When Guerrilla Groups Act on Stage With Their Enemies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
If fierce enemies can appear on stage together, there might be hope for the rest of us.
By Alejandra Cuéllar
A man with a prosthetic leg struts on stage, then a dozen more men and women join, dressed in white robes, taking turns shouting about the Colombian war experience: “They were killing teachers in the countryside. The first time I was trained to use a gun I fell over. I was 13, I went away to join a paramilitary group so my sister didn’t have to.”
An older woman walks upstage. “I’m a mother and I’ve lost my son, have you seen him?” she begs the audience. “Have you seen Carlos Alberto?” She asks again hopefully. Silence follows and the actors disappear offstage.
Victus is like no other play (or acting group) in Colombian history — mainly because all the actors are either victims or perpetrators of a 50-year war. About half of the ensemble were once members of a guerrilla, paramilitary or state troop, and the rest are victims of sexual and/or political violence. The play, directed by the renowned Colombian actress Alejandra Borrero, is a raw collage of recollections of war where every actor gets help from the group in recreating their most vivid war experiences.
Like rape, kidnappings and forced abortions. Like a child’s first time in combat, or being ensnared in the drug trade.
Four actors crawl upstage and wrap white fabric around their fingers methodically, picking at the air to mimic the repetitive act of collecting coca leaves. More join from behind and stir an imaginary barrel filled with gasoline. Others follow suit and snort lines from the backs of those stirring. It’s the cocaine cycle — a perfectly oiled machine that many of the actors participated in.
Former paramilitary actors work alongside former guerrilla members, once mortal enemies, to narrate what happened during the war years.
I watch the face of an older woman sniffing the cocaine — her grimaces remind me of drug users you can spot around Bogotá. Later, one of the actors tells me that she used to be an addict on the streets. With each performance, she recreates this piece of her history.
Ferley Ruiz, another of the actors, was recruited into the paramilitary forces — a highly stigmatized right-wing armed group known for its cruelty — when he was 12. On the Victus stage, former paramilitary actors work alongside former guerrilla members, once mortal enemies, to narrate what happened during the war years. “It wasn’t an easy process at first,” Ruiz tells me. “We come from completely different backgrounds and had opposing political views.” In the beginning, there were fights that threatened to end the play, he explains, but they came up with rules around expressing disagreement and “worked and worked until we became like a family.”
Borrero started the group as an experiment in 2016 during the peace process negotiations, when FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) — the largest guerrilla group in the country — decided to demobilize through a carefully crafted peace agreed with the state, a historic triumph for Colombia. She thought it was imperative to show that it was possible to mend broken relationships and prove that enemies could forgive one another and create a new narrative.
Since then, Victus, which has been performed in schools and theaters across the country, as well as for military audiences, has left a mark — and a lot of tears, according to the producer, Ernesto Sánchez Toro. Now, the message behind the play seems to have gained new urgency as Colombia endures another difficult time.
Under a new right-wing government that has been ambivalent about peace, getting state funding for the play — a vital source of support for theater in Colombia — has become more and more challenging. In recent weeks two heads of FARC decided to resume armed combat, eliciting fears of a possible return to war. Even though 90 percent of the ex-combatants who demobilized remain in civil society, acts such as Victus serve as powerful reminders of what can be achieved when adversaries decide to put down their arms and work together.
At the end of every performance, there is a Q&A with the actors. “What do you feel when you perform this?” someone from the audience asks the group. “When we were able to forgive each other, we realized that the person next to you is also a part of you,” says Milena, an ensemble member. “We are the coming together of an entire nation, separated by class, by gender, political views. We are proof that reconciliation is possible.”
Go There: Victus
- Dates: September 23 at Teatro Municipal Cali, Colombia. More shows are planned for future dates. Check the website for details.
- Ticket prices: Entry is free, but audience members must arrive 15 minutes before the show starts.
- Alejandra Cuéllar, OZY Author Contact Alejandra Cuéllar