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Colombia: the moment that will stay with María Elena for the rest of her life

24-04-2009 Feature

At 10.30 pm on 16 October 2008 a stray bullet passed through the wooden walls of María Elena’s bedroom, smashing into her left arm. Miraculously it missed her 16-month-old baby who was being breastfed at the time. It is a moment she will never forget.

   

  ©ICRC/VII/Franco Pagetti/v-p-co-e-00576    
 
  María Elena with her daughter.    
     

“When I was hit,” recalls María, “my daughter’s legs started to kick in all directions. I said to myself, she has been struck as well! But no, she wasn’t hit after all. I can’t recall what happened next… I have only some vag ue memories of passing through the hamlet of Bellavista, the transfer to the health post in El Diviso, and later to the Pasto hospital.”

María Elena and her family live in a modest wooden house in the village of Las Cruces, in the south-western Colombian state of Nariño. On the day of our visit, life in this village of some 40 families seems calm: four young men are playing billiards in a bar; a group of adolescent girls in shorts and wearing red lipstick wanders through the main street, chatting and giggling; residents are busy constructing a new communal building out of pre-cast cement bricks; and traders and truck drivers are having a late lunch in one of the few restaurants.

Who, witnessing such an everyday scene, would guess that Las Cruces is currently one of the most dangerous places to live in Colombia? The villagers have to be constantly prepared for an unannounced visit by one of several armed groups that are present in the surrounding area. And when two opposing groups unwittingly meet near the village, or when one group clashes with an army patrol, all you can do is run into your house, lie on the floor and hope that the ensuing exchange of gunfire will leave you unharmed.

On that fateful night of 16 October 2008, only María Elena was hit. The village's catechist, 50-year-old Ignacia, who instructs people in the basic principles of Christianity, could tell the type of weapon that was fired from the sound it made. Tak-tak-tak. “It was an M-60 machine-gun,” she says, pointing at a small hill near the entrance to the village.

After the shooting, one of María Elena’s older sons ran out into the dark to find his father, who was having a late-evening chat in a neighbour’s house. Although there is no electricity in Las Cruces, the village receives mobile phone signals, but no ambulance o r taxi driver would venture out at that late hour on a road where armed groups sometimes set up mobile checkpoints.

 
 
  ©ICRC/VII/Franco Pagetti/v-p-co-e-00538    
 
  Bellavista, the village María Elena passed through on her way to a health post after being hit by a stray bullet.    
    The only option was to convince a truck driver to take the wounded, heavily bleeding María Elena to the nearest city, in the hope that her life might be saved. The driver didn’t belong to the village and was only stopping overnight. The fact that he agreed to undertake such a dangerous journey at midnight, on an unpaved road with craters the size of bathtubs, and where driving 45 kilometres can take up to three hours, was a remarkable act of human kindness.

María Elena survived, but lost her entire left arm . “I can’t wash anymore,” she says, adding, “I can’t even cook a soup. My eldest daughter, who is 13, is now cooking, washing, cleaning – helping out with everything”. While her husband continues to work on the family farm, she has opened a tiny grocery shop on the ground floor of their home, where she sells mainly bread.

    

 Tak-tak-tak. The sound of a moment in the life of María Elena that changed everything in an instant. Whether she and her family decide to stay in the village or flee it as other families have done before, that moment will stay with her for the rest of her life.