Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia (named the Manitoba Colony, after the province in Canada from which the colonists had emigrated in the mid-1900s), hundreds of girls and women would wake up in the morning feeling drowsy and in pain, their bodies bruised and bleeding, having been attacked in the night. The attacks were attributed to ghosts and demons. Some members of the community felt the women were being made to suffer by God or Satan as punishment for their sins; many accused the women of lying for attention or to cover up adultery; still others believed everything was the result of wild, female imagination. Eventually, it was revealed that eight men from the colony had been using an animal anaesthetic to knock their victims unconscious and rape them. In 2011, these men were convicted in a Bolivian court and received lengthy prison sentences. However, in 2013, while the convicted men were still in jail, it was reported that similar assaults and other sexual abuses were continuing to take place in the colony. What follows is fiction.
We begin by washing each other’s feet. This takes time. We each wash the feet of the person sitting to our right. The foot-washing was a suggestion made by Agata Friesen (mother of Ona and Salome Friesen). It would be an appropriate symbolic act representing our service to each other, she said, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, knowing that his hour had come.
Four of the eight women are wearing plastic sandals with white socks, two are wearing sturdy leather shoes, scuffed (and in one case slit open at the side to allow for a growing bunion), with white socks, and the other two, the youngest, are wearing torn canvas running shoes, also with white socks. Socks are always worn by the women of Molotschna, and it appears to be a rule that the top of the socks must always reach the bottom hem of the dress.
The two youngest women, Autje and Neitje, the ones wearing running shoes, have rolled their socks down rebelliously (and stylishly) into little doughnuts that encircle their ankles. On them, a swatch of bare skin, several inches of skin, is visible between the rolled sock and the dress hem, and insect bites (probably black fly and chigger) dot the skin. Faint scars, from rope burns or from cuts, are also visible on the exposed parts of these women. Autje and Neitje, both sixteen, are having difficulty keeping straight faces during the foot-washing, murmuring to each other that it’s ticklish, and coming close to erupting in giggles when attempting to say God bless you to each other, in solemn voices, as their mothers, aunts and grandmothers have done following each washing.
Greta Loewen, the eldest of the Loewen women (although she was born a Penner) begins. She exudes a deep, melancholic dignity as she speaks of her horses, Ruth and Cheryl. She describes how when Ruth (who is blind in one eye and must always be harnessed to the left of Cheryl) and Cheryl are frightened by one or more of Dueck’s Rottweilers on the mile road that leads to church, their initial instinct is to bolt.
We have seen it happen, she says. (After these short, declarative sentences Greta has a habit of lifting her arms, dipping her head and widening her eyes as if to say, This is a fact, are you challenging me?)
Greta explains that these horses, upon being startled by Dueck’s stupid dog, don’t organize meetings to determine their next course of action. They run. And by so doing, evade the dog and potential harm.
Agata Friesen, the eldest of the Friesen women (although born a Loewen) laughs, as she does frequently and charmingly, and agrees. But Greta, she states, we are not animals.
Greta replies that we have been preyed upon like animals; perhaps we should respond in kind.
Do you mean we should run away? asks Ona.
Or kill our attackers? asks Salome.
(Mariche, Greta’s eldest, until now silent, makes a soft scoffing sound.)
Agata Friesen, unfazed by Salome’s outbursts (she has already referred to Ecclesiastes to describe Salome’s temper as nothing new under the sun, as the wind blows from the north, as all streams lead to the sea, etc. To which Salome responded that her opinions should not be slotted under hoary Old Testament headings, please, and wasn’t it preposterous that the women should compare themselves to animals, wind, sea, etc? Isn’t there a human precedent, some person in whom we can see ourselves reflected back to ourselves? To which Mejal, lighting up a smoke, responded, Yes, I’d like that, too, but what humans? Where?), states that in her lifetime she has seen horses, perhaps not Ruth or Cheryl, fair enough – in deference to Greta and her high regard for her horses – but others who, when charged by a dog or coyote or jaguar, have attempted to confront the animal and/or to stomp the creature to death. So it isn’t always the case that animals flee their attackers.
Greta acknowledges this: yes, she has seen similar behaviour in animals. She begins once again to talk of Ruth and Cheryl, but her anecdote is cut short by Agata.
Agata tells the group she has her own animal story, also featuring Dueck’s Rottweiler. She speaks quickly, often inserting asides and non sequiturs in a hushed, theatrical voice.
I am not able to hear or keep up with every detail, but I’ll attempt here to tell the story in her voice, and with as much accuracy as I am able.
Dueck had raccoons in his yard that he hated for a long time, and when the fattest raccoon suddenly had six babies, it was all that Dueck could stand. He tore his hair out. He told his Rottweiler to go kill them, and away the dog went, and the mother raccoon was surprised and tried to save her babies and get away from the dog, but the dog killed three of the babies and the mother raccoon could only save the other three. She took those babies and left Dueck’s yard. Dueck was fairly happy about that. He drank his instant coffee, and thought, praise be to God, no more raccoons. But a few days later, he looked into his yard and saw the three baby raccoons sitting there, and he became angry once again. He told his Rottweiler again to attack and kill them. But this time the mother raccoon was waiting for the dog, and when he came running at the babies she jumped on him from a tree and bit into his neck and his stomach and then, with every muscle in her body straining, dragged him into the bushes. Dueck was so mad, and also sad. He wanted his dog back. He went into the bushes to find the dog, but he couldn’t, even after two days of searching. He cried. When he came back home he walked despondently to his door and there lay one leg from his dog, and also the dog’s head. With empty eye sockets.
The reaction to Agata’s story is mixed. Greta lifts her hands over her head and asks the other women: What are we supposed to make of this? Are we to leave our most vulnerable colony members exposed to further attack in order to lure the men to their deaths so they can be dismembered and delivered in parts to the doorstep of Peters, the bishop of our colony?
What the story proves is that animals can fight back and they can run away, Agata says. And so it doesn’t matter whether we are animals or not, or whether we have been treated like animals or not, or even if we can know the answer to that one way or the other. (She inhales all possible oxygen into her lungs and then releases it with the next sentence.) Either way, it’s a waste of time to try to establish whether we are animals or not, when the men will soon be returning from the city.
Mariche Loewen raises her hand. One of her fingers, her left index, has been bitten off at the knuckle. It is half as long as the middle finger next to it. She asserts that in her opinion, the more important question to ask is not whether the women are animals, but rather, should the women avenge the harm perpetrated against them? Or should they instead forgive the men and by doing so be allowed to enter the gates of Heaven? We will be forced to leave the colony, she says, if we don’t forgive the men and/or accept their apologies, and through the process of this excommunication we will forfeit our place in Heaven. (Note: this is true, I know, according to the rules of Molotschna.)
Mariche sees me looking at her and asks if I’m writing this down.
I nod, yes, I am.
Satisfied, Mariche asks the others a question about the rapture. How will the Lord, when He arrives, find all the women if we aren’t in Molotschna?
Salome cuts her off, disdainful. In a mocking voice, she begins to explain that if Jesus is able to return to life, live for thousands of years and then drop down to earth from heaven to scoop up his supporters, surely he’d also be able to locate a few women who –
But now Salome is silenced by her mother, Agata, with a quick gesture. We will return to that question later, Agata says kindly.
Mariche’s eyes dart around the room, perhaps searching for kinship on this subject, someone to share her fears. The others look away.
Salome is muttering: But if we’re animals, or even animal-like, perhaps there’s no chance anyway of entering the gates of Heaven – (she stands up and goes to the window) – unless animals are permitted. Although that doesn’t make sense because animals provide food and labour, and we will require neither of those things in Heaven. So perhaps, after all, Mennonite women will not be allowed into heaven because we fall into the category of animals, who will not be needed up there, where it’s always lalalalala . . . She ends her sentence in song syllables.
The other women, except Ona Friesen, her sister, ignore her. Ona smiles slightly, encouragingly, approvingly, although it’s also a smile that could serve as firm punctuation to Salome’s statement – that is, a silent request to end it. (The Friesen women have developed a mostly effective system of gestures and facial expressions to quiet Salome.)
Ona begins to speak now. She is reminded of a dream she had two nights ago: she found a hard candy in the dirt behind her home and had picked it up and taken it into her kitchen, planning to wash it and eat it. Before she could wash it, she was accosted by a very large 200-pound pig. She screamed, Get that pig off me! But it had her pinned against the wall.
That’s ridiculous, says Mariche. We don’t have hard candy in Molotschna.
Agata reaches over to touch Ona’s hand. You can tell us your dreams later, she says. When the meeting is over.
Several of the women speak up now, saying they are not able to forgive the men.
Precisely, says Mariche. She speaks succinctly, sure of herself again. Yet we want to enter the gates of Heaven when we die.
None of the women argue that point.
Mariche goes on to state that we should then not put ourselves in an unfortunate position, where we are forced to choose between forgiveness and eternal life.
What position would that be? asks Ona Friesen.
That position would be staying behind to fight, Mariche says. Because the fight would be lost to the men, and we would be guilty of the sin of rebellion and of betraying our vow of pacifism and would finally be plunged deeper into submissiveness and vulnerability. Furthermore, we would be forced to forgive the men anyway, if we wanted God to forgive us and to allow us into His kingdom.
But is forgiveness that is coerced true forgiveness? asks Ona Friesen. And isn’t the lie of pretending to forgive with words but not with one’s heart a more grievous sin than to simply not forgive? Can’t there be a category of forgiveness that is up to God alone, a category that includes the perpetration of violence upon one’s children, an
act so impossible for a parent to forgive that God, in His wisdom, would take exclusively upon Himself the responsibility for such forgiveness?
Do you mean that God would allow the parent of the violated child to harbour just a tiny bit of hatred inside her heart? asks Salome. Just in order to survive?
A tiny bit of hate? asks Mejal. That’s ridiculous. And from tiny seeds of hate bigger –
It’s not ridiculous, says Salome. A very small amount of hate is a necessary ingredient to life.
To life? says Mejal. You mean to waging war. I’ve noticed how you come alive in the act of killing.
Salome rolls her eyes. Not war; survival. And let’s not call it hate –
Oh, you’d prefer to call it an ‘ingredient’, says Mejal.
When I must kill pigs, I hit the runts harder, says Salome, because it’s more humane to kill them with one swift blow than to torture them with tepid hacks, which your system . . .
I wasn’t talking about killing pigs, says Mejal.
During this exchange, Mejal’s daughter Autje has begun swinging from a rafter, a human pendulum, kicking at bales mid-swing and loosening the straw, a piece of which has landed in Salome’s hair. Mejal looks up, tells Autje to behave herself, can’t she hear the rafter creaking, does she want the roof to cave in? (I muse that perhaps she does.)
Mejal reaches for her pouch of tobacco but doesn’t roll a smoke, simply rests her hand lightly on the pouch as though it were a gear shift in an idling getaway car, and she is waiting, knowing it is there when she needs it because her hand is on it.
Salome doesn’t know about the straw in her hair. It sits above her ear, nestled in that space, like a librarian’s No. 2 pencil.
After a small silence, Greta returns to Ona’s question. Perhaps, yes, such a category exists, she says slowly. Except there’s no biblical precedent for this type of God-only forgiveness.
A brief observation about Ona Friesen: Ona is distinctive among these women for having her hair pulled back loosely rather than with the blunt force of a seemingly primitive tool. She is perceived by most of the colonists to have a gentle disposition and an inability to function in the real world (although in Molotschna that argument is a red herring). She is a spinster. And she is afforded a type of liberty to speak her mind because her thoughts and words are perceived as meaningless, although this didn’t prevent her from being attacked repeatedly. She was a reliable target because she slept alone in a room rather than with a husband, which she doesn’t have. Or want, it seems.
Earlier she had stated: When we have liberated ourselves, we will have to ask ourselves who we are. Now she asks: Is it accurate to say that at this moment we women are asking ourselves what our priority is, and what is right – to protect our children or to enter the kingdom of Heaven?
Mejal Loewen says, No. That is not accurate. That is an exaggeration of what is truly being discussed. (Her hand still resting intimately on the pouch of tobacco.)
What, then, is truly being discussed? Ona asks.
Agata Friesen, Ona’s mother (and Mejal’s aunt), responds. We will burn that bridge when we come to it, she says (intentionally using this English expression incorrectly in order to leaven the proceedings). And Ona, indulgent of her mother, as she is of her sister, is content to let it be.
Greta Loewen pats Autje’s hand. Steady on. The knuckles on Greta’s hand stand out like knobs, like desert buttes on a cracked surface. Her false teeth are too big for her mouth, and painful. She removes them and sets them down on the plywood. They were given to her by a well-meaning traveller who had come to Molotschna with a first aid kit after hearing about the attacks on the women.
When Greta had cried out, the attacker covered her mouth with such force that nearly all her teeth, which were old and fragile, were crushed to dust. The traveller who gave Greta her false teeth was escorted out of Molotschna by Peters, who then forbade outside helpers from entering the colony.
The singing has ended. The women disperse.
Note: Salome Friesen left earlier, exasperated, after Ona asked if the women were discussing what was right, to protect the children or to enter the kingdom of Heaven, and if it wasn’t possible to do both. I hadn’t the time then to write down the details of her departure.
Salome’s youngest daughter, Miep, was violated by the men on two or possibly three different occasions, but Peters denied medical treatment for Miep, who is three years of age, on the grounds that the doctor would gossip about the colony and that people would become aware of the attacks and the whole incident would be blown out of proportion. Salome walked twelve miles to the next colony to procure antibiotics for Miep from the Mobile Klinic that she knew was stationed there, temporarily, for repairs. (And to pick up moonshine for herself, according to Mariche, who on several occasions when Salome is raging has indicated, by miming the act of bringing a bottle to her mouth, that Salome secretly drinks.)
I have to hide the antibiotics in Miep’s strained beets or she won’t swallow them, says Salome.
The women nod and tell her to go, go.
As she leaves, Salome suggests that if Mejal goes to get the soup from the summer kitchen then Salome could bring the spelt bread she baked this morning. We will all have this food for lunch, Salome says, and continue with our meeting as we eat. We will have instant coffee.
Mejal shrugs, languidly – she hates to be told what to do by Salome – but rises from her chair.
Agata, meanwhile, remains perfectly still, mouthing the words to a prayer or a verse, perhaps one from Psalms. Miep is her granddaughter, named after her. (‘Miep’ is a nickname.) Agata is a strong woman but whenever she hears the specific details of the attack on her tiny granddaughter she becomes very still, predatory.
(When Salome discovered that Miep had been attacked not once but two or three times, she went to the shed where the men were being kept and attempted to kill them all with a scythe. This was the incident that convinced Peters to call the police and have the men arrested and brought to the city where they would be safe. Salome claims she did ask to be forgiven for that outburst, and that the men forgave her, but nobody, including Peters, witnessed this. Perhaps these last facts are not germane to the minutes of the meetings but I believe they’re significant enough to include in the footnotes because without the perpetrators having been taken to the city, and the other men of the colony following them to post bail in order to have them returned to the colony, where they could be forgiven by the victims and in turn have the victims forgiven by God, these meetings would not be happening.)
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in loving kindness and forgiving, says Agata.
She repeats this, and Greta takes Agata’s hand and joins her in the recitation.
Mejal Loewen has left the room, I presume to smoke, even though she has declared that she is going to get the soup from the summer kitchen. She ordered Autje, her daughter, not to follow her, and Autje made a face as if to say, Why would I bother? And also a face to the others, as if to apologize for her strange mother, the smoker with the secret life.
Miep and the other little children from the colony are being looked after by several young women at the home of Nettie Gerbrandt, whose husband is away in the city with the others. Nettie Gerbrandt’s twin brother, Johan, is one of the eight on trial. Miep herself is unaware of why she experiences pain in certain parts of her small body, or that she has a sexually transmitted illness. Nettie Gerbrandt, too, was attacked, possibly by her brother, and gave birth prematurely to a baby boy so tiny he fit into her shoe. He died hours after being born and Nettie smeared her bedroom walls with blood. She has stopped talking, except to the children of the colony, which is why she has been put in charge of their care while the others work.
Mariche Loewen believes that Nettie may have changed her name to Melvin. She believes Nettie has done this because she no longer wants to be a woman. Agata and Greta refuse to believe this.
I ask for a quick breather.
Ona Friesen once again glances at me inquisitively – or perhaps she is curious at the notion of a ‘breather’ (which, likely, is not a word she has ever heard before, even in translation), or at the notion of the sustained breath, the exquisite agony of the unexpressed thought, the narrative of life, the thread that binds, that knots, that holds.
A breather, breath, sustained. The narrative.
The women give me their consent.
The women settle in for more discussion. Shadows fall on their faces and upon the piece of plywood set up to be their table. I have spotted several mice – or is it the same mouse, an exceptionally active one? Autje and Neitje, still comically conjoined, are using their kerchiefs to swipe at flies.
(Technically these kerchiefs are to be worn by all women over the age of fifteen in the presence of men. I have never seen Autje’s and Neitje’s hair before. It looks very soft – blonde in the case of Neitje, with varying shades from nearly white to golden to beige, and in the case of Autje, dark brown with a discreet auburn glaze, a colour that matches her eyes and also the manes and tails of Ruth and Cheryl, Greta’s skittish team. I am ashamed to admit that I wonder if Autje and Neitje do not consider me enough of a man, or really one at all, to warrant covering their hair in my presence.)
Agata is barefoot now. She raises her legs and props them on a piece of wood to reduce the fluid build-up she suffers from. Oedema, she calls it. There is a note of pride in her voice when she says the word ‘oedema’. (There must be satisfaction gained in accurately naming the thing that torments you.)
Salome has laid Miep down on a saddle blanket beside her, and the child is the focal point of the assembled women.
Agata has asked me to print in large letters:
OPTIONS FOR THE MEN AND
OLDER BOYS IF THE WOMEN
DECIDE TO LEAVE
1. That they be allowed to leave with the women if they wish.
2. That they be allowed to leave with the women only if they sign the declaration/manifesto.
3. That they be left behind.
4. That they be allowed to join the women later, when the women have determined where they’re going and have established themselves and are thriving as a democratic/collective/literate community (with progress reports made regularly on the rehabilitation/behaviour of the men and boys with regard to the women and girls).
NB: Boys under the age of twelve, simple-minded boys of any age, Cornelius (a colony boy of fifteen who is confined to a wheelchair) and the elderly/infirm men who are unable to care for themselves (these are the boys and men who have remained here instead of going to the city) will automatically accompany the women.
For the first time since the commencement of the meeting, the women appear to be genuinely perplexed. They are silent, deep in thought.
Mariche speaks first. She votes for the first option.
This sits well with no one else. Voices are raised in unison and Mariche crosses her arms. She is anxious to leave. She tosses the dregs of her instant coffee onto the floor, says she’d like to strangle herself.
But Mariche, says Ona, the possibility arises of the men, perhaps all of them, choosing to leave with us, and all we’d be doing is recreating our existing colony, with all of its inherent dangers, elsewhere, wherever we end up.
Agata adds: And the men would most definitely leave with us because they can’t survive without us.
Greta laughs and says, Well, not for longer than a day or two.
Salome points out that option number one is really rather moot. If we do decide ultimately to leave the colony rather than to stay and fight, she says, we will leave the colony before the men return, so there is no possibility of the men leaving with us.
Mejal, now openly smoking (although, because it vexes Salome, making grand gestures of batting the smoke away from sleeping Miep), states that option number one is ridiculous and should be scratched off the list. She further states that option number two (allowing the men to leave with the women if the men sign the manifesto of demands) is, for the same reason as number one, moot. Furthermore, says Mejal, even if we did decide to leave only after the men have returned, and to take with us those of the men who agree to sign the manifesto, how do we know that their acts of signing are not treacherous? Who, other than the women of Molotschna, could be more aware of the duplicity of men?
Well spoken, says Ona.
Mariche states: Well then, let’s be done with it and leave the men behind. Number three it is! She slams the table (plywood) with her fist, and Miep stirs.
Salome asks Mariche to restrain herself.
Ona’s voice is all we/I hear. She is playful as she sings, speeding up the lyrics as the fish winnow and race, slowing them down as the fish bask in the sunlight close to the surface of the water. The children are calm, enthralled. Ona continues to sing the song about ducks swimming in the sea, one, two, three and four.
Ona asks the children if they know what a sea is, and they stare at her with four enormous blue eyes, sea-like. Ona describes the sea as another world, one that is hidden from us, one that lives underwater. It is the life in the sea that she defines as the sea, and not the sea itself. She talks about fish and other living things.
At last, Mariche interrupts. The sea is a vast expanse of water, and nothing else, she tells the children. They’re children, Ona, she explains. How can they be expected to understand what goes on invisibly? Besides, you have never seen a sea.
Salome begins to laugh. She says: The life underwater is not invisible. It isn’t unable to be seen. We just can’t see it from here. My God.
You are ignorant of a child’s sensibilities, Salome, says Mariche.
Oh, says Salome, am I? If I allowed my child to be beaten black and blue by a shit for brains, like your Klaas, would I be considered less ignorant of how a child perceives a hidden life?
Mariche is silent, shocked.
Salome, says Mejal, that doesn’t make any sense. She advises Salome to have a drag from her cigarette.
Ona agrees, silently. I know that she thinks Salome’s attack was unclear and beneath her. I know it because she looked at Salome and furrowed her brow in a way that I witnessed earlier (the disappearing rail tracks that line her forehead). Overall, Ona is tolerant of her sister’s rages and circumspect in her response to them. Perhaps she has learned over the years that no good comes from crossing her younger sibling.
As if reading my thoughts, Agata now suggests that we think of what is good. She recites a verse from Philippians: Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things . . . and the peace of God be with you.
The other women wait for each other to speak first, to answer Agata’s call for suggestions of goodness. In truth, the women seem not to be actively engaged in this endeavour.
Salome bypasses the question altogether. I will become a murderer if I stay, she says to her mother. ( I assume that she means if she stays in the colony, and is here when and if the captured men are granted bail and return home from the city.)
What is worse than that? Salome asks Agata.
Feature photograph © Larry Towell / Magnum Photos, young Mennonite women, Durango, Mexico, 1994
In-text photograph © Larry Towell / Magnum Photos, Mennonites, Chihuahua, Mexico, 1996