Storied violence, hidden ghosts

In the renovated neighborhood of Comuna 13, tourists funnel their way through paved walkways, waiting eagerly to get an instagram shot in front of strategically placed graffiti art. They wear made-in-china Colombian hats and pose with their peace signs raised cheerily into the air. I tried to suppress the feeling of contempt. “Comuna 13 used to be the most dangerous part of Medellin!” the tour guide seemed to brag. Reporting among victims of such romanticized violence, its hard to hear the flashy renderings of their suffering.

Medellin is widely celebrated for its dramatic rennaissance from the world’s murder capital to an innovative tech-hub with advanced urban design. Nowhere highlights this makeover more vividly than Comuna 13, where sleek escalators ascend into the reformed slum that’s covered in a fresh coat of paint. Never mind the heavily armed soldiers manning their lookouts. Almost every house bordering the stairs has capitalized on the new image with trendy coffee shops or T-shirt stands. For some people, the economic benefits are real, but we keep hearing a different story.

“Este es un maquillaje!”— “that’s all just makeup!” a mother from the neighborhood told us. Margarita is one of the spokespeople of Mujeres Caminando la Verdad, a collective of women from Comuna 13  whose family members have been disappeared in the neighborhood. From the top of the escalators you can see the scenic sprawl of Medellin interrupted by a bare scar of land. It’s “the escombrera” of Comuna 13— a wreckage dump that is probably the largest urban mass grave in the world. Maybe their loved ones are buried there. Failed searches have never turned up any answers.

I had wanted to make a short film about the mothers and the fraught history of the neighborhood hidden below its glamorized present. But like so many stories, the more you understand them, the harder they are to tell. In reality, many of the women who used to live in Comuna 13 have been displaced from the neighborhood and fear what might happen to them if they were to appear on camera. The peace process revelations we had read about from afar were more nuanced than we understood them.

On the ground, I realized the salacious narrative I’d imagined about systematic cover-ups would be hard to corroborate in nine days. Like the tour guides compressing history into a tidy ethos of redemption, it’s much easier to tell a simple story than wade through the mess. As IWMF fellows, we are supported to keep exploring into the weed.