First love

Héctor Abad's memoir Forgotten We Shall Be is forthcoming from Old Street Publishing.

Less forgotten as he shall be

One day I had to choose between God and my dad, and I chose my dad. It was the first theological disagreement of my life and I had it with Sister Josefa, the nun who looked after Sol and me, the two youngest. If I close my eyes I can still hear her harsh, thick voice clashing with my childish one:

"Your father is going to go to hell."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because he doesn't attend mass."

"What about me?"

"You're going to go to heaven, because you pray with me every night."

I, who understand things well, but slowly, had spent the whole day imagining myself in heaven without my father (I was leaning out a window in paradise and I could see him down below, pleading for help as he burned in the flames of hell), and that night, when she began to recite the prayers from behind the unicorn screen, I said:

"I'm not going to pray anymore."

"Oh, no?" she challenged me.

"No. I don't want to go to heaven anymore. I don't like heaven if my daddy's not going to be there. I'd rather go to hell with him."

I loved my father with an animal love. I liked his smell, I liked his voice, I liked his hands, his immaculate clothes and the meticulous cleanliness of his body. I felt for my father the same way my friends said they felt about their mothers.

On Monday 24 August 1987, around six-thirty in the morning, a radio station telephoned my father to tell him that his name was on a list of persons under threat in Medellín that said he would be killed. They read him the pertinent paragraph: "Héctor Abad Gómez: President of the Human Rights Committee of Antioquia. Medic to guerrillas, false democrat, dangerous due to popular sympathy in upcoming Medellín mayoral elections. Useful idiot of the Communist Party." They interviewed my father on air and he asked them to read out some of the other names on the list. Among them were journalists, politicians, novelists, lawyers and popular singers. My father said he felt very honoured to be in the company of such good and important people, who did so many things to the country's benefit.

That same day, the Human Rights Committee of Antioquia met and drafted a press release denouncing the death squads and paramilitary groups that were operating in the city and killing people linked to the university. Present at this meeting, among others, were Carlos Gaviria, Leonardo Betancur and Carlos Gónima. Leonardo and my father were murdered the next day, Carlos Gónima a few months later, on 22 February. Carlos Gaviria escaped with his life by fleeing the country.

On the morning of Tuesday the 25th, the head of the Antioquia teachers' guild, Luis Felipe Vélez, was murdered on the doorstep of the union headquarters. At midday, my mother tells us, coming home together from the office, my father wanted to hear news of the Luis Felipe Vélez crime, but on every station they talked of nothing but football.

In the afternoon he went back to his office, wrote his column for El Mundo, had a few meetings with his campaign staff and arranged to meet the publicity people at the Liberal Directorate in the evening. That night they were planning to plaster the city with posters with the name and picture of the candidate. Before going to the Directorate, a woman whose name we do not know and whom we've never seen since, suggested to my father that he go to the teachers' union to pay his last respects to their murdered leader. My father thought it a good idea, and invited Carlos Gaviria and Leonardo Betancur to come with him, and that's where he was going when I saw him for the last time.

We bumped into each other at the door of the office. I was arriving with my mother, driving her car, and he was coming out the door in the company of that heavy-set woman, in a purple dress, like the sorrowful statues of Easter processions. When I saw them, I said to my mother, to tease her: "Look, Mum, there's my dad cheating on you with another woman." My father came over to the car and we got out. Beaming, as always, when he saw me, he planted his loudest kiss on my cheek and asked me how my meeting at the university had gone. My father had arranged for me to meet with a key professor in the humanities, and I had just had an interview with him. The meeting had been disappointing as the professor hadn't given me any grounds for hope regarding teaching posts. I told my father the result of my interview and saw the deep disappointment on his face. He had immeasurable confidence in me and thought all doors should be wide open for me. After a second when his face darkened with a mixture of sadness and surprise, suddenly, as if a good thought had crossed his mind, his face brightened again and with a happy smile, uttered the last sentence he'd say to me in his life, along with the usual goodbye kiss:

"Don't worry, my love, you'll see, one day they'll be the ones calling you."

That's what he was saying when his dearest student, Leonardo Betancur, arrived on his motorcycle. My father greeted him effusively and invited him to come with him for a moment to the murdered teacher's wake, three blocks from there, at the union headquarters. They walked away, in conversation, and my mother and I went inside the office. It was about quarter past five in the afternoon.

What happened afterwards I didn't see, but I can reconstruct it from various witness reports. My father, Leonardo and the woman walked down Carrera Chile to Calle Argentina and turned left. They arrived at the corner of El Palo and crossed the street. They passed Girardot and at the next corner knocked on the door of the teachers' union. Someone opened the door and a small crowd formed as other teachers were arriving at the same time to find out what was going on. They had taken Luis Felipe Vélez's body to a funeral home more than two hours earlier and were having a protest demonstration at the Coliseo. My father was taken aback and looked around for the woman who'd accompanied him there, but she had disappeared.

One of the witnesses says a motorbike with two young men on it came up Calle Argentina, slowly at first, then very quickly. They stopped the bike in front of the union, left it running beside the curb, and the two of them approached the little group in front of the door, taking guns out of the waistband of their trousers.

Did my father see them, did he know they were going to kill him at that moment? For twenty years I have tried to be him there, facing death, at that moment. I imagine myself at sixty-five years of age, dressed in a suit and tie, asking at the door of a union about the crime of a few hours earlier. They tell him that Luis Felipe Vélez had been killed there, right where he was standing. My father looks down at the ground, at his feet, as if he wanted to see the murdered teacher's blood. He doesn't see a trace of anything, but he hears quick footsteps coming towards him, and a hurried breathing that seems to pant against his neck. He looks up and sees the malevolent face of the assassin, sees the flashes coming out of the barrel of the pistol, hears the shots and feels the blow to his chest that knocks him down. He falls on his back, his glasses fly off and break, and on the ground, while he thinks for the last time, I'm sure, of all those he loves, his side racked with pain, he manages a confused glimpse of the mouth of the revolver that spits fire again and finishes him off with several shots to the head, the neck, and the chest. Six shots, which means one of the hitmen emptied his magazine. Meanwhile the other thug chases Leonardo Betancur inside the union building and kills him there. My father does not see his beloved student die; he doesn't see anything anymore, doesn't remember anything; he bleeds, and in a few moments his heart stops and his mind goes out.

He is dead and I don't know. He is dead and my mother doesn't know, my sisters don't know, his friends don't know, he himself doesn't know. I am starting a meeting. Another man arrives late and, before sitting down, tells us he just saw someone killed a few blocks from here. At that moment I'm called to the phone. They say it's urgent, and I go out. It is a journalist, an old acquaintance of mine, who says: "Just wanted to hear your voice, they're saying here that you've been killed." I say no, I'm fine, and hang up, but in that instant I know who the dead man is. I go straight to my mother's office and say: "I think the worst has happened."

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Anne McLean.



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