Colombian student rebuilds her life following rebel unrest

BFP Magazine


Student rebuilds her life following rebel unrest

By Michael Vásquez,

Friday, July 6, 2007

Taft High School

They came in twos by day and en masse by night.

They targeted towns and infiltrated homes.

They are called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, a rebel group in Colombia that has carried out terrorist attacks in the country since 1966.

For Sandra Palomino, 18, a senior at Clark High School, the memory of the unrest is still vivid.

Palomino's fear-fueled memories of the sad story have been tamed and can now be spoken about.

She shared her story during an interview June 21 in a North Side coffee shop.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations Web site, the FARC believes it represents the rural poor against Colombia's wealthy classes and opposes U.S. interference.

FARC has terrorized the country by kidnapping people and holding them for ransom.

In 2000, the guerrillas had taken over Honda, a small town south of Bogotł░, and forcefully occupied homes.

This was the third time the rebels had come calling.

The first time the FARC came to the hacienda, Palomino's aunt was not home, so they left a note - a note attached to a rock that sailed through a window.

On the FARC's second visit, however, Palomino's aunt was there, but when asked by the two rebels, she denied being the owner of the home, so the guerrillas left. When the rebels left the house, Aunt Rosa called Palomino's mother and asked her what she should do. The reply was simply to get out.

When the family heard the FARC was coming, they hid Palomino's cousin, 9-year-old Mauricio, under the bed, fearing for his life. The FARC always carried guns, so it would be safer to keep him out of sight.

"The FARC had an 'either give us a place to stay or you're dead' mentality," she said.

Palomino said she and her family had heard of others resisting the FARC, but all attempts were futile.

It wasn't long until government soldiers also were knocking on their door.

The government, or the paramilitares, began to ask questions concerning the loyalty of the family and whether Palomino's family was working for the FARC.

Their telephones were bugged, and government soldiers began to come by the hacienda regularly. The family needed a way out.

It took six months to get permission to leave the country and to find airline tickets and a place to live.

In May 2002, Palomino flew to Miami and her mother joined her three to four weeks later.

Two months later, they settled in San Antonio. Her aunt's family moved to another town in Colombia.

"It's horrible that this happened," Palomino said. "I didn't have the opportunity to travel around my country. Having someone tell you that you have to leave your home is sad. I hope nobody has to experience that."

It took some time for Palomino to adapt to her new surroundings.

At first, she did not speak English. All she could say was "hi," "restroom?" and "bye."

Not only did Palomino have to overcome the language barrier, she also had to defeat the constant fear that caused her to look over her shoulder for her first two years in the United States.

She shared her story with just three or four friends. Most of her classmates at Clark - even fellow staffers on school newspaper The Chronicle - do not know of her ordeal.

As time went on, Palomino felt a little more comfortable, but her guard never came down.

Despite her fears, she explained, "Life keeps going. When you face opposition, you have to keep going."

She misses her homeland.

"My first priority is that you have to love your country," Palomino said.

Her friend, Stephanie Mesa, 19, can attest to Palomino's sincere love for her country.

"She's very proud of being Colombian," Mesa said. "She doesn't try to hide it. She also has a lot of Colombian colors and pictures of Colombia around her house, and any time somebody asks her about herself, she'll tell them she is Colombian."

Today, Palomino wears a bracelet with the yellow, blue and red colors of the national flag. A friend gave it to her shortly before she immigrated to the U.S. She has not taken it off since.

Palomino also brought a Colombian flag with her.

One of her life's goals is to travel the world, making her last stop in Colombia.

"Colombia is a great place," Palomino said.

"People think it is ugly because of the drugs and guerilla warfare that is going on, but it is really a great place for tourists as long as you know where you're going."

Four years after leaving her native country, the threatening phone calls and the guerilla warfare are 2,338 miles behind her.

Sometimes Palomino still looks over her shoulder to see if someone is following.

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