When we left, at the end of the day, the tank was still parked in front of the school. The bus maneuvered through the main gate much more slowly than usual, kind of cautiously, maybe so all of us school kids would be able to get a look at that old tank: imposing and magnificent among the chaos of soldiers, journalists, police, paramedics, firemen, and so many parents. I turned around and noticed that each one of the thirteen yellow school buses had a Red Cross flag draped across the front. Suddenly our bus stopped and kept still for a few minutes, half shuddering amid the commotion of vehicles and people. Inside, nobody spoke. Nobody dared to move. It took me a while to discover, in the flat afternoon light, the two police patrol cars pulling in behind and in front of us, as an escort.
“It was there, see, up ahead,” Oscar whispered to me as the bus crept along behind the patrol car, and I turned to look up where he was pointing: far away, on the opposite side of the Vista Hermosa ravine, black smoke rose from the rubble of a house.
The first shots had rung out at ten in the morning. I didn’t hear them. But I knew, from the serious looks on the faces of my classmates, on Oscar’s face, that something important had happened. Almost immediately we heard another burst of gunfire, and then a sharper one, as if returning fire. It was a Thursday. It was the summer of ’81. It was a time of gunshots. But those shots had sounded too close, right outside. Our teacher, Miss Jenkins, a chubby, kind American, smiled broadly and got us singing songs in English. We sang several songs all together while Miss Jenkins kept time by clapping, while machine guns and rifles kept firing and sporadic shots were heard, and then all of a sudden, after seconds of silence, an immense explosion shook the whole school and paralyzed us in silent fright. Miss Jenkins was not smiling so broadly anymore. She left the classroom and went outside to the corridor, where the teachers and other staff were congregating, and they decided to take us all to the gym.
“Look at those,” Oscar muttered to me on the bus, seeing the long fifty-caliber machine guns mounted on the military Jeeps, still pointing directly at the rubble of the house.
It wasn’t really a gym, more like an enormous hangar or timber-frame shed with wooden floorboards that also served as a basketball court. And there, with the constant echo of gunshots and shelling and sirens in the background, with the whir of helicopters flying overhead, the more than one thousand students of the school spent the entire day: isolated for almost seven hours, shut away from that battle that seemed never to end, right in front of the school. Some students, maybe the older ones, spent the day with worried faces, or sobbing, or even praying in small groups, sitting in circles on the wooden floorboards and holding hands. My teenage cousins came to look for me every once in a while, interrupting my games, hugging and kissing me and telling me not to worry, that everything was going to be fine. And I wriggled away from them as fast as I could, caught up to my friends, and went on playing. But of course everything was going to be fine. Everything was always fine. What could be wrong?
“And look,” Oscar whispered, his forehead pressed against the window of the bus that advanced very slowly, his index finger pointing at a dirty bundle surrounded by people among the bushes and mud of the side of the ravine. “A dead woman.”…