When I’m asked about the thirty-two children who lost their lives in San Cristóbal, my response varies depending on the age of my interlocutor. If we’re the same age, I say that understanding is simply a matter of piecing together that which was previously seen as disjointed; if they’re younger, I ask if they believe in bad omens. Almost always they’ll say no, as if doing so would mean they had little regard for freedom. I ask no more questions and then tell them my version of events, because this is all I have and because it would be pointless to try to convince them that believing, or not, is less about their regard for freedom than their naïve faith in justice. If I were a little more forthright or a little less of a coward, I’d always begin my story the same way: Almost everyone gets what they deserve, and bad omens do exist. Oh, they most certainly do.
The day I arrived in San Cristóbal, twenty years ago now, I was a young civil servant with the Department of Social Affairs in Estepí who’d just been promoted. In the space of a few years I’d gone from being a skinny kid with a law degree to a recently married man whose happiness gave him a slightly more attractive air than he no doubt would otherwise have had. Life struck me as a simple series of adversities, relatively easy to overcome, which led to a death that was perhaps not simple but was inevitable and thus didn’t merit thinking about. I didn’t realize, back then, that in fact that was what happiness was, what youth was and what death was. And although I wasn’t in essence mistaken about anything, I was making mistakes about everything. I’d fallen in love with a violin teacher from San Cristóbal who was three years my senior, mother of a nine-year-old girl. They were both named Maia and both had intense eyes, tiny noses and brown lips that I thought were the pinnacle of beauty. At times I felt they’d chosen me during some secret meeting, and I was so happy to have fallen for the pair of them that when I was offered the opportunity to transfer to San Cristóbal, I ran to Maia’s house to tell her and asked her to marry me then and there.
I was offered the post because, two years earlier in Estepí, I had developed a social integration program for indigenous communities. The idea was simple and the program proved to be an effective model; it consisted of granting the indigenous exclusive rights to farm certain specific products. For that city we chose oranges and then charged the indigenous community with supplying almost five thousand people. The program nearly descended into chaos when it came to distribution, but in the end the community rallied and after a period of readjustment created a small and very solvent cooperative which to this day is, to a large degree, self-financing.
The program was so successful that the state government contacted me through the Commission of Indigenous Settlements, requesting that I reproduce it with San Cristóbal’s three thousand Ñeê inhabitants. They offered me housing and a managerial post in the Department of Social Affairs. In no time, Maia had started giving classes at the small music school in her hometown once more. She wouldn’t admit it, but I knew that she was eager to return as a prosperous woman to the city she’d been forced by necessity to leave. The post even covered the girl’s schooling (I always referred to her as “the girl,” and when speaking to her directly, simply “girl”) and offered a salary that would allow us to begin saving. What more could I have asked for? I struggled to contain my joy and asked Maia to tell me about the jungle, the river Eré, the streets of San Cristóbal .?.?. When she spoke, I felt as if I were heading deeper and deeper into thick, suffocating vegetation before abruptly coming upon a heavenly Eden. My imagination may not have been particularly creative, but no one can say I wasn’t optimistic.
We arrived in San Cristóbal on April 13, 1993. The heat was muggy and intense and the sky completely clear. As we drove into town in our old station wagon, I saw in the distance for the first time the vast brown expanse of water that was the river Eré and San Cristóbal’s jungle, an impenetrable green monster. I was unaccustomed to the subtropical climate and my body had been covered in sweat from the moment we got off the highway and took the red sand road leading to the city.