Image courtesy of Alejandro Jaramillo.

In response to profe Alejandro Castillejo-Cuéllar’s provocative pieces, I would like to offer an echo, a proposition, and caveat.

An echo

This image shows the crater left by the shells dropped by the Colombian Air Forces on the morning of February 19, 1997, in a hamlet located along the Salaquí River, in the Chocó region. The bombing was part of a well-planned military campaign, led by the national army in collusion with paramilitary forces. It provoked the forced displacement of thousands of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian families, as well as other several crimes for which the Colombian government was condemned in 2013 by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. People from Salaquí remember the shelling as a very loud noise that made both roofs and the ground shake. Many described the sensorial impression of the blast wave to me in these terms: la cabeza se le pone a uno grande, literally your head gets bigger (Ruiz-Serna 2023). The expression describes a form of fear, an atmosphere of nervous apprehension whose equivalent in English might be something like having one’s heart in one’s mouth.

Now, imagine that sound, so loud and so profound that you fear for your own life. Just like any sound from guns and heavy artillery, the sonic boom provoked by a bomb can be interpreted as a text full of informational content. In these cases, sound becomes an index of an imminent attack. In semiosis, an index is a sign that shows evidence of an object or concept being represented, so an index resembles something that implies the object. But in this case, sound is not only a text to be interpreted. A head getting bigger as a consequence of a big explosion is, as a matter of fact, a literal effect of an earsplitting blast. Sound becomes a material force that reveals the fragility of our own selves. These are sounds so loud and invasive that their presence literally destructs human bodies. Martin Daughtry (2014) calls them thanatosounds: instances “when listening ends and raw exposure begins, when sounds no longer herald death but create death through their sheer materiality” (39). In the presence of thanatosounds, people might lose their capacity to interpret sounds as texts because they reveal an extreme carnality, one that turns sounds into icons rather than indexes. In semiosis, an icon is a sign that bears a physical resemblance to what is being represented. So, the sound that created this crater is not just a sound that points to violence but one that makes violence. This is a sound that, as some of those presented in Murmullos I, o la Herida de la Naturaleza, stays with people and creates new ecological arrangements.

After listening to Murmullos I, I could not help but think about the kind of listening we need to cultivate to understand war as something that extends beyond merely spectacular destruction. Let me then take you to the very same place where the bombs fell, but twenty years later.

Pond. Photo by Daniel Ruiz-Serna.

This is the nocturnal sound of this place.

The frogs inhabiting this pond—the ecological materialization of an earsplitting blast—are proof of a sonic experience that remains after the sounds that we often consider overwhelming evidence of the weaponry used in war. When conceptualizing wartime and its afterlives, the sounds of everyday life are absent or placed in a sharp contrast with the sounds of weapons (Daughtry 2014; Goodman 2012). But what about abandoned hamlets peopled by feral animals? Or the sounds of frogs, wasps, and other species that come to inhabit the ecologies created by war? What about the chants used by shamans to appease the spirits that wreaked havoc because of the presence of soldiers in sacred forests? And the call from birds, so often interpreted by Indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples as voices uttering powerful messages rather than just sounds? Paying attention to all these beings and to the way they participate in the composition of the worlds that many human communities bring into life might help us reconceptualize war, damage and, as profe Castillejo-Cuéllar’s suggests, the possibilities of justice and reparation.

A proposition

War, just like everyday life, is always a multispecies endeavor. And this is true in what concerns its preparation, conduction, and aftermath (Ruiz-Serna, forthcoming). Multispecies might not be the most accurate concept here as many of the beings that, according to Colombian rural ontologies, participate in and are affected by armed conflict do not necessarily correspond to Western categorizations of living things. And even when some of these beings correspond to what natural sciences classify as animals or plants, they behave in ways that challenge modern assumptions about agency, personhood, and intentional will. Moreover, the term multispecies might imply a clear cut between the spiritual and the material realms, between the tangible and the ethereal, between the living and the non-living, between bios and geos. All of these are divides that do not necessarily find correlations in the ontologies of the people that, like Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, have been hit the hardest by armed conflict. So let me reword my initial statement: War is an experience that extends beyond people, it is designed and waged in concert with selves and agencies of all kinds, simultaneously resounding in human and other-than-human worlds. War is always a multi-entities effort.

Taking this premise as a starting point is imperative if we want to do justice to people’s experiences of war and harm. It is also an important step to decolonize legal systems and shed light on how biased is that modern tendency, assumed as universal and necessary in politics and law, to draw divides between subjects and objects, the sacred and the secular, people and their surrounding worlds.

The caveat

Several scholars of critical animal studies (Levinas 2000; Haraway 2008; Calarco 2015) have pointed out that building a moral community based on what is relevantly human—for example, the capacity to feel pain—ends up reproducing certain hierarchies or even creating unforeseen exclusions: some beings happen to be human-like enough to grant them ethic consideration. This might render even more precarious the fate of those entities whose modes of being are not sufficiently human-like (i.e., rocks, rivers, mountains) (de la Cadena 2015; Povinelli 2015). Similarly, appealing to the suffering of the other-than-human world might seem to be a legitimate way of both decentralizing the human in the accounts of war and broadening the set of ethical considerations that legal systems have traditionally reserved for the human realm. Yet, defining suffering as a common thread between people and nonhumans might reify a set of traits that are quintessentially human and build an ethics for political concern based on that shared continuity only. In other words, that awareness does not fully displace anthropocentrism but offers an iteration of it (Oliver 2010), blocking access to alternative ways of thinking and feeling about the other-than-human realm.

When trees or, more broadly speaking, nature becomes a matter of political concern for what it suffers, one wonders about the kind of other-than-human agency this kind of recognition conveys. The risk is that of portraying the other-than-human world as an abject victim, a silent and inanimate entity in need of rescue. Actually, this—“Nature is a silent victim of armed conflict”—has become a sort of maxim repeated over and over again by the press and even by some magistrates from the transitional justice court (JEP 2019). I believe that it is important to take seriously other-than-human forms of being. By so doing, not only are we invited to provincialize Western assumptions about justice, war, and its afterlives, but also we are pushed to constantly explore the ways the other-than-human realm exceeds our reductive, too-human modes of categorization. The pieces profe Castillejo-Cuéllar presents here offer powerful hints in that direction.


Calarco, Matthew. 2015. Thinking through Animals. Identity, Difference, Indistinction. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Daughtry, J. Martin. 2014. “Thanatosonics: Ontologies of Acoustic Violence.” Social Text 32, no. 2 (119): 25–51.

De la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Goodman, Steve. 2012. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Haraway, Donna J. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Justicia Especial para la Paz-JEP. 2019. “Comunicado 009. Unidad de Investigación y Acusación de La JEP ‘Reconoce Como Víctima Silencosa El Medio Ambiente.’”

Levinas, Emmanuel. 2000. Entre Nous: Essays on Thinking-of-the-Other. New York: Columbia University Press.

Oliver, Kelly. 2010. “Animal Ethics: Toward an Ethics of Responsiveness.Research in Phenomenology 40, no. 2: 267–80.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2015. “The Rhetorics of Recognition in Geontopower.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 48, no. 4: 428–42.

Ruiz-Serna, Daniel. 2023. When Forests Run Amok: War and Its Afterlives in Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Territories. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

———. Forthcoming. “Inside a Jaguar’s Jaw: On the Hybrid Afterlives of Warfare.” American Ethnologist.