nose with flesh from my forehead. The flesh has to have blood, because if not, it dies. So they made a tube and buried it against the veins in my eye, since it’s a very irrigated area. The tube passed the blood to my nose so that the tissue wouldn’t die.
After surgery I stayed at another aunt’s house in Itagüí, a city outside of Medellín. I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking that someone was going to come after me. I was taking a lot of antibiotics and other drugs to make me sleep, but I couldn’t sleep.
Iván, my son’s father, called me after the attack. He was nervous because he thought that the attackers might go looking for him. We’d started going out with each other again in October 2008, and the relationship had been growing, growing, growing. Things were starting to go well again. And then this happened to me. After the attack, he told me that he realized there were two kinds of people in the world: pretty people and ugly people. He said he categorized me among the pretty people, but I didn’t feel pretty. I thought I was disfigured, and I categorized myself among the ugly people. How was I going to believe that he meant it?
Even though he showed interest in the beginning, it became less and it was very difficult because I thought, He’s really seeing me as ugly, so how must the rest of the world see me? I even told him, ‘Pretty people and ugly people? What about pleasant people and unpleasant people?’ Eventually, our relationship ended.
The attackers began to call my Aunt Lilia’s house in Santa Fe. They said that they were going to finish me off. They told her, ‘We’re going to kill that bitch. Tell us where she is.’
Finally one of my cousins answered the phone and said, ‘How can we settle this?’ She proposed a deal to them. The attackers called back and said, ‘Pass the phone to the girl who said she’d give us money.’ So my family began to talk with them. My family told the Sectional Judicial Police (The Sectional Judicial Police [SIJIN] is a branch of the national police force.) that the attackers were going to call again. My family had wanted the SIJIN to take over the matter, and record the phone conversations so that they could use them as evidence. But the SIJIN responded that it was up to us to settle this.
So my cousin talked to the attackers again and wired three million pesos (about 1,500 dollars) to their account in exchange for them telling us who’d hired them to kill me. My family recorded the phone conversation where the attackers described everything. I haven’t personally listened to the recording, but my family tells me the attackers said that on the night of the attack, someone from the hospital had alerted them five minutes before I left work. They said they arrived at the farm five minutes before I did, and that my mom was there, but they didn’t kill her because they ‘felt bad for the old lady’.
They couldn’t explain how I was still alive, because they’d stabbed me so many times, and had used a knife that cuts through bone. They were sure they’d left me dead. They mentioned Luis, the colleague who I’d denounced to the hospital board. They also said that Luis’s daughter was the one who’d driven them to my house, and that the order was for them to kill me using whatever means they wanted.
One of my cousins found a bag that the attackers had intentionally left at the scene of the crime. In order to be sure that it was really the attackers they were talking to, my cousin asked them what was in the bag, and the attackers described everything correctly. In the bag there was a Bible, with a paragraph about the adulterous woman highlighted. The intention was for me to die and for that page in the Bible to spread the false idea that I’d been killed because I’d been going out with a married man.
The day after the attack my brother had filed a complaint at the Attorney General’s office. After that, some SIJIN investigators had gone to Itagüí to take my statement and some photos of me. I told the investigators that I thought it was Luis who’d ordered the attack. A week after the prosecutor from the Attorney General’s office started investigating my case, she was transferred to a different municipality. After that, Santa Fe was left without a prosecutor for two months. And ever since they brought a new prosecutor to Santa Fe, the case has been reassigned eight times. My brother said, ‘We wasted the money paying the attackers for the confession.’
In July 2011, I was elected to be the vice president of ANTHOC for Antioquia province. I’ve proposed to my union in Santa Fe to elect a different president, but no one else wants to take the position. After my attack, who else would want to be the president of the Santa Fe chapter? The environment in the hospital has become worse since the attack because people keep totally silent. Everyone at the hospital thinks that I’ll make all the complaints on their behalf. So I tell them, ‘Well, why don’t you write a letter, and we’ll all sign it?’ They say, ‘No María Victoria, we were waiting for you.’
I don’t want to move to another part of the country because that would be quitting. And if I quit, everyone will do the same, and we won’t get anywhere. The fact is that if people stay silent, what future will my nephews have, and what future will their children have?
I continue to move around from house to house in Bello. I go to work and then I go straight home. I don’t have a life. I stay in my room by myself and I sleep with a kitchen knife, pepper spray, and a bulletproof vest next to my bed. Outside of work, my life is four walls. Sometimes I think that maybe it would have been better to have died.
I try not to cry, because it seems horrible to me that people would feel sorry for me. My mom and dad and my siblings have never seen me cry. But at night the need to cry comes over me, so I cover myself with pillows so that nobody can hear me. Sometimes the tears come because of my impotence, because I think, Man, why can’t I say, ‘It’s those people, get them!’ Sometimes the impotence is seeing everything I used to have. I think to myself, I came from an environment surrounded by affection and now I’m alone.
This excerpt comes from Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives from Colombians Displaced by Violence, edited by Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening. The ninth book from Voice of Witness, the oral histories in Throwing Stones at the Moon describe the most widespread consequence of Colombia’s human rights crisis: forced displacement. Narrators recount life before displacement, the reasons for their flight, and their struggle to rebuild their lives. You can buy Throwing Stones at the Moon from McSweeney’s here.
Founded by author Dave Eggers and physician/human rights scholar Lola Vollen, Voice of Witness is a non-profit book series that depicts human rights crises through the stories of the men and women who experience them. The Voice of Witness Education Program uses books from the series to bring socially relevant, oral history-based curricula into U.S. schools. For more information, visit www.voiceofwitness.org
Photograph by Tim Regan