Image by John Garrison
At the age of nine, Laura Ulloa was kidnapped for a short time by the Colombian leftist guerrilla group ELN. She figured that would be the last time that would ever happen.
Final song: Charlev by Oliver Coates.PLAYLIST
Artist – Title
Oliver Coates – Praire
Oliver Coates – Faraday Monument
Alva Noto – u09-0
CF CF – Before and After Light
Michele Murcure – Ghosts Before Breakfast
Michele Murcure – Dinosaur Dancing
Christopher Willits – Ama
Michele Murcure – De Dunk
William Basinski – Divertissement Pt 1
Christopher Willits – Beginning
Pan*American – So That No Matter
Christopher Willits – Sps
Christpher Willits – Four
Offworld – Scrubdown
Tashi Wada with Yoshi Wada – Bottom of the Sky
Michele Murcure – Dreamplay
Oliver Coates – Charlev
Laura Ulloa: Cali is an intermediate city in Colombia. It is a beautiful city surrounded by mountains. It also has very important rivers that go throughout the city from one side to the other. So we have a lot of water, we have a lot of green, we have a lot of trees. My family and I, we live in a house in the outside part of the city. In my house there’s a lot of orchids. It’s a plant that here in Colombia we are very lucky to have a wide variety of orchids. The gardener’s the name was Ephraim Montenegro. He worked at my parents house, so he would used to take care of the orchids, different fruit trees that we have at home. I think I have so many nice memories with him. He was really nice with us, with my sister and I, my sister is four years younger than me. We used to play while he was taking care of some plants, we would used to help him, bringing soil from one place to another. Also I remember he used to play with us with a ball. He was a very kind and loving person.
My childhood was very happy, I come from a loving family. Sometimes people ask if, it’s even though I was so young, I knew what was happening in Colombia. Of course, not only me, but the rest of the kids in Colombia knew what was going on.
Nick: From Radiotopia, you’re listening to Love and Radio. I’m Nick van der Kolk. Today’s episode: Stones in a Bag featuring Laura Ulloa.
Laura: I was nine years old, this was the first day I was going to receive communion. That day we were at church. The priest was in the middle of the sermon when suddenly this guy interrupted the mass, whispered to the priest in his left ear. Priest interrupted the sermon and said, “This guy who is a military, he’s telling me that there’s a bomb underneath one of the cars parked outside of the mass.” The order they received was to evacuate the mass. They were going to take us to the military base. We had to get into two trucks, like huge like, like containers that were waiting for us outside. They took us away from the city, out of the city, so everyone started whispering, you know, “What’s going on, where are they taking us?” When we got to this place out of the city, we started to see guys with rubber boots. The militaries, like the legal ones, they have leather boots. But the guerilla, they use rubber boots. One of these guys got to each of the trailers. These guys told us, “This is not the military base. We are the ELN, and you’re all kidnapped.”
Fifteen minutes after we arrived to that place, the militaries started to shoot from a helicopter to the guerillas down. Adults were kind of hugging all of the kids because they were afraid that a bullet could get into the kiosk and hit one of us. It’s surreal in a way because you’ve seen that every single day in the news, but you haven’t experienced it. After the shooting stopped, the guerillas told everyone that we should have to start walking to a school that was near. I remember he saw my mother, and he pointed at her, and he said “You, your two kids, you get into this Taxi.” The driver was also kidnapped. “He’s going to take you to the school.” We got into the cab, and suddenly, car is like sticking in a stone. It got stuck and at that precise moment again, the helicopters started to, to shoot to the guerilla.
Suddenly my mom, she looks to the window and she said there’s a house out there. We should get into the house. But everyone, the other womans were like “No, are you crazy, if they see us getting out of this cab they’ll kill us!” And I remember my mom said, “I don’t care, they’re gonna kill us anyway if we stay here.” So she just went out of the cab, we were knocking at the door of this house waiting for someone to open, and we knew there was someone inside, but they wouldn’t open. And my mom just kept knocking at the door until someone opened the door. It was two old ladies with their hair long and white, and their faces showing they were so so scared.
We waited there around 30 minutes, we got out of the house to the backyard, we got again into the cab and we started following the son of one of these ladies, who is also in a car in front of us, and he was showing us the nearest road to where the military were. This guy stopped the car… A mine exploded, a total explosion, it was boom! Ten to twelve meters in front of us, the car even jumped a little bit. I don’t really know how this guy knew there was a bomb there, but we were able to, after like waiting for a moment for the dust to come down, we were able to keep heading to the military base, and, where our families were waiting for us. After this time, I thought of course I would never be kidnapped again. You know, ever. So I wasn’t even scared, I’m like, okay, I was kidnapped once, it’s not going to happen again.
The FARC is, it’s a guerilla group with a communist ideology. They were born in Colombia about fifty years ago by blue collar population fighting for their rights. In the first moments of the FARC, the first years of the FARC, their fight had a lot of sense. You know, back fifty years ago, the rules in Colombia were not very good for the blue-collar workforce who used to work for agriculture. They didn’t have a lot of rights. But the problem is that the FARC, during the eighties, kind of end of the seventies, they had this turning point in their fight when narc traffic and cocaine and marijuana growing in Colombia started. They were growing poppy crops, smuggling cocaine, everything changed for this guerilla group. And the war with the militaries had a horrible escalate during the and the nineties and then the two-thousands. For power. For power in for money.
Just in my school, there were a lot of parents from my friends kidnapped. There were also some older students kidnapped, held hostage for several months. They have done horrible massacres. They put a bomb in a private social club in Bogota. And in Columbia private clubs are for kids and families. When an exploded, I think there were more than eighty people who died. There were a lot of wind and people also, it was horrible back in the days. It’s, it’s amazing how much harm they did to this country. And to a lot of people because, they didn’t actually discriminate. It was not only for a specific party, race, religion. Poor people to rich people, everyone was a target.
I was eleven years old, and I was heading from school to my house, I was the first one at the bus. My sister was in the first bench. She was sitting with her big bag. I was telling her, “Andrea you really should start like leaving your bag on the floor because you can’t even sit well in the bench, and maybe someone can bully you, and you know next year I will not be in primary, I wouldn’t be able to help you.” She would say, “No, this bag is new, and I don’t want this bag to become dirty.” I would always go and sit in the last bench of the bus of course, because I was the oldest in primary. That day, the roads was very narrow road a lot of curves surrounded by trees on both sides. It’s a really beautiful road because at the end the trees kind of join and make like a natural tunnel.
Suddenly there were two cars parked in the road and the bus had to stop. Five men came out of tall grass on the side of the road. Three of those men got into the bus. All of them had their faces covered with black cloth. This first guy was pointing towards the ceiling with his gun. He shot it to all of the kids, “Everyone down!” The next thing I remember is this guy grabbing me by my arm and pulling me out of the bench. At that point I had the seatbelt. He kept pulling me out. I couldn’t even talk, but I was trying to say like I have this thing, so he pushed the button and it took me out of the bench, and out of the bus. I remember two things. The first one was my sister. She was head down, her bag was covering her head. She was looking at me, but she knew she couldn’t do anything. The other image I have is the bus driver. One of the guys was pointing with his gun to his forehead. The driver had his hands up, and he was looking at me with a face that I could never forget. Like telling me, I cannot do anything, I’m sorry.
In an instant, they got me in a car, it was like a pickup. They got me in the back of this pickup and started heading towards the end of the road. I remember I was kind of laying on the floor of the pickup. There were, these five guys got in the back with me and one of them started to swear at the other one, “How could you forget the other one?” One of them asked me, “Hey Laura, where is your sister?” It seems that they were also trying to kidnap my sister, and I wasn’t able to say my sister was in the bus. So I told these guys that my sister, how she was at home because she was so sick last night, she hadn’t gone to school. And the same guy said, “Are you telling us the truth? Because if you’re not, we’re getting back to the bus, and if we find her, we kill you.” I said yes. Fortunately they never went back.
One of these militia guys say, “Laura now get up and start walking.” I took like three steps forward. I again suddenly felt the same hand to grab my arm in the bus grabbing my arm again. He grabbed my arm and turned me around and hugged me. His T-shirt was absolutely super wet because of his sweating. My t-shirt was also getting wet. He had his, his face covered, and he said, “Laurita, I am so sorry. Please forgive me.” While he was saying that, I was able to feel his heart beating on my chest. I haven’t met them before, I didn’t knew their names. They probably knew my name and that was it.
I spent the night in a camp we just built out from scratch out of nothing. I remember it was a full moon night. I stayed up at night in the hill to see if I was able to spot any light or something that would tell me that we were near Cali or someplace. But there was no light at all. Nowhere.
Being kidnapped is like going from anywhere in the world to Mars. Next day, I remember I woke up and the guys were making breakfast. One of them asked me if I wanted to have some breakfast, and I said yes. They were making arepas, and when I saw they were making these arepas, which are like corn paste patties, their hands were super dirty, I was like, no, I can’t have these arepa, like it was horrible watching them do these patties with their hands so dirty. And there was also hot chocolate, and the hot chocolate, they put it in an empty bottle of orange juice.
The first eleven days I wouldn’t get a shower. I thought they wanted to see me naked. I would always answer, I’m not taking a shower yet, I’m taking a shower whenever I’m released, and these guys were like oh my god you’re going to die, you have to take a shower. So eleven days after I was kidnapped, I finally took a shower because like the commander had to come and almost grounded me. He shouted at me, he said it was an order, I HAD to take a shower or I will be grounded. I don’t know what kind of grounding he was going to do, but I did it because you know, he had a gun and well, I don’t know.
I thought that maybe it could be a good idea but if I become really mean and bad to them, they would just get sick of me and release me. And so that was what I started to do. Anytime they would come to bring me food or something, I would say the food looks horrible. Whenever they asked me to go out to play domino or rummikub or whatever game I would say that that’s super boring, that I wouldn’t play that, but it didn’t like to play that.
On the 26th of December, they said to me, that they were going to release me. They said that they in the morning, “Laura, you’re going home,” and I remember I was so happy I packed all my, I packed some of my stuff because the rest, I gave it out to everyone there. And I remember after I packed my things and I was ready to leave come I said to the commander, “Let’s go, I want to go home, it’s the 26th of December, I want to get home before New Years.” He looked at me and he grabbed my elbow with his hand and he said, “Laura, happy April Fools Day.”
It was very boring, you know, the first month’s I didn’t even want to be awake. I wanted to sleep most of the day mainly because I, I hadn’t accepted the fact that I was kidnapped. I didn’t know when I was going to be released. During the months I was held hostage, I was able to bring together all the pieces. The reason why I was kidnapped was because of a gardener in my house. This was a guy who until today I can still say he was the gardener I like the most. He was a really nice guy. After two years working in my house, he said to my parents that he was going because he had found a better job. Five years later, the day before I was kidnapped, my mom said to me that someone in my farm who apparently knew this guy told her that he had joined the guerilla. When my mom said this to me, then I told her, “Mama, are you crazy? It’s impossible, this guy is such a nice person.” He was the one who sold us to the FARC and after a while I figured out that he was the one who grabbed me out of the bus. That was the reason why he knew me, he knew my sister.
Sometimes when a strategy you have in your life doesn’t work, life makes you understand in a way but it’s not working. And that probably, the best thing you can do is just like change. And I said, well, I only have one kind of people to talk to and it’s these guys. And so after thinking what can I do, what can I do through a couple of days, I figured out another plan.
I think I didn’t even sleep that night. Very early in the morning, I will wait for all of the guerilla members to be inside of the kitchen they’ve made and I got out of my tent. I was super nervous. I said that entrance, and I remember I looked to all of them, and they of course, they all looked at me like, what is going on. And I said, “Good morning.” And it was like complete silence. “Did, did you sleep well?” And then suddenly one of them say, “Yes and you?” “Yes, I am a little bit hungry.” So when I said that, there was a large bench oh, and there were around 20 guerilla members sitting there, and ten moved a little bit towards the left side, and the other half moved a little bit to the right side leaving a little space between them for me. And one of the guys say, “Laura, sit down.” I sat down in the middle of twenty guerrilleros and I was just thinking, oh my god.
Trying to know, incorporate, or make friends, or be nice was like, what is going on with this girl. I was very scared, because I said, okay they can, they can just tell me, are you out of your mind? You can’t just come inside and say hi and ask us if we wanna be your friends. You know, it’s not, life’s not so simple. And I was expecting to say something like that, like you have to ask for our forgiveness or, you have to excuse yourself for being so rude. Any of this was like, something I definitely expected. But it didn’t happen.
Nick: I mean, they did kidnap you, so it seems like, being rude to them–
Laura: Yeah. I know.
Nick: —is like somewhat understandable.
Laura: Exactly. It’s true, I hadn’t thought about that before, like they did, they weren’t the ones who kidnapped me. They had just to take care of me. But yes, I was kidnapped, of course. Absolutely.
One of them passed me some hot chocolate with a piece of bread. I remember I had my breakfast and complete silence, I didn’t talk to anyone, no one talked to me. But as soon as I finished, one of the guerillas, a guy, he stood up and he said, “I’m going to pick up some wood from the forest. Anyone’s coming?” “No, we’re not coming, we’re tired everyone,” everyone answered, and I was of course quiet. And then suddenly, he say, “Laura, you wanna come?” At that moment, I said, oh my god, like going to the forest with one guy who has like a he, heck? Ha, haxe? With an axe? But also I say, I have to trust them because I just want to be part, or I just want to talk to someone, and so, I said yes, I went with him. That I was able to help him bring some wood, of course he would bring like loads of wood and I would bring little sticks, but that made me feel useful, and nothing happened, or well, everything happened. Since that day I started to accept that I was there. I wasn’t seeing them as my captors, I was seeing them as people. And I also believed they were not seeing me as a kidnapped young stupid little girl, but as a girl who also is suffering as they are.
This guerilla stole the eggs from the chicken of the commander and take them to me because he said that I was growing up and I had to eat well. There was this girl named Tatiana, she was twenty-seven years old. She was short. She had black curly hair and freckles. She was the nurse, she would always carry medicine with her. And she was sweet and nice. She would always ask if I already ate, if I was doing well, if I had clothes to clean, and I would say, “Yes, but I can clean it.” “No, let me help you.” She was really nice to me. She had an AK-47, which is a big gun.
One day we were talking, and I remember I asked her, “Tatiana, why did you join the guerilla? Like really, explain me why you came here, why didn’t you stay back home, what drove you here?” I saw some tears in her eyes. And she looked at me and she’s saying, “You wanna know why, Laura?” I say, “Yes.” “Cause I was abused by my stepfather.” And I remember when she said that I didn’t even understand what that meant. She came from a big family, she had a dad, and a mother who lived together. But her parents were very hard on her. They were also very poor. And one day the guerilla got to her town offering her a better future.
When I was kidnapped, I was super skinny, and after seven months of not only walking a lot but also eating rice and lentils and beans, I had gained weight and muscle. But after all those months, still everyday I would ask them, “When are you going to release me?” Because the only thing, really the only thing I wished every single day was to go back home. To end the suffering of my parents. And every day they would answer me with the same phrase. Don’t worry, Laura. Two or three days. And two or three days were seven months. One day, drinking coffee, one of the commanders came to my camp, and he said, “Laura, you’re going home.” This was the same guy who who did the prank, so I said “You know what, if this is another prank of yours, it’s not funny.” And he said, “No, this is not a prank. This is true. You’re going home.”
Now, here, sitting on a chair, I feel goosebumps again. We had to walk for four days to get to a little town where my father was going to pick me up. Every day at night during these three nights before I got to sleep, I would write a little note to each of the guerilla members. Each note was different, like, “Bye-bye, it was nice to meet you.” I remember I told a little story about something that happened between both of us, or a funny story, or something I just like wrote some memory. At the end I wrote the phone of my house, my house number, my address, and my mom’s mobile phone number. I said if they go to the city at any point, they can contact me and if they need anything I can be of any help. I guess for the seven months I was kidnapped I felt they were there for me. I just wanted them to feel kind of the same.
When I started seeing little houses for the first time, it was incredible. I’d been in the jungle for ages by that time. As we were walking like by the main street at the little town, people would as soon as they saw us, the guerilla, they would get into their houses and close their doors and windows and everything. Suddenly the commander said to me, “Okay Laura, see that road down there?” And I said, “Yes.” “Your father is going to arrive there. You’re going to stay up here with Tony,” who was another guerilla member, “And you’re going to wait for our order to come down.” So I said, “Okay.”
I stayed with Tony waiting up there, and I remember something he said, “Laurita, it’s so sad that you’re going to be like the other kidnapped people. You’re probably going to go out and say that we hit you, that we treated you bad, that we didn’t give you food.” And I said, “This is not, no! I’ll say the truth. I’ll say what I liked, and what I didn’t like about you. And just so you feel that I’m saying the truth, I promise that when I grow up and when I turn 18 years old, I am going to join the guerilla.”
A couple of minutes later after being up there with Tony, I saw my dad arriving in a car and, and the commander saying come down. And I remember I started running down the little hill to reach my father, and when he opened the door of the car and he got out I saw him and I was happy, extremely happy, but also in a way devastated. I saw my father as if fifty years had gone by. He looked super old. His hair turned completely white. But at the time we hugged I was so happy because it’s kind of those hugs that you feel something horrible just end. And you’re getting peace with the ones you love and with the ones that you know will never harm you. And while everything of this was happening, fifteen guerrilla members were, were standing in front, in a line. Absolutely steady. Quiet. Looking at this scene that they will never experience in their life. All of them had tears in their eyes. And it was incredible to see how this strong man with a big gun and super mean look actually were also human.
At that moment, my father went to the back of the truck and you open the trunk and with his hand he called them. He said, come. It was incredible, the trunk was full of groceries. I remember my dad telling them, “I know you have to head back, and I know you probably don’t have much provisions. Thank you for taking care of her.”
Being back home was the best. I remember arriving in the car and seeing again my house and then getting out of the car in my house and hugging my mom, my sister, all of my family who are gathering there. Everyone was trying to not ask me about anything, probably thinking I was depressed. But I wasn’t, I was happy to tell them everything. The first day I was not able to sleep in my bed because it was too soft, and I remember I moved to my parents bedroom like at midnight to sleep in a sofa they had, which was really hard and not comfortable, but for me it was perfect. The next day, very early in the morning, I remember that the phone rang, my mom answered, I was there, I was sleeping. She said, “Laura, wake up. They’re calling you from the radio.”
The first questions were very, I don’t know how to say, very easy. But as we kept talking, he started asking me more complex questions about, how did I feel about guerillas being killed, or if I thought that all of the guerilla members should be in jail, and if I thought they were right in their fights. I started to speak and to talk about Marxism and communism and a lot of things that my father first got out of the room. My mother then got out of the room, and I just, I was just thinking, okay, is the so boring they’re leaving? But actually that day they were behind the door crying saying this is not the Laura that they took from us. I actually remember telling my father that he should divide his farm into many little pieces so that many families can live in that farm and not only us. And in school also, I would debate a lot about socialism, in about how important was to take money from the rich and give it to the poor. So imagine this is a private school. It was kind of like, what?
As soon as I was released, for me I came back home and that was it. But for my dad, the story was very different. I remember we went on vacation with my parents. In the morning, we would go to the beach, and my dad would say. And my sister and I, we were like, “Dad, come on, let’s go!” “No, I’ll meet you later.” But he never went down to the beach and as soon as we got to the apartment, he will always be there lying on the bed with the shades down, very dark, no lights. That was the moment my dad entered into a deep depression that had been caused by holding all this sadness, all this horrible feelings he had during the time I was kidnapped. In my case I believe my parents suffered much more than I did. I knew I was okay, but my parents didn’t know if the guerilla members were hitting me, if they were taking advantage of me in any way. I believe thinking about the possibility that can happen is like a constant torture. Sometimes I say I would have preferred to be much more months kidnapped than to see my father suffering so badly of this depression.
One month after I was released, I remember I got back from school. I was twelve at that time, and this guy called to my mom’s phone, and he asked, “Hi, can I speak to Laura.” My mom said like, “No, she’s at school now. You wanna leave a message?” “Yeah, tell her it’s the guy from the eggs.” “Um, okay, that’s it?” “Yeah, that’s it, she’ll know who I am.” As soon as I got back from school, my mom was like Laura, who is the guy from the eggs because he’s calling you. And I’m like Mom, it’s not what you’re thinking. Since this time, they will call me every single year. They were always like in a group, like three of them, four of them. And then so I would talk to one, then they would pass me to the other one that way. They will call and say “Hi, we wanted to wish you a merry Christmas, we hope you’re doing great, we came to the city to do some,” uh, I don’t know what, but maybe not so good things. We just talked about, how were they doing, if they were alive, they sometimes told me that one of them had been killed, but another one had demobilized, and they would ask me about my school, so I would say, “I don’t know, I’m failing maths,” and they would go like, “What’s the name of the teacher?” [laugh]. Um. But really whenever they called me, I felt happy. They called me because they liked me, because we were friends. And that was it.
I was around fifteen years old, I remember one of the commanders called me. He said, “Laura, you should be looking good now that you’re fifteen.” it was really creepy. I remember I said, “No. This puberty is horrible on me,” you know. “I’ve gained weight, I’m looking so bad.” [laugh]. But he kept saying that maybe I was looking better, and that, why don’t we meet someplace, somewhere. And I didn’t like this at all. And after a month, he called me again. And this time I was in my, with my parents in the room, we are watching a movie. The phone rang and I picked up the phone and my parents’ bathroom, and as soon as I picked up the phone and I say hi, when I listen to his voice, I hang the phone immediately. I didn’t want to talk to him in front of my parents. When my parents said, “Who, who was on the phone? Who called?” “No, it was wrong number.” And immediately the phone rang again. I said, “Do not pick up the phone.” I ran to the kitchen to tell my sister not to pick up the phone. When I came back to my parents’ room, my father was walking throughout the room. He was like telling me, “Laura, are you crazy, are you out of your mind? What are you doing talking to a terrorist? On the phone?” I said, “No, Dad, it’s, it’s fine. We’re friends.” He was like, “No. Are you kidding me? Are you out of your mind?” That conversation with my father, and the last things that this guy had said kind of left me with this feeling that I wanted to cut conversations with them, and so I asked my mother to change the phone number.
I made this promise where I told the guerilla member that I would join the guerilla when I turned eighteen years old. Of course when I turned eighteen years old, I didn’t join the guerilla, but still I had made this promise. So what I did when I graduated from high school was that I started to study political science at the university, and I started to work at the Colombian Agency for Reintegration, which is the government agency that works with the demobilized guerillas from the FARC, ELN, and other illegal groups. Sometimes for people it’s difficult to understand how I was able to work with demobilize after what they did to me and to my family. Sometimes for people it’s difficult to understand why I was able to forgive them. When people come to me and say, “How are you able to forgive them?,” most of the time I believe they have someone they haven’t been able to forgive. And it’s not a guerilla, it’s someone very close to them. I’m sure this happens not only in Colombia but around the world, maybe when you think about Hamas or Al-Qaeda, we think like, who are the guys that are part of those groups? There like monsters, you know. And I also used to think like the same from the FARC, and that’s what happen in war. We dehumanize the other. When I was kidnapped, one of the most like for me I would say important things I was able to understand is that they also have a life. They laugh. They have bad days and good days. They make jokes. They miss their families. They suffer for love.
HOST: That’s it for Love and Radio. This episode was produced by Julia DeWitt with special thanks to Vivian Jones and Laura Uribe. It featured lots of music from Michele Murcure and loads of others. Visit loveandradio.org for playlists for this and all our other episodes. Love and Radio is a production of Radiotopia whose executive producer is Julie Shapiro, and made possible thanks to the generous support of our listeners. Thank you. And thanks for listening.