Martha Elena Llano Serna tells her harrowing story of surviving sexual assault and connects the dots between sexual violence and the drug trade in Colombia.
by Martha Elena Llano Serna
She remembers the hand, missing all but two fingers, moving over her body. As she was raped over her husband’s dead body, she could not feel anything. Not fear, not hate, not pain. She just focused on those missing fingers and tried to remember where she had seen them before. Later, her rapist’s hand would be the clue that would lead to his conviction. My friend would eventually learn that this man was hired to kill her and her husband over a land dispute. She was raped because two families never knew their land boundaries. It destroyed our peace forever.
Months after my friend faced her hell, I faced mine. One night after breast-feeding my child, I stood up from my hammock and found myself face to face with an armed gangster. This gangster and his partners wrestled my two visitors and me to the floor, where we endured the humiliating reality of being groped by assailants.
I tried to understand the situation. How could this happen? Why? What had I done? What had I not done? I embraced my child with all my love and compassion. And I remember asking the man who was all over me, “What has your mother done to you? What happened to you in your childhood? Who did this to you?”
My husband came down from our open living room to find this gangster trying to rape me. My body was trembling. I closed my eyes and hugged my son close to my body and my soul. When I opened my eyes I saw my husband lying far away from me, his eyes looking into mine. Our eyes stayed locked on each other until my attacker saw the feet of one of his five partners enter the room—and he stopped.
Once the gangsters had what they wanted, everything became the usual amazing night. Dark, frogs singing, the sound of waves, and our slow breathing. Very slow as if our hearts were going to stop. But they did not.
The men who attacked us had come to our house in the rain forest to find a motor boat—likely to move drugs to another country. Drugs are a global problem, but we in Colombia are facing the terrible consequences.
I was a silent woman for a while after this experience. My husband and I never spoke about it. We talked until late that night, but only about material things. And neither of us ever touched that night again—as if it never happened.
I haven’t told many people about this. Not my mom, my brother, or my friends. Just yesterday, I told my partner about that night. He embraced me and we both cried to relieve my pain, his pain, our friends’ pain. Those who read this story may have someone close to them who has suffered like this. We cried for all of you who read our stories and suffer in silence, for all of you who are trying as we are to change this world we live in.
Today I can barely stand my partner over my body. I cannot help the feeling and memory of that night. I have tried many times to erase it, but this incident is buried deep inside my soul.
As I write about this for the first time, I am discovering wounds very deep inside my heart. Wounds that are painful, but willing to be healed. Wounds in my chest that could silence me—as if I am the guilty one. I am not the guilty one. Nor are the others who have been violated—my friend, countless women and children, our own planet.
Rape has been used by men to silence women, to silence men, to silence kids, to silence history and to repeat it. I have to stop being silent. As I write and let myself feel, I am returned to a sacred place. When we speak, we make this planet a better home. When we talk, we change history. When we come out of our silence and speak out without fear, shame, or hate, we take away pain.
I don’t know why I stayed silent so long. I thought forgetting was a way to forgive, but it is not. I forgave but I cannot forget as I watch women face, every day, the same history. There are different reasons but the same old strategy. A silent weapon. A powerful weapon. . . .
Violence in my country is often linked to the drug trade. The world needs to know that the drug trade creates and encourages rapists, guerrillas, kidnappers, and gangsters. Every time someone does cocaine at a party, that act could be linked to a kid being raped, a mother losing a child to murder, a husband whose wife is forced to work as a prostitute, a young child killed by a landmine, an indigenous group displaced forever from their sacred land, a journalist disappearing for advocating drug legalization.
Colombia is a huge country with a coastline that touches two oceans, making it strategic territory. For more than 500 years, we have been extremely vulnerable to illegal drugs and illegal business. With no education and few opportunities, young people are easily recruited as "mulas" by the drug trade. Rape is the cost of being a woman in my country, and our people are facing an increase in prostitution as more tourists travel to third world countries for paid sex. Poor people give these tourists what they want: their bodies, their souls, their feelings, their hopes, their peace.
According to International Narcotics Control Board estimates, Colombia produced 430 metric tons of cocaine in 2008. This trade is tearing apart our country. During 2010, 810 people died from conflicts, 117 people were killed by landmines, 557 were injured, and more than 210 were kidnapped. Out of a population of 43.7 million people, almost 20 million live in poverty. Seven journalists were killed in 2010, 470,000 kids are abused every year and 35 of them are raped every day in my country. During the last eight years of the drug war, 94,000 women were raped. My friend is part of those statistics. I am not, even though twice I have escaped being raped. The pain of these experiences—the way they change a person’s life—make the official numbers seem small.
Developed countries need to reform their drug policies to address the root of this global problem. Before it was legalized, the trade in whiskey fueled crime. Today, it is drugs. Until developed countries put drug legalization on their agendas, violence against women, children, and families in third world countries will continue, hidden under this huge and illegal industry.
In the global drug trade, there is more than one side of the coin. If everybody keeps looking only at the side facing them, there can be no hope, no future, no peace in my country. I want to tell people from other countries to come closer, turn this coin in your hands, so you can feel deeply how we feel, so you can see how drugs create violence for us every day.
Women in Colombia have been silenced from the inside out. Our own families are not built for women to speak, to write, to be heard. They are not built to cry over our painful stories. Our stories are not believed.
What happens in Colombia is part of the United States, Canada, Africa, Antarctica, the world. It is time to end our global silence. International readers are very brave to listen to our stories. I feel an immense gratitude for readers who could ignore our stories, but choose not to. It encourages me to speak out and to continue writing, no matter how painful it is.
My voice is back, and it is making my life lighter, solidifying my relationships. It is cleaning out my heart of its pain. As I speak out, I am able to feel again. I can touch. I can see. I can smell my beautiful son and my forest. I can taste life. Speaking out has taught me the real meaning of resilience. It saved my life, and it will save my country and our planet.
By: Martha Elena Llano Serna