Balas emerged slowly from his bed like every other day. It was about 6am, but no alarm went off. His tall, lean body guided him to the small enclosed shower of brisk cool water on what looked like a hot summer day. He quickly showered and shaved what few whiskers were bold enough to claim residence on his clean and radiant complexion.
His morning routine took little time. A bit of soap, a spot of deodorant, and a spritz of aftershave made him feel fresh and ready to greet the world. Only steps away lay his clothes for the day. Always jeans, and a clean and bright white shirt. Comfortable walking shoes a necessity for someone who lived on his feet all day. One last brush to his hair, an inspection of his dark colombian complexion .. less European than some and not so dark as others. Still his features hinted of a long family history of indigenous inhabitants.
He turned toward the door with a last look at the mirror that was his final inspection. Less a look at the surface, he saw his appearance, picked up the door key, and a little wad of money that was his travel money for the day and he picked up his bag turned to the door to join others in their usual commute to work. He locked the door behind him.
Bolas did not speak much. Not that he was quiet or even private. He enjoyed his friends, lived openly and contentedly at work and at play. But took his work seriously and loved considering his future. He boarded a bus toward the town center and though he worked at the barrio’s hospital, he went only so far as the bus station hub for a day in the hills where he would bring medical treatment to those with neither transport nor insurance. Twice every month he provided this service, alternating with another intern.
The best part of his possessions were stored in his bag. After three years in the hospital, it seemed to be all he needed in life. He was not one to cling to the past. His future was to be a full fledged doctor. Memories? They were meant to reside inside. Things to be divulged when moments called on them. He had very few photos, not even one of himself.
At the bus station he paid his fare for the day trip into the mountains to a small village of 20 homes and 3-4 times that many inhabitants. The needs there he knew would be everything from infected wounds and malnutrition to heart problems that would never be covered in a hospital environment.
Balas carried his bag on the bus with him and stowed it under his seat never far from his sight. Most of the passengers on this bus also boarded here. Few carried much more than himself for their long distance ride to family in mountain towns familiar with a much more rural form of transportation. Most passengers looked like they were returning home from a busy stay in the big city. Perhaps they were here to make official papers to register births or deaths, or a relative abroad had sent them a small token of aid.
The nearly full bus rumbled to a start and began it’s journey out of the tranquility of the beautiful town center of Medellin and after a one mile drive to the edge of the city turned sharply left into the hills and mountains that surrounded it. How close the mountains seemed. And how quickly the roads changed to winding paths known only to familiar travellers.
The bus bumped and rocked around sharp mountain turns. The thickening jungle reached further and further toward the center of the road blocking the greatest part of the natural light of the day. The dark uncertainty of other vehicles lay around every turn. Occasional openings reminded him of the blue skies over Medellin. Shifting bodies and baggage caused Balas to recheck the bag at his feet. Every kilometer further into the jungle the more valuable he felt … he knew he was all that linked rural locales to necessary medical sciences.
He looked around the bus. Small family groups in quiet conversation scattered everywhere. But none like this tranquil modest young man of 24 years. He continued looking out the window and hoped patiently for the final 10 km through the rollicking mountains.
Balas had made this same trip every two weeks for the past two years. It was voluntary work but it made a marked difference in paying his university debts. He lived cheaply. Partied on rare occasions. He loved going to football matches with his work companions. But this voluntary work permitted him to save nearly $4,000 in US money.
The trees of the jungle pressed more densely over the highway. Tree after tree was noticeably different from previous trips, almost making the trip unfamiliar. The jungle canopy, the density and color of the trees all made even the road feel different.
He turned again to the window beside him. “My whole life is changing” he thought. A poor abandoned baby left on the doorstep of a home, he depended on each acquaintance to make something of himself. Nothing lasted. “Who would believe that I could finish school and university!” In reality, he still had four more years of study before he celebrated. Until then, he was confident that he was the doctor to many communities of poor unattended families.
Suddenly with a lurch, the bus abruptly stopped and everyone lurched side to side. He regained his balance and looked about him to see that others were ok. Conversations rose loudly with many shouting to the driver: “What are you doing! You could have injured my daughter!” As calm returned once more to the passengers, the doors of the bus were opened. The barrel of a large guage weapon emerged, then the floppy brim of a camoflaged military hat, and finally, large dirty hands and belts of bullets.
“Everybody off the bus” the leader waved brazenly. Looking up and down the rows of passengers, taking in the possessions and status of each. The second soldier looked up the bus steps as though the lead man was the boss. As passengers disembarked, they referred a few individuals to separate in a different group. With bag in hand, Balas was one of those.
The passengers were guided into lines in the road beside the bus. Three more armed soldiers appeared to secure compliance and order. Naturally those in line grouped by familiarity with fellow passengers. Others formed groups more separate. The added soldiers forced passengers into tighter lines and prevented escape.
When the last of the passengers had left the bus, the two leaders surveyed the mass of people and ordered the three soldiers to search the bus.
Eventually a man emerged who appeared to be the commander. His voice assured and unemotional, he informed the passengers that they would be here several days. “Don’t do anything stupid“ he said and pointed the barrel of his gun directly at the head of young girl.
When the three guerillas had returned with the last of the baggage, the commander ordered that everyone be separated into groups of men and women. As they speedily attacked their task, they collected all objects of interest .. watches, wallets, bags, and small valuables. Everything was closely examined by the amateur jewelers. The jewelry, wallets and money went directly into a separate bag. Obviously, these held more immediate value.
The luggage, sight unseen, was loaded into a truck that had appeared secretly on the dark jungle road. Once all was stored for future consideration, passengers were told “Stay in line. Follow us. Do not be stupid.” With that the three guards pushed and shoved first the men down the isolated road into the dense jungle vegetation.
Balas had been manipulated in some way to the front of the line. The others followed reluctantly. They feared any more of the forest’s secrets as armed guards hit and pushed him forward. It was difficult to imagine the men and life stories that were hidden behind masks. Somehow, at 24 years old he was much younger than his new masters. However, the doctor felt a little responsible for each of the bus passengers, their destinies, their fears, their physical conditions.
It was a long walk. The truck gone ahead had unsuccessfully pressed down most of the overgrowth. It was definitely a road traffic used. When approaching a fork in the road, new guards advanced with guns raised. “Men left, women to the right.” Within seconds, Balas felt a very strong fear for what might happen to women and children unprotected now separated from their stronger husbands, friends or siblings. He realized he could not prevent attacks by armed guerrillas, but could only imagine the utter powerlessness they must be feeling.
The walk was very short now. Only the voices of the fighters now came from both roads. The voices grew quieter but still distinct in the silent forest. As the group came to a clearing, Balas saw how easily his life could be dispersed, and how difficult it would be for help find them. Help. The idea had barely entered his mind. So far he had only thought how they would help themselves.
The camp had several tents of various sizes. And a wooden shed. Passengers were imprisoned in the bigger tent full of cots and blankets. All were in their new home awaiting only to be informed of their fate. The guard who entered the bus, now entered the tent. With just a gesture, other guards moved quickly to each of the men putting plastic pulls on the clenched fists of each person. The zip of the cuffs was heard over and over again until the guards came to the end of the rows of cots.
For the first time it became clear that there were only nine men jailed. Balas estimated their ages 30-50. He figured they were doing local business or traveling between Medellin and Bogota for business. Perhaps some were in search of work. Now he saw that he was the youngest.
“We need to question each of you. We will not tolerate your lies or failure to cooperate with us. You will help us, or be executed. Your freedom depends on your cooperation.” As he spoke the guard at his shoulder looked up and down the lines, and stopped several times at Balas. They were strong men. Their voices intolerant. Not the kind of people Balas frequently met in Medellin or rural hospitals.
The guerrillas left the room for a smaller tent, leaving two men to guard the prisoners. Wallets were opened and examined for money, credit cards, bank cards, identification … anything that would suggest the net worth of a person. Once it has been determined, they returned to the larger tent, where the passengers were sitting on the edges of beds with hands cuffed together behind them.
“You! Come with me!” No doubt that was not a request. The older man in a light colored casual dress hurriedly got up and walked to where the guerrilla captain stood. The captain, his aide and the businessman disappeared almost as fast as the words were spoken. Everyone looked at each other. Some were concerned. Others bewildered. No one spoke. Fear was the only common denominator that everyone shared.
In the quietness one expected only to hear the loud voices of the guerrillas. In contrast, above the soft rustle of the wind and the birds, we heard the screams and sobs of women from somewhere beyond our reach. And then it stopped. Suddenly. The silence was shattered. A bullet barked uncomfortably close. The voice “I will not ask you again!” was definitely the captain. The screams that followed were punctuated by attempts to comply with the voice.
The guerrillas had discovered his employer, his home, his wife’s name and children. Not one of them would be safe unless he gave his bank account pin numbers, and gave U.S. $ 10,000 in Colombian pesos within three days in a specific place. His wife was notified by the businessman’s own cellphone. There was only one moment of interaction between them. And some concern about how he would rescue them.
Pushed into the tent, stumbling and crying, the business man covered his face as he returned to his bed. “Three days! Or this man is dead! “They stopped and examined the tent. “You!” and they selected another that looked like a businessman.
For hours this continued. From the rich to the most unlikely. No one heard the questioning. Only the sound of a gun shot, the roar of a threat. The demand for further information. And a sobbing, humiliated body lying on the floor in front of us.
As the forest grew dark, everyone wondered when would this end. There were three passengers not yet questioned. Balas was one of them. He prayed for morning. The guards arrived. They looked around again, “Balas! Now! “He got up and walked the 2 meters to the guards who seemed to lift him off the ground and take him by the elbows. It was dark. Where were they going. The wooden shed with a faint light that alone shone in the window. The door opened to show the captain and his aide. He was held in the air, and then thrown to the ground.
“Please, I have nothing. I’m just a young student who practices medicine. “You have more! We’ll tell you what you have”, said the still masked captain’s voice. “You have a mother. You have a bank. And you have work.” There was no point looking up, Balas knew there was nothing he could do. “And that is your name, Balas?”
A hand suddenly came down and grabbed his head by the hair. “What else you got?” His head was just inches from the dirt floor, he felt the cold metal silver barrel of a gun. They pressed it hard against the side of the head. He tried to see the gun, but was pushed down again hard against the floor. The weapon was still against him. “What do you think you will see, you stupid boy?” The aide grabbed his arm and rolled him on his back. He pulled Balas up and let him lean against the wall as he watched them dial his mother’s telephone. With the weapon against him, pointed at his forehead, he repeated the words they commanded.
“Mama, They’re going to kill me. We have to give them money mama. U.S. $4,000 in three days.” The Captain snatched the cell, while the aid again forced Balas into the ground. In his typical brusqueness, the captain demanded the money to be delivered to a city not far from her home. He has three days to die. “No, I can not take less. Sell what you must, or he dies!” From the prone position on the floor with the gun to his head, Balas knew that his mother did not have that money. He knew he had no more than three days old. And wept.
The aide was not sympathetic. There was a whispered conversation. Balas did not move. The aide’s rough hands hit his head. “Shut up!” “You are nothing. You are fucking worthless.” Hearing these words, Balas was slowly realizing that the two men were dropping their jeans. They lifted his aching body to a table, his hands still cuffed behind his back. The fear faded from his face. In its place, horror transformed him. An unimaginable torture. An unwanted pain. And then, with a final thrust from behind, a force so hard that the gun hurt his teeth, it was over. “Balas! You have no life! You have three days! You will never see your mother. Then you’re one of us.”
The gun fully accomplished its demand. Their voices certainly expressed their relentless determination. As the gun was removed, the pain did not leave. He slowly turned his head to the side. The two men had done their will. And within minutes, the two were gone. The room was locked. Balas fell asleep on the hard table in a dark shed.
Unable to rub the salt tears from his eyes, he could only continue to sob. He had gone from healer to patient, fearful of the physical terror of guerrilla force. What had he done? His mother would have to sell the house he grew up in to pay a ransom that would never secure his freedom.
Time stopped. Darkness and the continuous crying of women made him feel so numb and helpless that he could not bear the thought of what was happening in the rotten world around him. What time was it? Was it a whole night? The screaming did not stop, just changed pitch.
The chain on the door shook as a key found its way in the lock. The door opened and the guards entered. Once again the door closed. “Your mama says you can not pay!” “We will be paid!” the voice said menacingly.
Balas was grabbed by his shoulders from behind, his hands trapped beneath him. Hands, not his own, opened and dropped his jeans. “Hmmmm. This payment can be better than we thought.” He tore off Balas’ shirt and covered the table with it. With Balas again on his back, the aide grabbed the candle that lit the room. Hot wax burned a path from his stomach to his chest. Then changed direction. Each drop sought to find a more sensitive destination. The pain was unbearable. But a hand on his mouth prevented him from screaming. The intruder enjoyed inflicting such pain that he took off his mask while dropping his jeans.
Was this a vulgar attempt to make him feel naked and helpless before the world because he was the prisoner? There is nothing rational in the mind of an abusive personality he thought. His only salvation was in his acceptance and compliance with the powerful. He surrendered once again to the pain. How could he fight the driving force of the man behind him who would never allow him to forget.
“Tomorrow you will take us to the bank! Do not even think of being stupid!” With these words, the door opened and closed. The chains were locked again. Soon the night settled around him. Naked. In pain. Sick to his stomach.
Despite his discomfort and fear, the morning could not come fast enough. The idea of going to the bank brought a sense of comfort and civil treatment. Well, at least he would be fully clothed and with the other waiting passengers.
The doors opened just as they had closed. With the sound of chains, the sound of the lock, and the creaking of the door. The captain stood there. Tall. Masked. Wide-eyed. “Release his hands! Dress him! Blindfold him! “He looked at his assistant with a look that said:” You!” And in the same breath, “Animal!” This was all Balas could see. And all he was going to see for the next hour. He dressed, nodded consent, and was blindfolded. His hands cuffed in front of him. Only his ears could tell the conditions of others.
It should have been anticipated. There was little heard from the women. Just chattering birds. Quiet commands and comments from the guerrillas, the creaking of invisible branches underfoot, everything was recognized. He imagined that it was early morning. Probably 5am. But, with so little sleep, in conditions so uncomfortable, he could not be sure.
His head was pushed down so he could get into a small car. Probably no more than two others and a driver. The captain’s voice in the front seat said he would only have a chance to withdraw all his money from the ATM. If it failed, there would be no need for him to worry any more about nightmares in the shed.
The conversations soon changed to the other prisoners. He sensed that each would be executed once the banks had been cleared and ransoms paid. He wondered if others had seen the faces of the guerrillas? If the poor had already been executed?
He was aware of being in town only because of the unusual stop and go of the car. The roads were better paved. The turns less dramatic. He remembered his only chance. And then the blindfold was released. Both he and the guard next to him climbed out of the car. A jacket covered his hand to hide his weapon. They were parked in front of the ATM. The walk was short. There was no one on the street. “All of it” murmured the guard. After the guard had inserted bank card, Balas entered his PIN number. He retrieved U.S. $4,000 in Colombian pesos which the happy guard immediately secured. Then he returned to the car with the receipt showing only minimal change was in the bank.
‘You’re a good boy. I’m sure we can work together, doctor!” The certainty in the voice of the tone of the captain, failed to pacify him. “Everything hangs on mama, my boy! If she delivers, you have a lifetime of opportunities.” Then as suddenly, as the car turned back from whence it came, he turned to the guard” Put the damned blinders on him, Maria!”
With the blindfold in place, and the jacket removed from covering his hands, Balas tried to settle in the seat. The guard next to him, a little annoyed at being barked at, shoved the hidden hand gun sharply into his ribs to remind him who was the boss. The weapon remained pressed tightly against him all the way back. Each bounce and turn only more painful.
Apparently they were back in camp. Voices said another prisoner was ready to be escorted to one of the various banks. The same driver and the same car would be used. The only indication that the passenger was there was when he hit his head against the car. It remained an almost impossible task to determine how long his own journey was from the table and back to the floor.
When the car pulled away, Balas knew he was being taken to the wood shed. Why? What made him the person marked for this form of torture, while others, supposedly, still shared each others company. At this point, he could again here crying women. But now the guerrilla harassment could be heard clearly, and it had became more impatient.
Now they were asking for more bank accounts of husbands and telefone numbers. There was no concern for either privacy or security. Only statements of satisfaction now. And the cries of other women later forced to watch the same fate.
The realization that there was a problem was not universally perceived. It was a text message for one to a friend in the United States, to another a friend in Medellin. It slowly became apparent there were no messages today for Balas. While he understood where he was, no one understood why he had not communicated with anyone.
This would soon change. A call to the cell phone of Balas’ mother immediately awakened everyone to the fact that she had been contacted to pay $ 4,000 in ransom. She wept profusely on the phone to please hear the news from his voice, of his fears, and his captors. Within an hour, a plan was conceived. She had already raised half the ransom by selling all the plumbing in her house. A mother of 80 years was willing to live without kitchen and bathroom to save the life of a child of 24 years old. The other 50% would come from the United States. Local police were secretly informed of the meeting. A friend in Medellin would receive the money and deliver it personally by motorcycle. From the moment he received the money, he would be 20 minutes late for delivery. Panic and fear were everywhere. A dark sense of humor was the only thing keeping hope alive in an arena full of impossibilities.
Time marked the distance. Telephone was the only way to close the distance with mama. In the afternoon of the third day she received another call from the guerrillas. “You got the money? We will not hesitate to kill him!” She promised the money and asked an additional 30 minutes for it to arrive. The house was darker than a typical home. No telephone wires or police facilities. There was no direct public access to the town. Again, the police were notified.
The guerrillas call came at 1:00pm. The money would be transferred at 2:00pm at the earliest. The motorcyclist had to get the money to travel from Medellin to Mama’s house (about 1.5 hours on mountain roads) and then go to the location turnover by 4:00pm.
In haste, the motorcycle sped down the road. It was not well marked. No obstructions. But the rise and the curves of the road were treacherous. The forest that constantly lined the road permitted some light. But somehow, this narrow piece of road, turning as it did, always allowed a narrow beam of light to guide the rider to his destination.
It was slow and painful to the rider. Every mile was a question time. What obstacles must still be overcome? Even when he reached his destination, Would mama get to the designated location on time? Will they really release Balas as promised?
Mama sat peacefully in the only chair left in a house of bare bones. The telephone beside her. There were no relatives to call. Nobody could offer any help more than she had already asked. It was not just that every heart feels the pain of a mother pondering the possibilities of all that mattered in life – her son. He was still a child. Still hoping to graduate. Working to bring life and light to others.
She wound the clock that sat by the telephone. The cyclist did not come for another 10 minutes at best. She rose slowly. There was nothing else to do in the room. She walked steadily, but slowly to the door of her son’s bedroom. It had never been changed. His bed waiting his tired body after long bus rides home. Memories flooded the room with distant football games, the gardener he had worked for, the doctor who mentored him, the priest who had supported. All were gone now, but the memories remained.
The metallic sound of coughing rose and fell silent again. Within seconds there was a knock at the door. Lifted by some indefatigable spirit, which led her to the door, she greeted the masked and helmeted cyclist as enthusiastically as her son’s dearest friend. She invited him to her poor home, she offered the only chair that remained, she accepted his warm and friendly words, she even shared a hug that was perhaps a little closer and a little longer than new friends normally share. He joked wryly, but laughter was good.
As she apologized for not having a cold drink for him after his long journey, Juan opened the curtain to allow more light into the room. There was not much light to find in this small community. Still a sliver of light drew its line across the floor. Juan. And mama. They were the only names needed.
Briefly they discussed the instructions and advice they were given. And then, in unison, they agreed it was time to go. Mama turned to close the door. She looked at the picture of the Sacred Heart. She followed the beam of light that led to the naked kitchen. She looked for a moment at the door of the bedroom ajar. And shut the door.
Climbing on the bike behind Juan, she grabbed his waist and pulled him close. Both leaned toward each other as the motorcycle slowly pulled away from the house. Both leaned forward as they drove into the future by an unknown path. While it may have come from any number of different locations, both held within them the hope that Balas was safe.