Late 2003. Colombia. Rusty Young, a brash Australian with a tan and intimidatingly white teeth spots a curious face in the crowd at Bogota airport. Suit, tie, in his 40s. He didn't speak any Spanish. Probably CIA, Young thinks, and asks the misplaced man what he does.

"Construction." Young is scraping by, teaching English after the release of the soon-to-be bestseller Marching Powder, a record of time spent voluntarily in a Bolivian prison sponsored by Coca-Cola where bribery was the only currency. The man in suit and tie asks Young to smarten up and come for a ride.

The next morning, they drive out to a half-built military base. Construction indeed. It's one of many facilities run by the US to train counter-terrorist forces - another faction in a destructive civil war between FARC insurgents and their drug-running allies, and the government with its motley collection of hard-right death squads which had been grinding on for 40 years.

The FARC guerrillas had a knack for targeted kidnappings and shakedowns. At the height of the conflict, around 4000 people were seized for ransom ever year - at least nine per day. Young, who had no military experience and only a Law and Commerce degree to his name, signed on as a "technical officer" with the US State Department's Anti-Kidnapping Initiative, helping to train local special forces.

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Not without a shade of doubt. "I grew up fairly liberal-progressive," he tells Weekend from Sydney. "I did have some ethical reservations about working for the US government because my perception has always been there are potentially ulterior motives in their foreign policy decisions. Through Central and South America they've fought various proxy wars against communism, so my initial reaction was a) this is going to be dangerous and b) unethical."

Rusty Young's Colombiano was seven years in the writing.
Rusty Young's Colombiano was seven years in the writing.

All fears were assuaged when the scheme proved to be a success, almost stamping out kidnapping as an extortion altogether. And through his unorthodox work, Young was able to conduct dozens of interviews: priests, child soldiers, politicians, special forces, drug traffickers. The result, after seven years of writing, is Colombiano. At close to 700 pages, it's a hefty novel, weighing about the same as a brick of cocaine. It's a revenge saga, written in a rigorously straightforward manner puffed up with war-jargon like a Tom Clancy book. It charts a teenage boy's dedication to avenging his father's murder.

"I took the most dramatic, powerful, of each of these stories and attributed all those stories to one person," Young explains. "Pedro is this kind of super-child, he's a 15-year-old kid who just goes around doing really incredible things, but he's an amalgamation of all these stories."

It's a violent book, as it must be to properly capture the reality of those years. Young had two transcribers quit because of the grim detail in his interviews: massacres, torture, deprivation. And yet, "I don't go in for gratuitous violence as a form of entertainment," Young says reassuringly. "If anything else, I've toned the violence down because I don't want to put people off."

The death toll from the Colombian war is around 200,000, with further irreparable damage caused by drug-running. A peace deal was signed last year, for which Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize. Alas, societies that experience extended trauma tend not to reconcile history with a peaceful present. De-Nazification in West Germany and South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission are perhaps two of the best examples of a nation facing its past seriously. But it's a rare thing.

In Spain, memory of the fascist years was banished with a general pardon. Turkey to this day denies its founding was only possible with the mass murder of its non-Turkish, non-Muslim populations. There remains a culture of forgetting Imperial crimes in Japan.

A non-negotiable codicil of the Colombian pact is a Truth Commission, which hopes to heal some egregious wounds. "A really large part of the healing process is in telling the truth, confessing," Young relates. "That's the first [step] towards possible forgiveness. It's really hard because there's so much damage been done and so many people have been affected over effectively two generations."

Lowdown:
Colombiano by Rusty Young (Bantam, $37)