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Constanza Ardila Galvis, 'The Heart of the War in Colombia'

Latin America Bureau, 2000. ISBN 1 899365 42 7, £11.99

History can be told in many ways,but this book does it with the naked honesty of personal testimonies, from different sides of the Colombian conflict. The wholebook is the process of meeting, listening to and speaking the truth. From the eyes and hearts of Gabriela, Daniel, Mercedes, Socorro, Laura, Antonia, Marcos, Alejandra, Ana Dolores and Angela, we get to know the lives of the displaced, the farmers, the guerrillas.

It reads like a very strange book of short stories but these tales are stark, like trees in winter: without artifice, without resolution, without de'nouement, but all the more vivid and painful for their directness. It is frightening and extremely sad to read the description and the impact of continuing violence from the lips of the witnesses.

You are drawn into a sympathetic understanding of the violence which permeates their lives. Not only the political violence, such as the killings, mutilations, disappearances, imprisonment, displacement, but the domestic, social violence such as the rapes, beatings, abuse, maltreatment, lack of care, lack of love. One begins to come to appreciate the term “culture of violence”. The book clearly establishes that the violence in Colombia is endemic and that the country is at war.

These straightforward accounts of lives, especially those of the women, evoke feelings of sadness for the poverty, deprivation and violence they suffer. But initial feelings of pity become admiration as we learn of how they cope with the complexities of their existences and of the immense effort they put into the struggle just to keep themselves and their families alive and their attempts to plan a future.

I don't feel easily able to criticise anything in this book, because the experience of the meetings, which this book records, seems like an enormous contribution to the study of conflict, politics and violence. However, I feel the need to draw attention to the rather unhelpful “self help - psycho-analyse yourself” quality which seems to assign a portion of responsibility for the violence to its victims. Implicating them in reproducing a “culture of violence” seems somewhat off-beam and I cannot help comparing this to Primo Levi's accounts of his time in Nazi concentration camps (If this is aMan ) in which victims were forced to participate in the destruction of their fellow prisoners. Levi was quite

clear on this: victims of violence are often pushed into reacting in ways which diminish their humanity - but they must never be confused with the true perpetrators. I agree.

The main authors of violence in Colombia, such as the army and its paramilitaries, inflicting murder and violence with State complicity, are not present at these meetings. The people who speak through this book have suffered enough violence and they should not penalised further by asking them to also bear guilt and responsibility for Colombia's long war.