I was traveling with a tall, red-haired, lapsed Catholic, named Warick Frye, who was a journalist from
We stumbled into Las Vueltas somewhat by accident. We had been studying another town some miles away and had heard that the army had mined all of the roads around the town, and that if we left, we’d have to hike over a mountain to get out. It was one of the most terrifying times of my life. A guide volunteered to take the two of us and a supply of food through the woods and up over the mountain. It was cold and wet and windy, and we were not dressed nor in shape for the walk. For two excruciating days we walked, until finally dropping down into what we thought would be the safety of Las Vueltas.
When we arrived, we were exhausted and surprised to find them welcoming us like visiting dignitaries. The mayor and half his council came out to greet us. What they told us was that this “free” village and the land around it had just been sold out from under the populace by the government to an international agribusiness corporation for the planting and export of corn. The village had known of the sale for some time but didn’t believe their government would do such a thing, so they voted to stay and hold their ground. Frye and I arrived, weary and wet, the very day the final deadline passed.
Their hope was that if they sent word back to the capital, that there were internacionistas, “internationals” staying with them, the government might back off on its threats to shut the town down. That’s why they were so happy to see us, but we found out later that their happiness was ill-founded.
For lodging (and perhaps safety) we were escorted to the local Catholic church where we were warmly received by a wonderful nun named Sister Loretta. She said she didn’t want to alarm us, but the strongest, sturdiest building in the compound was the sanctuary, and she had set us up with some cots to stay there. We were alarmed.
She brought us some food, and blankets, and warm hugs. And she wished us God’s peace. “It’s Advent,” she said. “The Christ Child is journeying to us. This time above all other times, pray for peace.” Frye, the atheist, and I the questioner, both asked why? Would it change what might happen tonight? She smiled. “No,” she said. “But it might change your hearts.”
She left, and had barely returned to her own quarters when an incredible explosion went off in the street, and for a moment the sanctuary was bathed in light. It was followed by a second and a third, all huge explosions and flashes of light. We rushed outside and saw a bank not thirty feet away from us in ruins. The sky was dotted with the lights of helicopters swooping down onto the town. The duly elected government of
Frye and I ran back into the church. Our cots were useless. The small church had little furniture and few places for refuge. “Let’s try under the altar,” he said. “You’re the religious one, maybe you can make it do some good.” My religious credentials didn’t seem particularly strong to me at that point but I joined him under it anyway. It was solid thick marble—the only thing in the sanctuary of value or strength. Hanging above it was a giant crucifix, a plaster Jesus on a cross, that stood at least ten feet tall. We crouched under the altar.
For hours we heard the same terrifying pounding in the streets, punctuated by sounds of people running and occasionally crying, and dogs barking. I hid there t overwhelming horror of my life, in a tight ball, occasionally adding my own cries to those of the streets. Later we learned that nearly the entire village fled for the night and hid in creek beds and behind boulders, and that miraculously no one died. But at the time all I could be aware of was the sounds of screaming and running, and the explosions that were endless and relentless. Every moment grew more frightening than the last. The longer the destruction went on, the less likely it seemed that we could possibly live through it.
Once there was a pause for several minutes and we cautiously started to crawl out of our sacred refuge. But just then there was another blinding explosion and the front doors of the church blew off their hinges and into the sanctuary. Window glass shattered and flew across the room. We dove back under the altar just as the giant crucifix came loose from one of its wires and swung down crashing into the marble side. There was another, and the body of Christ on the cross broke free of its wires, and fell down beside us, creating almost another wall of protection from the ravages of the outside, and he stayed there for the rest of the night.
On into the night, in terror and exhaustion, we heard bombs pounding and pounding, shaking the walls of the church when they grew near. Again and again, on and on, endlessly they exploded, as I hid in horror under a marble altar at the plaster feet of Jesus. Not knowing what to do, I shook, and crouched, and cried, and finally prayed. I prayed for a peace that I could never have prayed for in a calm suburb of
And eventually I found myself resting, calming, even in the midst of the endless evil falling around us. In my weariness, I squirmed over to the crucifix and leaned against it. I rested my head in the curve of Jesus’ foot. I put my chin on a plaster spike ringed by a trickle of plaster blood where it entered Jesus’ foot. And I slept.
I don’t know how long I slept, but it was a long, deep, and restful sleep. A sleep driven by a mixture of exhaustion and fear and peace. I somehow felt, in a way that I still can’t explain, that whatever happened, it would all be okay. Finally, sometime into the morning I was aroused. I looked up and saw sunlight shining in through the windows of the sanctuary. Sister Loretta and several others were busy cleaning up the debris. The villagers all across the town were returning to their homes and opening their shops, showing their government that they were not afraid. They were showing that by returning home they had found their peace. Perhaps so had I. Frye was standing over me holding a broom and smiling grandly. “Hey, guy, wake up,” he said. “It’s morning. You’re alive. There’s work to do. It’s Advent.”