The Blur of Victim and Perpetrator

When I first learned about the IWMF reporting to trip to Medellin, it became a fixation. Colombia has been something of a second home to me for over five years, and I’ve travelled back and forth to the country over a dozen times. Listening to the peoples’ stories and immersing in communities made me realize I wanted to be a documentarian— a journalist. But the reporting has always been a freelance hustle piggybacking on my penchant for following strangers to bizarre other worlds. The chance to develop stories with the support of the IWMF meant entering a new realm of access. I never thought I’d be sitting down with the sources they landed us. 

Just a week into the trip, my reporting partner, Nidia and I walked into the political offices of the fabled FARC guerrilla organization, now rebranded the The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force after its transition out of armed struggle. After the FARC’s demobilization in 2016, they entered the political sphere. I was in an epicenter of the conflict when the historic peace accord was signed. Everyone around me had suffered in one way or another from the war, and all of them were brimming with emotion, cautiously hopeful. Now, we were going to interview the leaders of an armed group I knew mostly from its trail of violence. 

All of them greeted us cordially with warm handshakes and an eagerness for conversation. Frankly, I liked them. Commander Urbano, as he is known, presided over the forces in Medellin when the military carried out the largest, most aggressive urban attack in Colombia’s history. Alongside paramilitaries, the army swept into Comuna 13 to finally exterminate the guerrilla force in the neighborhood. The FARC leaders said they’ve never officially told the press about their experience of Operation Orion. 

The succession of attacks in late 2002 resulted in an estimated 200 deaths or disappearances, many of them civilians. Our FARC sources described how their militia were the trusted force in the neighborhood before Orion displaced or killed them off. As journalists, we must be inclined toward critical thinking. It would be incorrect to characterize the dynamics only as they had presented them in the pursuit of vindication. And yet, the electric interview fortified an impression in me that news headlines never do; the crimes of Colombia’s conflict are far-reaching, and drawing good guys and bad guys is often a losing battle. 

One of the FARC leaders told us he was displaced from his village as a two year old. His family lived an itinerant life, continually escaping to different slums as they experienced an unthinkable succession of abuses. Eventually, he sympathized with the guerrilla’s leftist vision and joined their struggle. 

It is so powerful to listen to people face to face. I felt a special, empathic privilege, even as I interrogated the truth of what each of them might be portraying. This, for me, is the excitement of journalism. Before we tell the stories, we get to hear the ones people tell themselves. 

By Hanna Wallis