John Harold Giraldo Herrera

Photographs by Rodrigo Grajales Murillo

Living in La Bella, a township of the city of Pereira, Colombia, María Isabel never thought that her life would be spent writing to the dead. In 2002, María Isabel worked with flowers; she grew jasmines and tulips in a garden that she nourished, cared for and cultivated, and which often caught the eye of passing foreigners who asked if they could take photos. That garden is now a distant memory, ever since she moved with her husband and sons to the place where, for more than 10 years now, she has carried out her roles as homemaker, mother of three and ranch worker – and watched dead bodies go down the river. Looking out at the river, she tells me, "It could be said that I passed from the freezer to the oven. Where I lived, it was too cold, and I cultivated a garden that gave me many joys and had a strong connection with people." 

María Isabel writes. Seated under a tree on the shore of the Cauca River, she observes its wide and turbid water and suddenly a poem rises up. She sits in the area of Guayabito, in Cartago-Valle, alongside the immense river that covers more than 180 municipalities and has been the communal resting place during the history of violence in Colombia. Just hours before, María Isabel occupied herself with domestic chores on the ranch where she works. She gets up at 3:30 in the morning and goes to work. The ranch is a place known for "summering" – a place for people to spend summer vacations. She makes something to eat, mops the ranch's tiled floor, keeps the lush and colorful gardens of the ranch clean, tidies up the house where she and the patrons — as she calls them — live, and goes from there from chore to chore. Her hands, leathery and rough from farm work, are soft and fragile when she writes. She stays seated and I ask her, without asking her about death, why she writes:

“I can’t be without a pen and a sheet of paper, so that my hands can capture everything my eyes allow me to see..."

"Have you seen many dead people?"

"There were days that five or seven would come down, so I would say, 'This could be common, but not normal’ – as common as you like, but normal it is not."

Very few people live in Guayabito. The few inhabitants find themselves surrounded by extensive cane fields, cropland seeded with corn, thousands of hectares of livestock, but very few people. And the few ranches remain empty, except on some weekends when the patrons arrive to check their properties or spend the summer with their friends. María Isabel and her family have had direct contact with the dead, not only because they see them pass by whenever they look out from the patio of her house, but also because dead bodies have been a constant since she has lived on this ranch. Last June, two boys from the area were decapitated –trouble that seemed to derive from a quarrel between families – and their bodies were thrown in the river. Their bodies were flowing together with cows in waters passive on the surface but tumultuous underneath. The river, measuring 40 meters in width and up to 15 meters deep, contains the mysteries of that cruel and bloodthirsty forward march of our country's history. María Isabel, the poet of the dead, has written hundreds of poems on scraps of paper. The fragmented and battered bodies, putrefied and tortured, weren't a question of normality for her. Awe made her write. And she writes after finishing the chores, under a tree at about 9:00 in the morning, in the hours when the need to pour her heart out can no longer wait. She takes a napkin or a sheet of paper on which she conveys her emotions.

Going from the cold to the oven, it was almost like going from the beauty of the country, the peacefulness and tranquility of her dwelling, to a climate as intense and penetrating as it is rural and dangerous. Guayabito, nestled among farms and ranches, has been an eye-witness to much of the death thrown into the Cauca River. The others don't say anything and swallow the pain and anguish, "being worn down by so much death," María Isabel writes. She exorcises their sorrows, alien and borrowed, making them hers. She doesn't know who, indifferently and inhumanely, has infected the river with blood, families with loss, the country with forgetfulness, the dead with desolation.

Guayabito is a place forgotten by geography, situated on the headland of Cartago. For María Isabel, coming to this place was a matter of destiny. The murderers hoped to cover their tracks and their atrocities – to go unpunished – by submerging the bodies. Yet the pen of this woman stirs the memory and impedes forgetfulness. The bodies aren't of her relatives. She doesn't know their names or where they came from. Neither does she cry for them like the mothers of Trujillo, a place that has had to suffer serial murders and slayings. María Isabel writes to the dead out of pure humanity in order to anchor them on shore. Someone had to do it, she says.

It evokes curiosity that in a country of apathy, a woman takes up the task of recording the pain out of sensitivity. María Isabel remains seated, under that sheltering tree, from which one can see an infinite river, large and mysterious and with whom she converses, communicates her ideas and relates as if it were a living entity. She says to me, "One day it came in my home," the river. But she doesn't blame it. The river wanted to visit her. It got in because it overflowed its channel when heavy rains fell in the area of the Colombian Massif where the Cauca starts. It was December of 2010. The overflow was so great that Maria had to leave by a small channel as the only other way of egress was flooded. The day after, she pleaded with the river to not come in without letting her know, and since then, it hasn't tried to enter again.   

Thousands of dead bodies have been thrown into the Cauca River, from the more than 200,000 deaths the National Unit of Public Prosecution for Justice and Peace has documented between 2006 to 2010. The sociologist Alfred Molano has said, by way of comparison, that the bodies could make a pile 173 kilometers long (about 107 miles). The Cauca is a communal burial place, one into which people in sacks have been thrown in alongside rocks or cement. The techniques are as atrocious as they are abominable: dismemberments, bodies packed together with rocks, women and men with their abdomens opened and entrails removed, fingers cut one by one. No compassion to speak of, only the barbarity and accumulated hatred, the ruthlessness and the brutality of those who torture and violate bodies. Colombia is a communal grave, the Cauca River a funeral home: available, silent, ready for those who desire to cover their tracks.

"I think that it should have been someone's duty to remove the bodies when they came down, so I decided to take them out with my ink and paper. And in some way, when I see them pass down, I give them a last goodbye, I pray to God for them," says María Isabel. She finds comfort among the desolation by just thinking of the dead that pass by her – a garden of floating bodies, the lively colors changed for gloomy ones, rife with abomination. 

María Isabel doesn't have any memory of violence except that of arriving in Guayabito. With poems, she conquered her husband, to whom she gave three little ones. It troubles me to ask what she wrote to him, and when I do, she sighs and recites to me the poem, "A Rosebush's Message":

Yesterday I received a message: a beautiful rosebush, that thought a thousand things of me 
when a dreamer went to cut from its enchantment an exquisite rose for his beloved to wear,
and she waited for him anxiously as she missed the light of his truth, 
and what was her surprise when she saw her beau arrive 
carrying in his hands a beautiful red rose that she would never forget, 
she picked the leaves off one by one to be able to think 
that he, who dared so much for their love to grow, 
never will he ever have his beloved's disappointment because today she is happy.

María Isabel writes. She doesn't have techniques, or styles, to imitate. She has read very little poetry because she doesn't want to copy anyone. So many questions come up from that solitary voice that, in the midst of a river of poems, she sits to hear and narrate. She is the historian of a macabre era that continues on. Dead bodies arrive and go on, down the river. Dead bodies remain on pages of notebooks where María Isabel has freed them from abandonment and evil. 

"How many poems have you written?"

"I haven't numbered them. When I finish the last one, I think that I will leave from here. I think the dead were waiting for me. This river needed someone to listen to it. I'm not making anything up. I transcribed a story. I transcribed it how the river told it to me."

The river waited for her. The dead were in a forgotten country that was unconcerned with the truth, and Maria has exhumed them in her poems.

"She's going to trade me for the river," says Luis Eduardo Cano, Maria Isabel’s husband. It is his job to keep the ranch in order. At times, he admits, jokingly, that María Isabel relates so strongly to the river that she might leave him for it. Their children, however, think that their mother's effort is to be admired. The dismembered and tortured corpses are orphans in the river, and María Isabel assists them like a surrogate mother. Maria Isabel writes to the dead as if they were her children. To her own, she has taught respect and tolerance but, above all, love. On Christmas, the family can share little. The ranch has a lot of people then because it's the best time for vacation. For the five members of this home, the ranch is essential. The love for her family is what María Isabel shares with others, with those human beings navigating through the long river. I think, perhaps, that is what Colombia is now: a collection of homeless beings, uprooted, trying to reach safety. 

María Isabel has participated in various projects: The artist Gabriel Posada has invited her to be part of the massive project Las Magdalenas por el Cauca (The Magdalenes of the Cauca). The filmmaker Nicolás Rincón Guille cast her as a protagonist in Los abrazos del río (The Embrace of the River), and she has appeared in the documentary Rastro Púrpura (Purple Trace), by Señal Colombia. But those most thankful are the few family members of victims that María Isabel has been able to address: "It’s a human being going by, and for each one there must be a mother crying, a wife asking, a sister. That is what makes me so attached to them." 

She brings me some notebooks and papers with poems, but doesn't let me look through them. In them, there is a draft of a book with the name, “Funerals on the Cauca River.” She still has not made her edits. She keeps as many poems to the dead as poems to the sugar caners, to moments of love, to the garden and the beauty of the countryside. She confesses to have had some supporters of her writing: "I had two allies, the vultures and the binoculars I brought with me in order to capture them – they helped me." 

Each poem has a story, each death an impression. Each time that she shares a poem with me – she knows them all by heart – I look at the river, and even though nothing but sticks and trash pass by, I am sorry to see the running blood, the stain of impunity. When Maria recites her first poem to the bodies, suddenly there is a moment of healing:

Colombian Lament

Oh, homeland where I met my parents and they saw me born. They don't let our children suckle and, much less, their bodies grow. The countryside that rightfully belongs to us like giant wings hide the dawn of men with different ideologies; slaughtered and kidnapped they are against their will. The sun runs quickly because it refuses to see that the earth is witness to a war without mercy; the moon full of sorrow looks out and hides her glow pronouncing sadly that we are endangered men.  

My homeland is no longer my homeland because many contribute to its destruction, and the scarce few that fight for it are silenced without compassion. The dreams that we had for a country of love have become a chimera of sobbing and pain, a pilgrimage of souls unable to find their kin today, not one to lay their roots for a better world.

In her sharp, firm voice, the strength of a poet is found, a woman that was born among gardens today is surrounded by death. She looks for an explanation for life’s fading. Then she recites from her memory a short poem called, "Essence":

Everything has its essence, and essence is in nothing because everything dies.
The afternoon dies upon the setting of the sun. The night dies when the day appears. 
The flower withers at midday. The prisoner of melancholy dies.
Justice dies by lack of truth, and truth has no justice. 
Just as the embryo of the bird that fights to give it life dies.

"There's no place where you go to get a poem, a place where I can say it’s there. No, the poem stays in the air, in the wind, in the tree, in the sun, in the moon." The essence of this woman is her writing. María Isabel always writes in silence, looking at the river, sometimes scrutinizing in the bodies. Many have stayed there, blocked by branches floating on the river, and they had to be untangled in order to allow them to continue their course. Many are the poems because many are the dead. María Isabel’s work is that of narrator of vile and miserable times, times without end. Every time she turns a page of her writings, a moment of the life of this nation unfolds. The merciless violence has produced a woman ready to face reality and for Maria Isabel, that’s what poetry is, facing the reality others leave unlooked.

“They were like the wind, that doesn't know where it comes from or where it's going. They would come and go without way or direction, leaving a sad emotion in my soul, leaving in their wake a spine-chilling impression. Yes, yes, river, I see them pass by. I know that they came with you in their sorrowful shuffling. I also know that your eyes water when those that were people inevitably become spoils of war. You carry them between your meticulous and dark waters, but despite everything, you cry in their pain. You saw the mountain that stood up like an eager in hope always begging to God that those crimes don't go unpunished."

Maria takes out a final poem, one from when she used to tend to her garden. 

What if the rose cried seeing a petal about to open and it, already so withered and shriveled, about to die, cries, not knowing very well how to say good-bye...

"What do you think of those who murder?"

"Those people are deader than the dead that have passed by here because a person who doesn't have dreams and respect for life is dead."

Translation by Adam Wier

John Harold Giraldo Herrera was born in the city of Pereira, Colombia in 1979. He is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker. He publishes his work with various local and national medias such as El Espectador, La Revista Semana, La Patria, El Meridiano, La Opinión, Sucesos y Opiniones, L Tarde, El Diario del Otún, Revista Malpensante,  Miratón, and with international newspapers and magazines such as Letralia from Venezuela, and Revista Ñ from Argentina, among others. His interested in writing about communities from his own country, and on politics and topics related to culture and art. John Harold is the director of the journalism group Enfokados with whom he creates radio, television and digital works. He holds a degree in Spanish and Media Communications with a specialization in Journalism and Literature from the University of Technology of Pereira. He is also a university professor of Media, Pedagogy, Literature and Journalism.

Rodrigo Grajales Murillo was born in Colombia in 1960. He has dedicated his life to writing with the light. For more than 30 years he has worked with photography on subjects related to art. He has exhibited his work in various events and received recognition for his photographs on indigenous communities, social movements, political conflicts, and groups of political and social resistance. Rodrigo is also an independent documetary filmmaker and journalist, he alternates his work as artist with teaching at centers for higher education. He holds a degree in Spanish and Media Communications, and in Aesthetics and Creation from the University of Technology of Pereira. He has published with Revista Ñ from Argentina, Internazionale from Italy, Athropos, and in newspapers such as El Espectador, La Patria, La Tarde, El Diario del Otún, Revista Malpensante, and Semana, among others.