When armed rebels announced that they were taking over the village, the two hundred inhabitants were told they had two hours to vacate, or be shot. Damaris, eight years old at the time, had just enough time to grab a single change of clothing. Then she and her family fled for their lives.
“There was no time or space to think,” Damaris says. “I pushed the fear down inside me, and locked it in a cage.”
Damaris and her family spent a year finding shelter wherever they could, wandering the Cauca region of rural Colombia. As a Christian, she found herself battling a numbing despair. Where was God? Why had this happened? Eventually they left the countryside and settled in the city of Cali, thinking it would be safer. They were wrong.
“Armed men came to our house,” she relates, sitting stiffly. “They took my aunt and my grandmother, and told us we must pay one million pesos or they would be tortured and killed.” Her aunt was pregnant at the time. The kidnappers took the women to a remote mountain camp, where for eight months they were imprisoned in a cage, two meters square. They were not allowed out, but were forced to live with their own excrement.
“When the police finally found the camp and arrested the men,” Damaris says, “I thought, now everything will be alright.” The trauma, however, left deep scars. Her father renounced his faith, and the marriage fell apart. The aunt became mentally ill and violent, and had her baby taken away. The grandmother’s health was shattered, and both the aunt and the grandmother were sent to a hospital to recover.
“But no one recovers here,” Damaris shakes her head. “We avoid eye contact, we do not speak of the unspeakable. How can we heal?”
Many victims of the fifty years of violent revolution in Colombia refuse to even acknowledge their own need for healing. Ricardo Ballestas, founder of Justapaz, a peace initiative of the MB Conference of Colombia, recounts an example. “One man, his village was a war zone between paramilitary groups and drug traffickers, bullets flying though his windows. But because he was never shot, he says he is not a victim!”
Ballestas’ colleague is Marta Cortes, director of Edupaz, another MB peace initiative. She explains, “When violence becomes normal, our whole way of life is victimized! Even if we lay down our guns, there is a silent weapon inside us, the silence of our own hate and fear.”
“That silence,” Damaris says grimly, “Becomes our prison.”
Seventeen years after her own trauma, Damaris decided to break the silence. With a degree in psychology, Damaris now visits the rural villages in Cauca to hold counseling workshops and offer gentle therapy through art and story, drawing out the toxic memories that paralyze victims. She listens to them, weeps with them, then leads them to the only one who can take the twisted story of their lives and change the ending. Jesus can bring beauty from ashes, she tells them, change victims into survivors.
“We heal with forgiveness,” Damaris says. One tangible demonstration of forgiveness was enacted by the small MB Esperanza church in rural Cauca, where pastor Roberto Yhonda mobilized congregants to hold a peace march in defiant celebration of the International Day of Non-Violence. Yhonda invited both soldiers of the national army and armed rebels to lay down their arms and walk with the very village residents that they had once terrorized, uniting their voices in prayer and song. Children walked with hardened guerillas that day, and mothers held both banners as well as the hands of revolutionaries whose palms were calloused from clutching rifles. Expressions of forgiveness melted hearts, and changed lives.
One such changed life is that of Elmer Idrobo, former commander in the Colombian armed rebel group known as the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia). He had always considered Christians to be his sworn enemies, burning their churches, executing their pastors and hating their Bible for making fighters become soft and weak. Then those same Christians reached out to him with forgiveness, and he was unable to withstand God’s love.
“Now,” Idrobo says, smiling, “I thank God that I am able to be with Christians, and have no desire to kidnap or kill them.” Today Idrobo preaches the Gospel in the prisons of Cauca, to drug traffickers, rebels and other ex-combatants like himself – including his own son.
On June 27, 2017, representatives of MB Mission were gathered with Damaris and these others at a peace camp in La Cumbre, when news came that Colombia had just completed the third and final stage of disarmament called for by their national peace accord. The end of the armed insurgency was celebrated by a formal ceremony in which the United Nations certified that over 7,000 guerillas had handed over their weapons. Yet many victims still reject the peace accords, effectively polarizing the country. Damaris’ father is one of them. To this day he clenches his heart like a fist around his pain, refusing to forgive.
“It is like he is in that cage, two meters square,” Damaris says. “But I know that Jesus can set him free.”