Life in Colombia

by , under All categories, Enrique

Life on the front

Enrique Tessieri

I still have vivid memories of Colombia, even if I moved over six years ago back to Europe from the world’s most violent country.

The Finnish community in Colombia was made up of about 35 souls. When my wife, three children and I moved to the capital Bogotá, the Finnish community grew by 10%. That’s how few Finns live in that South American country.

Considering the few thousands of Finns that migrated to countries like Argentina and the Dominican Republic in the last century, it’s a mystery why so few Finns ever moved to Colombia.

Certainly the country’s pleasant weather and coffee would have been strong lures. Finns consume the most coffee in the world, or about 25 lbs per inhabitant annually.

You can imagine the surprise I felt when I discovered by accident on a map of Colombia a small town called Filandia spelled without an “n.” Filandia is located about 120 miles west of Bogotá.

Did Finns establish a lost colony in the western coffee-growing region of the country that nobody had yet discovered? Was the town named after a Finn who owned a large coffee plantation? Was the original name of Filandia, Finlandia?

The only way I’d ever know was by paying a visiting to the town.

Possibly the reason why my memories of Colombia refuse to leave me has something to do with the so-called U.S.-led global “war on terror.”

Prior to moving to Bogotá, I knew everything that a foreign correspondent should know about the place. I understood that it had the highest homicide rate in the world – in some regions of the country it reaches 800 per 100,000 people! I knew about the lucrative drug trade, over forty-year-old civil war, high kidnapping rates…

No matter what I reported to the world from that country, the ogre of violence always appeared in almost all the stories I wrote about the country.

One of the first big stories I reported was when the ELN guerrillas had bombed an oil pipeline in the northwest of the country.

Even if it was common for left-wing guerrilla groups to bomb oil pipelines, the attack had devastating consequences on a nearby village. The explosion of the line, which took place after midnight, had set alight the village burning alive some 50 people.

I can still hear vividly the pain, panic and despair behind the medic’s voice on the phone at the hospital as he reported to me the latest body count. But that must be a small insignificant number of people suffering compared to Iraq.

There were many other deaths I reported to the world from that troubled South American country. So many, in fact, that I lost count. Some were of people I spoke regularly by phone like Javier Suárez.

Suárez was a truckers’ union leader, who was shot dead in front of his home about a week after I spoke to him by phone.

Even if countries, terrorists and governments give the impression that war is always new because there is a new cause or reason for going to battle, the truth is that it is the same war that has raged ever since the first primate killed another one in battle.

The present war against al-Qaeda and other fanatical religious groups has affected countries like Finland.

Many images raced in my mind as we drove closer to Filandia in Colombia. One of these was of blonde and blue-eyed northern Europeans toiling in the fields like I had seen in subtropical Argentina.

The first matter you notice upon driving into Filandia is that it’s a typical southern Spanish Andalusian town. It has an imposing plaza and is located on a hilltop, overseeing beautiful rolling green pastures with patches of planted pine forests.

I walked to the town hall and met Mayor Jorge Antonio Hoyos, who was kind enough to step out of a meeting to greet me.

He told me that no Finns had ever lived in Filandia. “The word ‘Filandia’ comes from Latin meaning ‘son of the Andes,’” he said. “People who write letters to this town normally spell Filandia on the envelope with an ‘n.’”

I didn’t feel disappointed by the mayor’s answer, even if I had traveled so far to visit the town.

Like the bloody civil war in Colombia, which appeared to take a momentary breather on that afternoon, I wondered how long it would take for the destruction and death to end.

As the car drove farther away from Filandia, I felt silence had shot a bullet in my heart.