Boston manhunt evokes memories of Colombian terror

The sound of police cruisers driving hastily on the streets with their bright lights flashing during the first hours of April 19 disrupted the peace of what is typically a quiet neighborhood outside of Boston. My neighborhood. The city that welcomes women and men from around the world as students, professionals and tourists, a city that is home to several hundreds of thousands, had earlier that week experienced the effects of terrorism during the Boston Marathon. 

Was there another attack? Why so much commotion in our neighborhood? Did the suspects live near us? Should we wake up our 2-year-old son and hide? These were questions that my wife and I asked. The questions rapidly conflated with our more existential reflections during the week as we tried to make sense of the irrational actions that had resulted in the loss of life and the suffering of many the Monday before. 

It was a quiet Friday. Strangely quiet, I must say. One of the bombing suspects had somehow made it to Watertown, Mass., and was hiding somewhere in an area only four minutes away from our house. We did not move during the day. Neither did the neighbors. All we could see through the windows was the reflection of television screens in the living rooms of the houses around us. He could be near. He could harm someone. It was a strangely quiet Friday that revived feelings and memories of my years growing up in Colombia. 

I was a child when drug lord Pablo Escobar declared war against the Colombian government and was engaged in an all-out conflict with other drug cartels. Guerrilla groups exercised their power against the government with acts of terrorism that dramatically affected the lives of many people. Paramilitary groups and common violence added to what for many Colombians amounted to living in a permanent state of terror. Although my family and I were not directly affected by the conflict — we did not lose relatives, yet we lost friends and knew people who had lost loved ones — we all were indirectly touched by the reality of living in that permanent state of terror. We still remember. We carry those feelings, the constant awareness that life is precious and fragile, the certainty that evil is real. Things have changed in Colombia in many ways, but the memories remain. 

Among the many conversations I have had after the Boston events — those with immigrant families, neighbors, friends and students — seem to strike a special chord. Many of them have experienced something similar to the feeling of living in a permanent state of terror at some point in their lives. I have heard stories about life during the civil war in El Salvador, the tensions in Israel, the turbulent times of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and the conflict in Northern Ireland, among others. 

The news coverage and the reflections about the Boston events have not paid much attention to the stories of many immigrants and our children who have experienced similar events in the past. In listening to these stories and reflections, a unique sense of solidarity seems to be emerging. It is the solidarity of those who have suffered pain and have seen evil in our lives. It is the solidarity of those who carry the scars of experiences that we hoped not to ever live again — much less in the United States. It is the solidarity of those who are frequently perceived as foreigners, sometimes with suspicion because of the way we act and look, but who also suffer with the rest of Boston and the country. Boston is our home. The memories we carry are now part of the fabric of what makes us one city, one nation.

Hosffman Ospino is assistant professor of pastoral theology and religious education at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and is a national consultant for OSV.

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