Valle del Cauca // 1978 Santiago and Felipe circled the colonial courtyard looking for smokable cigarette butts. Morale among the unit had dropped since the National Army stopped rationing out cartons. Teasing between the men had soured into personal attacks. Some of them hadn’t smoked a proper cigarette in weeks. To make matters worse, the lice running underneath the soldier’s pants had spread across their bodies. The old nunnery that oversaw the road leading into town had been converted into a barrack. Santiago guarded a precious box of matches in his waistband. He bent over a bush and combed through the fallen leaves for tobacco. The ocean breeze cooled the valley the way it did when Santiago was a boy. This was his first time back to El Valle de Cauca in almost twenty years. It hadn’t physically changed that much since he’d left for Bogota, but to him the endless trees and hilltops had become a foreign country. He’d largely managed to block out El Valle from his mind over the years. He’d abandoned it and it had forgotten him as well. He jumped every time a tree branch crackled. His nerves hadn’t rested since before the war started. The frontline was closing in on Cali and Tulua. Anna had almost successfully convinced him not to enlist. There were plenty of cons, like putting his career back in Bogota on hold, leaving his young daughter behind, and the very real possibility that he’d be slaughtered or worse: kidnapped. In the end, Santiago couldn’t stand the idea of his home town being swallowed up, even if it had stopped being his long ago. “See anything?” Santiago asked, crouching ever closer to the ground. “Nada. I can’t find shit,” Felipe said from across the courtyard. Santiago found a butt with lipstick on it, a new normal for towns formerly occupied by FARC. Women were clearly fighting amongst their ranks. News had spread that children were being enlisted to fight against the government. “They’re there to kill you. Don’t hesitate,” his Commanding Officer had ordered. The night before they’d marched to the cliff overlooking Toribio. They’d missed the retaking of the town by about a week. Their unit had been relocated after the kidnapping of a European Minister in Cali, further up the valley, and following FARC’s advances in the region. Santiago scratched his groin and sniffed yeast off his fingers. War took all decency out of a man. And at this rate he’d be killing more bugs and diseases off of his body than guerrilleros. Plaster and chunks of concrete littered the edges of the courtyard. Old bullet holes zigzagged across the walls and the staircase. Santiago noticed the lack of blood despite all of the dead men. He wanted to imagine the scene of the combat, but had nothing to compare it to other than the movies. Nurses from the front line and women from the town mended the wounded inside the monastery turned camp. “I can’t believe we missed it again,” Santiago said to Felipe. He spoke softly so that none of the other men could hear. Everybody was always eavesdropping on each other. “When are we going to do something worthwhile in these jungles?” Felipe approached Santiago while cupping the cigarette butts he’d collected. He wore a great mustache on his face that circled up on the ends. He’d somehow managed to upkeep it despite their marches and sleepless patrol hours. During the nights it’d become normal to hear gunfire from both sides until the sun came back. Still, Santiago hadn’t shot at a guerrillero in the two years he’d served. He’d only heard stories of FARC soldiers as savages hiding in trees and ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. What was the point of leaving his family behind if he was just looking for tobacco hiding amongst expiring battle fields? It wasn't that different from going to a museum, except your feet could get blown off from a mine at any second. “You should be thankful,” Felipe said. “A lot of families wish their husbands were as lucky as you.” He dropped this bounty over a table by the stairs. He was six months younger than Santiago, but he’d only enlisted last month, giving him the fresh essence and innocence of a much younger boy. To Felipe the war was still new. More of an adventure than a death wish. “We’re useless,” Santiago said, approaching the table with the cigarettes he thought he could salvage. The sun crept over the far side of the courtyard, dosing the pair with the same futile gesture they’d grown used to. The trees swayed rustling their leaves with them. A handful of soldiers crowded around them with the taste of nicotine fading from their lips. Santiago thought of his old friend Gabriel who’d also enlisted when his hometown got pulled into the mix. Santiago prayed for him every morning and evening. They wrote letters periodically to confirm each other's existence. “Listen up, boys,” a Commanding Officer said from the top of the stairs. Soldiers from various units filled the courtyard. Santiago wondered how many of these men had seen combat. According to the CO, the national army was moving in one a large FARC camp at the base of the mountain. The CO needed men to block a nearby bridge in case guerrilla reinforcements came during the battle. They’d also be on call to support the attack on the camp if needed. Santiago’s heart blasted adrenaline across his body. Finally. He gripped his rifle as hard as he could. His safety and usefulness would rely on it. If he could manage to contribute, maybe all this madness, starvation, and sickness would actually have a purpose. Felipe’s mustache furrowed and his eyes narrowed. The possibility of death made you question how you’d ended up at that exact place. All of the men strapped their helmets on, tightening them to their skulls. Santiago counted his ammunition and tried to picture Anna playing piano back in their home in Bogota. He’d always believed that they shared a telepathic connection which allowed them to reach other’s minds. If they tried hard enough, they could share the same channel of thoughts without having to say a word. He imagined her smile, putting Sofia to bed before sitting down to the piano and pressing on the keys. Ultimately, this sacrifice was for them. At least in some way. Trucks screeched to a halt in front of the monastery, ready to take them away. Pockets filled with half smoked cigarettes, Santiago and Felipe lined up into the third truck. They sat across from one another, avoiding each other’s eyes. Felipe’s shirt hung over his shoulders; his black shoelaces loose. He isn’t ready to die, Santiago thought. A sense of paternity swept over Santiago as they made their way down the dirt road. None of the men spoke except for a few muttered Hail Marys to themselves. Santiago looked down at himself and realized he’d been shaking this entire time. His uniform was dampened in sweat like he’d just run a marathon or gone swimming. He thought of how beautiful Anna looked wet in her dress the day he’d met her; the day they’d become one. The trucks slowed to a stop. The CO ordered the men to be silent and to take their positions. Half of the men were stationed at the end of the bridge to prevent any crossings while the rest hid amongst the trees as reinforcements. They’d started using guerrilla tactics on the guerrilleros, and the lines blurred more as time went on and each side dug in. Santiago covered himself behind his designated trunk. His rifle melted through his hands. The metal and wood became unfamiliar to him even though he’d been carrying it around for years. He had no control over any of it. He spotted Felipe standing at the mouth of the bridge. He looked heroic although Santiago knew he was paralyzed with fear. Everybody was. He wondered how many of these men had been in battle before. The quiet air filled Santiago’s lungs with fear. His nerves seemed to be shutting off one by one, leaving his body limp. He had to stop shaking in order to shoot straight. He didn’t think he’d be such a coward. A shot broke out in the distance followed by a man screaming as if his soul was being ripped from him. A grenade explosion down the mountain shook the trees. The other unit’s assault on the FARC camp had begun. The guerrillero’s reinforcements would arrive at any minute. The firing grew closer as the battle quickly spread across the forest and the mountainside. Another grenade blew up less than a hundred meters away. A machine gun started firing from a hill on the other side of the bridge. It pelted the government soldiers standing on the bridge, sending the men scrambling for cover. FARC had been expecting Santiago’s unit. Screams filled the space in between the firing. FARC’s actual reinforcements appeared behind Santiago, further up the hill with twice as many men. “We’re surrounded,” one man screamed. A bullet blasted a tree branch above Santiago’s head. He closed his eyes unsure of how to cover himself. Every limb in his body braced for destruction. Still, he preferred getting torn to shreds by metal than getting captured by these men. Who knew what would happen then. The government men around Santiago began returning fire. A warm mist poured down from his groin. At first Santiago thought it was blood, until he smelled the piss as it trickled down his left leg. Santiago looked back over at the bridge. Most of the men had either died or taken positions defending the opening against the machine gun. Felipe’s body lay spread out on the ground in the open air. He lay without any composure, like a doll thrown into a yard without regard. A pool of blood spread from underneath this stomach. His face buried into the earth as if the dirt was a soft pillow. He’d died and Santiago hadn’t fired a single shot. The man in the tree next to Santiago fell to the ground clutching his neck. FARC’s men closed in from every direction, taking more and more of the mountain side. The last soldier on the bridge tried to run into the forest but was gunned down as he fled. “Run! Run!” the remaining troops yelled. Santiago suspected the CO was dead. All of the troops were now running through the trees without knowing where to go. A landmine shook the ground. Santiago took off through a brush that appeared to be empty. His ears bled from the rapid fire. He realized he’d left his rifle back at the tree. He crouched and forced his way through a bush and a set of overgrown tree roots. Thorns tore his uniform and the mud covered the Colombian emblem patch on his shoulder. He knew the FARC had found him when they lit up the bushes in front of him with gunfire. Santiago held his breath and pushed through to an opening below him. The explosions died down behind him as more men got away or blown into pieces. He couldn’t remember running this hard since he had abandoned his family years before in the same valley. The dirt road that led back to the monastery wasn’t where he thought it should be. He found no signs or traces of civilization. Faint firing crackled in the distance. The piss on his leg turned cold, giving him goosebumps as far as his neck. Santiago came across a sugarcane farm and caught his breath resting against the wooden fence on the edge of the property. He had a bloody nose but he didn’t bother stopping its flow. All of his veins throbbed and his lungs tried holding onto anything that wouldn’t resist. The firing grew louder from the jungle behind him. He figured he was probably close to the FARC camp the first military unit had attacked. The important thing now was avoiding getting captured. Anna and Sofia would suffer in exchange for his safety. They’d become part of the battle. He walked into the open valley heading north towards Cali, where he knew the government had more control. He took his military shirt off and tied it around his waist. His heart continued racing as if he was still under fire. A pebble stabbed the inside his boot but that didn’t matter. He’d never seen this part of the valley before, not even as a kid. There were no farmers in sight. They’d probably gone into hiding after the fighting started. A lot of them didn’t want anything to do with FARC or the military. Santiago followed a dirt road around a grassy hill. His beard itched in the humidity. A familiar looking wooden house appeared as a dot at the edge of the horizon. A sense of familiarity pulled Santiago closer. All of the windows and front door were open, flapping in the wind. Santiago recognized Maria’s front steps the moment he set foot on them. It couldn’t be her home. It’d been decades and Tulua was at least a dozen kilometers north. Santiago ran his hands against the dilapidated front door. Time had scratched most of the paint off. The living room and kitchen were just as he remembered, just abandoned. It simply couldn’t be Maria’s, he reminded himself. Santiago stepped inside but froze underneath the doorway. He couldn’t find it in himself to dive deeper into his past. He’d let go of it for so long. “Maria?” he called out. Nobody responded. Instead the silence was shattered by the blasts of someone emptying a magazine clip somewhere outside. The battle found its way back to Santiago. The house’s wooden walls shook. “Maria?” he called out again, cracking his voice. The roar outside became impossible to ignore. Santiago looked out from the kitchen and saw gunfire flashing across the field next door. Unarmed, Santiago sprinted across the dirt road and crouched behind a fence. He couldn’t do much without a gun. Useless once again. He sat trying not to shake. He built up enough courage to peek between the fence’s paneling. He brought his head up just as part of the fence came under fire. His left shoulder dropped and he lost his balance, falling onto his back. He knew he’d been shot but couldn’t tell where. All of his limbs and muscles refused to contract. He was a sitting duck amongst a cloud of bullets. “I’m sorry Sofia. Anna,” he managed to say. His eyes closed without his permission. He didn’t waste his energy resisting death.
Santiago woke up on a stretcher in a hospital hallway surrounded by other soldiers and tending nurses. “Where am I?” “Bogota,” said another man lying down nearby on a cot smoking a cigarette. “What happened? How did I end up here?” Nobody responded. Santiago later found out the government had let a unit of Paramilitary militias into the battle zone to help counter the guerrilleros. Nobody could tell the paramilitaries what to do. They’d gone in and killed all of the FARC soldiers during the night. The following morning, the militias had gone farm to farm, killing everybody who sympathized with the communists, leaving no souls behind.