? Quien es? ” one of them asked. Who are you?
She assessed quickly. On their chests they wore nameplates, on their lapels and shoulders, they wore ranks. Militias didn’t do that. On their heads, they wore the floppy hats of regular army units assigned to the mountains.
They were soldiers of the Venezuelan army. The leader was a trim comandante named Ramirez, equivalent to a major. His two men appeared to be privates.
The leader held her at gunpoint and one of the others took her knife away. Then they started patting her down, a frisk and a grope at the same time. Across her body, across her breasts, between her legs. She cringed and pushed back. In return, the groper held her arm tightly, shook her and threatened her with worse if she didn’t cooperate.
She refused to answer them.
The indignities continued. One of the men pushed his hand within her T-shirt and continued to explore. She pulled back angrily, throwing an elbow.
“?Parense! ” she snapped. Stop! “ Soy norteamericana,” she said. “I was in the village when it was raided. I fled.”
Ramirez looked her in the eye. The other two studied her up and down.
“? Cual pueblito? ” the comandante asked. What village?
They looked at each other.
“Barranco Lajoya was destroyed,” he said in Spanish. “There was a massacre.”
She felt her spirits plummet, her heart going with them. Her friends. The missionaries. More than ever she was conscious of the pendant she wore around her neck. But was it doing anything, protecting anyone? Where was God when she needed God?
“How bad was it? The massacre?” she asked.
“If you’re an American, why is your Spanish so good?” Ramirez asked, ignoring the question. “Americans don’t speak Spanish without an accent.”
“My mother was mexicana. What happened to the village? I was with the missionaries. How bad was the attack?”
The soldiers relaxed very slightly. “Prove that you’re American,” the leader said.
She reached slowly to the side pocket of her shorts. She pulled out her passport and handed it to them.
One of the younger soldiers took it and gave it to the major. They kept their guns trained on her. She had no chance to run, she knew. She would have been cut down within a few feet if they chose to kill her.
Major Ramirez looked at the passport and looked at her. Then he examined the passport again and stared at Alex’s face. He closed the passport and handed it back to her. He told his private to return her weapons.
“ Venga con nostros,” the captain said. Come with us. We’re very sorry.
They led her through several thickets, the young soldiers hacking their way with machetes. They came to a path and fell in with other soldiers. Other people from the village had been rounded up too. The sad tragic trek through the forest took half an hour. Then they came to a clearing and then what remained of Barranco Lajoya.
Nothing in her experience could have prepared Alex for what she saw, not even the violence and obscenities from her experience in Ukraine.
There were bodies still lying on the ground, men and women and children, awaiting body bags. The straw roofs of several buildings had been torn off, cement and concrete buildings had been smashed. The raiding party had shown no mercy. Walls were down on almost all buildings, the generator had been smashed into oblivion, and the muddy unpaved streets of the town were strewn with the shattered remnants of the buildings. The village looked as if it had been bombed.
The soldiers led Alex into a small littered clearing behind another hut, and there on the floor were several sheets and canvas coverings. It was a makeshift morgue. There were so many bodies that Alex didn’t think to count them.
Major Ramirez removed his hat and led Alex to a viewing area, which was no different from any other area except it was a small cleared patch of ground.
The comandante looked at her with sorrow in his eyes. Then he reached down to one of the sheets.
She braced herself. Ramirez lifted the first of several gray blankets so that she could see. Against her will, against all the training she had received at the FBI Academy, against even the horror of what she had witnessed in Kiev, she gasped and retched.
On the ground were the bullet smashed corpses of the six missionaries who had served in this village, four men and two women. These were the people she had known personally and worked with. Their bodies were caked in blood, their limbs and heads twisted at impossible angles and folded back together.
Some of their faces had been hammered into pulp by the force of the bullets. One woman’s head, the one closest to Alex, had star fractures in both eyes and a lower jaw blown off. One man’s upper torso had been hit by so many bullets that the soldiers had had to tie it closed with rope and canvas.
The executions, she could tell, had taken place at close range and without the slightest sign of mercy. This was the earthly reward that these kind people had received for trying to bring some good to this small tough patch of the world.
Alex stared at the obscenity before her. She wondered: had the invaders come for the missionaries? Or could she have been the ultimate target? But if the raiders had known she was among them, why had she been the only foreigner to defend herself and to have escaped?
Plenty of questions. No answers.
“ Ya esta bien,” she said softly to Ramirez. “ Mas que suficiente. ” More than enough. Enough for the moment. Enough for a lifetime.
Ramirez gave a terse signal to his soldiers. They covered the bodies again. Alex turned away and left the room. A few feet away, she sat down on the ground, too shocked to even cry. Insects buzzed around her and the heat was relentless. She no longer cared.
On the morning of the next day, she oversaw the simple funerals of the people of the village. A military chaplain presided. The dead were interred beneath wooden crosses on a mountainside that overlooked the valley. The missionaries who had lived with them were buried with them and, presumably, would remain with them for eternity. How long, Alex wondered, would the ghosts of those slain haunt this place?
That afternoon, Alex watched as Venezuelan Red Cross workers came in and led a long march of survivors down the mountainside to waiting vans. The village was no more. The survivors were to be relocated.
That same evening, Major Ramirez appeared and spoke to her. “I have my further orders,” he said. “You are to leave the country immediately.”
“It’s not like I was planning to stay after what happened,” she said sullenly.
“Your contact will find you in Caracas,” he said.
“What contact?” she demanded.
“I only know my instructions,” he said, “and I’ve just related them to you.” He paused. “And if I were you,” he said, “I would leave quickly, before the government of Venezuela changes its mind.”
That evening before sunset, she returned to La Paragua and flew back to Caracas by army helicopter. Three soldiers accompanied her, obviously under orders, saying nothing, only staring. The personal items she had left at the hotel had been safely stored for her. She retrieved them easily upon her return to Caracas.
The horrors of Barranco Lajoya hung heavily on her. She phoned Joseph Collins in New York with the intention of relating what had happened. But word had already reached him. He inquired only about her safety. She assured him that the Venezuelan army had treated her properly.
They agreed to meet in New York as soon as possible. Then, that evening, she found a Methodist church not far from her hotel and spent time in prayer and meditation-seeking answers and guidance and not finding much of either-until an elderly pastor appeared and closed the doors to the church at midnight.