Short Walks from Bogota – Tom Feiling

The way he saw it, the FARC were no more than terrorists. They were also responsible for the bulk of the cocaine production and trafficking that had so destabilised the country. If only they could be defeated, he reasoned, Colombia would soon be on the road to peace and prosperity. Uribe struck a chord with many Colombians, who were by now so desperate to live in peace, free from the threat of kidnap, robbery and extortion, that they happily voted for a man who promised yet more war.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand it’s a straight written travelogue / journalistic report of Colombia in it’s current state, of somewhat uneasy, foggy peace, that seems to be solidifying but could dissipate at any moment. Feiling has a passionate interest in Colombia, I couldn’t say he loves it, or perhaps he does, which is why he is so brutally honest. And that leads me onto my other feelings. Feiling puts Colombia under the microscope as an outsider, clearly detailing the history and detail of the seemingly endless procession of woes that have plagued the country, almost since it’s independence from Spain. He does such a brilliant job that I finished without hope, that I wonder if the changes that Colombia must make to heal itself are so seismic that they will never happen.

For all my doom-mongering, although Short Walks is full of the statistics and politics of Colombia’s history, it is not a heavy read. Feiling travels to place that even now, with the country enjoying a relatively stable and peaceful time, few would dare to visit. There are those whose character and fortitude offer glimmers of hope that this vast, abundant and beautiful country can forge itself anew, but they seem pebbles on a beach. Immense pebbles, when the killers of your family or friends are still riding around town unpunished and unconcerned it shows incredible strength to continue with your life.

Delving into the history of the FARC, a spent, almost irrelevant force still dreaming of the revolution, the paramilitaries who sprung up against the FARC and committed possibly even more atrocities, the army, who despite having money lavished on them to wipe out enemies of the state, never quite seem to manage to do it, realising the almost symbiotic relationship they have, while there are still enemies, there is still a need for the money and the power they have, Short Walks draws up a concise and blood filled history of one of the most famous yet probably least understood countries in the world.
It is ordinary Colombians that suffer for the endless orgy of violence, who still find joy in dancing, who still believe they can live in a peaceful country that are the real stories in Short Walks. Towards the end Feiling speaks to women who have ‘adopted’ graves of people who have no name, in place of relatives that they know are dead but have no idea where they are buried. Although they know it is not what they seek, it offers them a shred of comfort, and at the same time shows how a largely innocent population is struggling to come to terms with what has been inflicted upon it but those who most of the time have purported to be looking out for it.

I’m glad I read this, it would be a stretch to say I enjoyed it, and that would seem almost wrong given the subject matter. At one point Feiling disparages backpackers that have started moving into Colombia now that it is slowly opening up. He comments on their lack of interest in Colombia itself, seeing it as white water rafting followed by a cocaine fuelled orgy, a two week tick in their travels. I mostly agree with him, although it is relevant to any country in a sense, and not to every backpacker. After though, I thought, what could they do? Colombia itself is struggling on how to best deal with it’s past, how to heal the deep deep divisions, maybe the fact that they are visiting Colombia, travelling around it, interacting with Colombians and showing them that the outside world does have an interest, however small, and that they are not afraid to come and visit is, if not a good thing, then possibly a start?

It is a credit to Feiling that I’m left with such mixed emotions after this. Short Walks felt cold and left me cold, but it’s the truth, and it seems right that it’s out there. And it’s convinced me of something that I’ve long thought about. I really do want to visit Colombia.

‘It’s not a bad thing to have feelings of hatred or to want revenge,’ Mira told me. ‘The question is: what do you do with those feelings? An eye for an eye is the worst thing you can do. That just means everyone becomes blind. Committing yourself to non-violence doesn’t just mean that you don’t throw the stone. It means convincing the man with the stone in his hand not to throw it. If we can just exercise some self control, we can build ourselves a house with those stones. We can start building a different kind of country.’