Why do Rivers Cry?

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by Caro Quirán
© Eliana Aguilar
©Alfonso Espada

The Tears of the Colombian Rivers and the Thousand Faces of Columbus

I come from one of the richest countries in the world. In regards to the number of bird and orchid species, it has no competition on the globe. It ranks second in amphibians, butterflies, plants, and freshwater fish species. The rivers give birth to life every moment, as if resisting, in an act of sublime rebellion, the violence of a country like mine. It is called Colombia and you know it for different reasons than the ones I am mentioning now. As if those records were not enough, Colombia is third in reptiles and types of palm trees and number four in biodiversity of mammals. There are species that, despite having grown up there, I have never seen in my life. The abundance and flavours of fruits are unparalleled, and that can be felt with all one’s senses from every corner. We also produce some of the best coffee in the world. The winner of the 10th Edition of the “Best Coffee of Cauca” auction was bought by Viennese entrepreneurs 1 just a couple of weeks ago. Colombia is not a diverse country, it is a megadiverse! Listed as one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries thanks to the Andean zone and the Amazon, it is home to most of the world's moors, which is one of the reasons why the rest of the world is still breathing.

The soils of my country are blessed with every idea of paradise, but the waters of its rivers also mourn the death of those who disappeared during the armed conflict that has permeated our lives for more than half a century. Colombia is home not only to a unique ecosystem in the world, but also to those who have guarded it for millenia, putting their chests to the bullets while defending the land, the humans and all species’ rights. Between January 2020 and October 2021 there have been 77 massacres in which 279 social leaders have been assassinated 2. Yes, we also lead in those kinds of records. It is the country with the most murders of environmental leaders, ahead of Mexico and the Philippines 3

Colombians are some of the warmest people I have ever met, the most supportive, the most resilient, some of the most spontaneous and strongest. I am frequently amazed at their ability to keep smiling despite the chaos and poverty into which their rulers have plunged them. Colombia ranks 92nd among the 180 countries perceived to have the highest levels of corruption in the world 4, with presidents incapable of protecting the public resources of a country mired in the violence and cruelty, sown since 1492 by Christopher Columbus, who dismembered anyone who posed a threat to his system. 

Once upon a time in South America, a boy was caught stealing wheat. Men under Columbus's command had his ears and nose cut off; he was subsequently shackled, enslaved. There is also the story of a woman who said that Columbus was low class, most likely referring to his humanity. Columbus's brother, Bartholomew, ordered her tongue to be cut out, and also to be humiliated by tying her to a donkey and parading her naked through the streets. Bartholomew was congratulated by his brother for defending his name and the sponsoring kingship of his expedition 5. The practice of dismemberment was inherited from colonizers, such as King Leopold II of Belgium who ordered cutting off the hands of enslaved Congolese who did not complete the harvest quota. The famous Antwerp Hands chocolates have been linked to the cruel history of the enslavement of the Congolese people and can still be bought on the market 6. In some colonized and enslaved countries like mine, this practice is still enforced. The colonial traumas we carry as a society have been learned by observation because the most effective way to teach is by example, and what you don't heal will haunt you. Human barbarism was inherited from the colonization and enslavement of our native peoples and has been mutating into governments led by tyrants ever since. 

Often in unconscious ways, we have been repeating the same story over and over again. We were told events that are far from the reality the colonists encountered. As frustrating as it may seem, it is the story that is still being told in many local schools. Revealing the truth is life-threatening on this side of the shore. Indigenous cultures lived in sophisticated systems incomparable to the barbarism of Europe at the time. Indigenous peoples lived in egalitarian social structures and had vast knowledge in mathematics and engineering and, in fact, they were who created the domestication and genetic manipulation of plants through impressive technology that survives to this day 7. Mesoamerican native people invented corn, for example, which is still an important part of the diet in many parts of the world, whose form was emulated in the best indigenous architectural constructions. 

The Spaniards came looking for gold and their brazen greed still runs in the blood of those who will never understand that El Dorado 8 is not the gold of our rivers nor the emeralds that symbolize power and immortality from our mountains. Fura is the second most valuable emerald in the world, with approximately 11,000 carats. Named after an indigenous legend, Fura wept intensely over the infidelities of her lover Tena, until the sun turned her tears into mountains of emeralds. Tena is the most valuable emerald in the world, not for its carats but for its green intensity. Both emeralds were found in the Colombian mountains of Muzo in Boyacá.

Oil, the black gold, has also been brutally extracted from lands that formerly belonged to the indigenous people and we cannot ignore that it is still one of Colombia's main sources of income along with coffee. Math is not my focus, but I fail to accept that in a country with a GDP of 1.002 trillion pesos in 2020 for 50.372.000 registered inhabitants and wealth extracted from its water sources, gold, coal, fauna, flora, copper, iron, emeralds, and more, over half of the population goes to bed hungry. 560.000 children suffer from chronic malnutrition and more than 200 children died in 2020 alone 9. Those who live facing this daily threat are—of course—mainly children belonging to indigenous populations. It is no secret that global advertising campaigns have been led by well-known foundations and corporations to sustain the idea that our continent is poor and underdeveloped. Millions of dollars and euros have been spent camouflaging the new colonization and modern plunder of our resources when it is clear to me that we do not need any kind of charity like in a bad white savior film. It is indeed the West and their capitalist systems serving the most perverse multinationals in history who need our resources to give value to their currencies. The euro, the dollar, the pound sterling, and all Western bank accounts would be worthless and empty if it was not for the resources that those countries have looted for millennia in the continents they have colonised and enslaved through the very economic system and the wrongly named “civilisation and development” that is starving our people to death.

What would things be like if the image of Colombia and neighbouring countries were in accordance with their reality? If the abundant lands and its richness were what you see in the mass media? If the unequal distribution of wealth were to become evident? It would not be so easy to obtain its resources. Nor would it be so cheap. It would mean the systematic destabilization of the Western colonial system and the world we have created up to today. But no system, however glorious it may seem, lasts forever. It has taken billions of years for the earth to form and its infinite knowledge allows it to heal when removing what puts it out of balance. Sooner or later.

They Sowed Fear, We Grew Wings10

The resistance of our peoples is a natural process of survival. What is formed in the dark under maximum pressure ends up as a precious stone. We have learned to resist and withstand pressure for centuries to the point that it is built into the memory of our DNA. The leaders of our struggles who have sown the spirit of freedom and, thus, the spirit of revolution, would have made room for all of us in our country's great places. If there is something palpable in today's Colombian reality, it is that jadedness fills the streets with marchers who come from the countryside, from the indigenous reservations, from the classrooms and make the ground tremble with their shouts and songs. Although many of us will probably not live to see the aftermath, the structures of capitalist societies are collapsing and in the midst of all this here you are, reading these lines today in the epicenter of chaos, collapsing columns that were built on a foundation of abuse and destruction from the very beginning. The trembling might be showing in your personal realities, because we are part of the whole. As above, so below.

Jeisson Garcia, Cristian Alexis Moncayo Machado, Charlie Parra Banguera, Michel David Reyes Pérez, Brian Gabriel Rojas López, Marcelo Agredo Inchima, Miguel Ángel Pinto Molina, Dadimir Daza Correa, Einer Alexander Lasso Chará, Maria Jovita Osorio, Edwin Villa Escobar, Kevin Yair González Ramos, Jesús Flórez, Rosemberg Duglas, Yinson Andrés Angulo Rodríguez, Santiago Andrés Murillo, Brayan Niño, Andrés Rodríguez, Jefferson Alexis Marín Morales, Santiago Moreno Moreno, Kevin Antoni Agudelo Jiménez, Joan Nicolás Guerrero, José Emilson Ambuila, Harold Antonio Rodriguez, Wenceslao Solis, Javier Uribe, Jhon Wainer Escobar Marin, Héctor Morales, Elvis Vivas, Dylan Fabriany Barbosa León, Daniel Alejandro Zapata, Lucas Villa Velásquez...Lucas Villa. These are the first 33 names of a list of 80 victims of the homicidal violence that has been carried out since April 28, 2021, when Colombian people began a national strike against the neoliberal policies of the misgovernment of Ivan Duque Márquez, the current president of Colombia who is supposed to be the continuation of power of former president and ex-convict Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

I stopped on the list when I named Lucas Villa, because his was one of the most mediatic murders of the last national strike. Many Colombians watched Lucas and his friend being shot from a private pickup truck live on social media. Lucas resisted in a critical state for several days and despite the continuous internet outages, the country lived to witness his yet unsolved murder. Little pieces of us die every time with each killing. We all saw Lucas and many others die, but at least, in the midst of the misfortune, their families had the certainty of a farewell at the cemetery. That was not the story of Brayan Arias. Brayan left one day from his home in Popayán, Cauca, after a month of the national strike. He never returned, there were no clues. Days passed, months went by and the only thing that was seen on social networks was the poster with his photo and the claimant question of his family: “Where are you, son?” His family's anguish dissipated last October when his decomposing body was finally claimed. Brayan's body was found floating in the Cauca river already in June, like hundreds of others that have been thrown into the water, so that they are never found.

How is it possible to close a wound that opens up day by day in the hope of finding a disappeared relative? How can we stop looking for them without first exhausting everything in our power to bring them out of the silence in which war, weapons, and machetes have immersed them? When people disappear, thousands of questions remain unanswered and hope takes the floor every time the sun goes down and every morning that dawns. Hope is also here to witness the dying of a seed and its transformation to the next form its life takes. Then it is not possible to mourn, it is not possible to heal completely, and there is nothing more suitable for the perpetuation of death policies than a society weakened in its heart.

The armed conflict in Colombia has been going on for more than 70 years and is based on the poor distribution of land and the lack of political participation of sectors that armed themselves to fight to obtain by force their rights. The conflict has greatly increased by drug trafficking backed by the best client of all times: the United States. The war began between the two leading political parties of the 19th century, the liberals and the conservatives. I still remember the noise of what sounded like bullets and my grandmother automatically saying "they killed him for being a liberal!". Opposing the conservative and mostly established system was a matter of life or death, but in Colombia, conflict is at the core of our history, regardless of the party or the color of the struggle. Politics move at different paces in a rhythm that seems to be that of the hammock party, from left to right and vice versa, according to the convenience of the highest bidder of the moment or where fear prevails the most.

The plurality of actors is what makes the Colombian conflict so difficult to resolve. For more than half a century, other forces and other armed sectors have been emerging that have encouraged violence in obedience to larger forces. The social gap in some sectors of Colombia is practically unbridgeable. Despite the constitutional reforms of the 1990s that gave more access to land, and the final signing of the peace agreement between the government of Manuel Santos and the FARC 11 in 2016, the presence of multinationals, narcotrafic, and poverty have submerged the country into extreme cruelty. Here people kill for any reason, sometimes the only reason seems to be living. Rivers have never ceased to be cemeteries because of the ease with which the slayers of floating bodies can go unpunished. Later on, the horrible experiences in the countryside began to be transferred to the city. That is one side of the story of the country with the most forced internal displacement in the world 12

The current government has been characterized by its ineptitude and proven records of corruption without any legal consequences. This misnamed democracy triggered the national strike of 2021, which differed from others in its magnitude. Like a great tremor, this time the earth was shaken by the footsteps of thousands of marchers in different cities of the country and the solidarity shown by people from all over the world, which made evident a non-conformism that will not be easy to appease. During the attacks on the demonstrators by the ESMAD 13, many students and protesters lost one of their eyes. The police forces systematically shot at these organs as if trying to blind them to a reality in which they have grown up and which is therefore impossible to ignore. 

After the national civic strike of 1977 and the Bogotazo 14 in 1948, the national strike of 2021 marked a milestone in the history of national protests in Colombia. During the 1980s and 90s, the violence coming from various sectors paralyzed the citizens. But also, so much was stolen during those decades that there was no fear left this time. This year the rage of the Colombian people was and is still felt in the air. The streets were filled with people unwilling to step back despite police intimidation and abuse. We mourned the dead together, others were killed in the midst of mourning and yet there remained strength to continue fighting for the dignity of life. During the 2021 national strike, 508 people were reported missing and more than 300 are still being sought. Most of them were students or young workers, of whom 23 were found murdered. The violence against the civilian population by the police and the ESMAD was recorded and broadcast live in videos on multiple social media accounts, in the desperation of the people trying to narrate what was really happening in contrast to what was being said from the presidency on international channels. In anticipation of the 2022 elections, the protests in Colombia called a truce on the surface. But then the bodies started to float up again on the rivers. Since the 1980s, when violence increased due to drug trafficking and paramilitarism15, Colombian rivers have seen hundreds of whole or mutilated bodies float down their waters. If the rivers of Colombia could speak, they would begin to tell the story in shouts and tears.

During the national strike, the government and even private companies like the chain store Éxito congratulated members of the ESMAD on their “heroic” behaviour during the protests. Bartholomew and Christopher Columbus are alive, this is how their tyranny stays alive these days, this is how they steal our fear and ignite the fire we feel for life, even if we are born in rivers and in rivers we might sail towards our last voyage.


1. Kaffeewerk Handle from Thomas Moosmann.

2. Report on massacres in Colombia during 2020 and 2021 by Indepaz. Last visited on November 15, 2021.

3. Santaeulalia, Inés. Colombia: the world’s deadliest country for environmentalists in 2020. El País online:,marked%20by%20the%20coronavirus%20pandemic. Last visited: September 15, 2021.

4. Results of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2020. Last visited on January 28th, 2021.

5. The Simancas Archives. Discovered by archivist Isabel Aguirre. Valladolid, Spain. 2005

6. For example: ​​ 

7. Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Knopf: United States, 2005

8. When the colonists arrived in New Granada (today's Colombian territory) they heard about a city made of gold and a cacique who covered himself with gold dust to make offerings in a lagoon. The legend about the legendary city of El Dorado originated in the 16th century according to the archives of the Luis Angel Arango Library - Bogotá Colombia. 

9. Report of the Colombian Ministry of Health in 2020. Last visited> November 14, 2020

10. Quintana, Vivir. Song Without Fear. 2020

11. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also called guerrilla warfare.

12. IDMC (Internal Displacement Monitoring Center) data.

13.  Mobile Anti-Riot Squads of the Colombian National Police.

14. Riots in Bogotá after the assassination of Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948.

15. National Centre for Historical Memory. La Radiografía del Fenómeno Paramilitar. Colombia, 2018: “In 40 years, paramilitary groups were responsible for 21,000 killings. Between 1975 and 2015, paramilitary groups and Post-Demobilisation Armed Groups (GAPD) were responsible for 47.09% of the deaths that occurred during the conflict (21,044 victims).” 

Caro Quiránis a writer with a master’s degree from the Fine Arts Academy in Vienna. She studied journalism at the University of Cauca in Colombia and script writing in Barcelona, Spain. She calls her work ARTivism, which often combines topics such as migration, colonization, and cultural heritage with digital media, photography, and text. Co-founder of the Latinoamerican Women's collective Trenza. Lives between Colombia and Austria.