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‘Out of War’ was scheduled for a major launch at the Scholastic building in New York on 16 September 2001. Juan Elias had already travelled to the city for the launch. After 9/11 the big event was called off, but Juan Elias and I continued visiting schools. Only days after 9/11 he was engaging high school students in discussions about loss and forgiveness. One New Jersey senior asked him, “How could you forgive your father’s killers?” He replied, “I don’t know. I just know there was no other way to live.” Here is his story. Excerpt from Out of War

My father was killed two weeks after my fifteenth birthday. Some men walked into his office and shot him and my cousin, Luche, who was helping out as receptionist. She was nineteen years old.

They laid the bodies in caskets in the living room of our house in Aguachica, a small town in north-east Colombia. Many people came to pay their respects but one morning I was in there alone. I stood looking at my father and Luche, side by side in their coffins, and I remember thinking,

“Why two in my family. In plenty of families one person gets murdered, so why two in my family? And why my dad? Why my dad! And why Luche?”

Luche had never done anything to anyone. Neither had my dad. He was a good man. He gave his services as a dentist free to families who could not afford to pay. And Luche had hardly begun to live. She had wanted to become a doctor. That was why she was helping him at the office.

I was supposed to have been with them as well. That morning my father was rushing to work and I went running after him,

“Let me come. There’s no school today! I want to come.

But he looked at me and said, “You’re not ready. I don’t have time to wait.”

He left without me. That is why I am alive.

I was already involved in peace activities before my father was killed. Only six weeks earlier, I had been at a meeting of children and adults from all over Colombia where we had decided to create the Children’s Movement for Peace. At that meeting I had talked as if I knew all about the war and its impact on children. I thought I understood because Aguachica, where I lived, was in the thick of the conflict. There were battles in the streets during the night. I was often woken up by gunfire. In the morning, when I went to school, I saw the evidence – the blood on the sidewalk, the bullet riddled buildings. And I had seen the victims at the morgue, not far from my father’s office.

I had talked about this with confidence, as if I knew what the war meant – but when my father was murdered, I was shattered, not just by grief, but because then I understood the war. I knew what it felt like to want to fight. I realized that no matter how much you want peace, when the war hits you personally, you take a step towards violence.

This is the same trap that has caught so many people in my country.

The war has been going on all my life and all my parents’ lives as well. Not many Colombians can remember a time when there wasn’t war somewhere in the country. It was not always as fierce as it is today, when so many armed groups are fighting each other – several guerrilla organizations and paramilitary groups and the army. Some of the people who are fighting say they are doing it for the poor – though the poor have suffered more in the war than anyone. For many of those involved, it is also about revenge, or about power or about feeling they have no other choice. Some young people join the armed groups because their families are poor and they see no other way out.

Becoming aware of the war was the same for me as growing up. It was always there but for a long time it seemed like something that happened to other people. In 1990, it was suddenly right on our doorstep.

When I was eight years old, a man was shot and killed not far from our house. I saw his body lying in the street. A few days later, my cousins and I were playing in the garden of our house when a bomb exploded less than a block away. The noise was deafening but none of us knew what it was. We stood there watching the bomb-smoke curl into the air, until our parents rushed out, and pulled us into the house.

That year all our cattle were stolen, and men started showing up at the farm, demanding food, shelter and money in return for their “protection” services. My father tried to turn them away but it was difficult. He paid one man about US$6,000 just to leave us alone.

In December 1990, we had a Christmas party at the house in town and were singing carols when shooting started in the street outside. The next day, Andrés and I counted twenty-five bullet holes in the walls of our house. On Christmas Day, we received a letter demanding payment of US$10,000. A week later, another message gave instructions on how my mother was to go alone to a certain mango tree near a neighbor’s property and leave the money there. A third letter warned that we had until January 12 to pay up, or would “face the consequences.”

My father told the police who kept watch while my mother deposited the money as instructed. No one ever turned up to claim it.

A few weeks later, my mother realized she was being followed every time she left the house. Then her brother, who also lived in Aguachica, received an anonymous call warning that my mother should be “very careful.” Finally, someone telephoned our house threatening to kidnap me. The caller even gave the name of the school I was attending, the Francisco José de Caldas School, a small private institution located in a middle-class neighborhood of Aguachica.

My mother rushed to the school, grabbed me and my brother Andrés and brought us home. The next day my family fled from Aguachica for the first time. My father grudgingly went with us. He thought my mother was over-reacting. Yet within a week another dentist from Aguachica, Oswaldo Pajaro, was shot dead on an isolated dirt road near the town.

We never knew who had been targeting us or why. We could guess that it was because our land was fertile and someone else wanted it, or because my father’s way of thinking was to be on the side of the people, and some of the armed groups were opposed to those ideas. But we did not really know why…..

Buy the book to learn more. Second hand copies are available through Amazon.

The stories:

Juan Elias, Peace is the best revenge

Farlis, The line between now and tomorrow

Mayerly, After Milton

Beto, Falling in love with life

Maritza, One foot in violence, One foot in peace

Johemir, Journeys far from home

Alberto, Letters from the jungle

Herminsul, A way of being free

Wilfrido, Saved from drowning

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jose Ramos Horta, with children from the movement for oeace and local media in Bogota in 1997.


Ramos Horta nominated the Children’s Movement for Peace for the Nobel Peace Prize.


Photo: UNICEF

Juan Elias, 18 years, Peace is the best revenge