My Colombian War A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind

Silvana Paternostro

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

336 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
Growing up in the coastal city of Barranquilla, Colombia, Silvana Paternostro indulged in the typical concerns of a privileged young girl: friendships and parties, school and family. But soon, it became apparent that life in Colombia would not go on as usual. Strange planes appeared overhead, the harbingers of the marijuana drug trade that would explode into cocaine wars over the next decade, and soon after, a disputed election would lead to demonstrations and kidnappings targeting the affluent landed elite—including Paternostro’s family. A revolution was brewing, and the social inequalities reflected in her life would boil over into the most violent, most protracted, and most misunderstood civil war of our time. In My Colombian War, Paternostro journeys back to the place where her family and her closest friends still live, weaving authentic experience into a history of this ongoing conflict. Through interviews she allows us to witness the treacherous war zone that Colombia has become, projected on the daily lives of its citizens. Paternostro’s book is a narrative of Colombia’s past and present.


Praise for My Colombian War

"A nation's narrative rendered through a personal prism, this evocative work succeeds where many similar efforts fail.  The secret?  Paternostro herself, a deservedly celebrated journalist, able to deftly interweave past and present and write with a compassion that resists pathos.  A child of relative privilege, she left a violently changing Colombia for the States at age 15; decades later she returned as a reporter, and what follows is revelatory.  Wrenching interviews with today's Colombians, unflinching descriptions of the horrors wrought by drug cartels and paramilitary groups, and unusual details keenly conveyed amount to a moving, highly memorable take on how a country lost its moorings."—The Atlantic

"My Colombian War has valor . . . Paternostro returns to her infancy and adolescence and confronts her past with the present of a country that not only has profound divisions between the urban and village, but a scandalous stratification—marked by a ratio of 1 to 6—which defines the identity of the people. With a mixture of memoir and reportage—carried out, above all, with anonymous characters—and written with a silent honesty, Paternostro says she exposed herself like never before during the writing process."—Adriana Herrera, El Nuevo Herald

“Silvana Paternostro confronts her own past, her family’s past, and Colombia’s past . . . in the Latin south: a drug-haunted, tangled drama of feuds, rival warlords, criminal mafias, kidnappings, and endless civil wars. An intensely personal memoir, it demonstrates at the same time a firm grasp of the political, economic, and social realities that provide the background against which the headline news of Colombia in 2007, and 2008 and succeeding years, will continue to unfold. It makes fascinating reading.”—David Fromkin, Professor of International Relations, Boston University

"The picture of Colombia presented here is so deracinated that one keeps turning the pages with incredulity . . . When [Paternostro] empathizes with the characters she meets on the road, she captures both the foolishness and the beauty of even the most flawed individuals."—Jaime Manrique, The Washington Post Book World
"Toward the end of My Colombian War Silvana Paternostro hits on the perfect Spanish word to express her sense of dislocation. She is desubicada, which she translates as 'difficult and kind of ridiculous, and always out of place.' It shows, even to her family. 'The stork dropped her in the wrong country,' her father says. For a journalist it sometimes helps to be a little ridiculous and out of place. Alienation imparts a sense of urgency to Ms. Paternostro's intimate, emotion-saturated portrait of the homeland with which she cannot come to terms, a sentimental journey undertaken after decades living in the United States and working as a journalist in New York. Her confusion, and her often astounding ignorance of her own country, ends up being an asset, as she reconnects with her family and tries to sort out how Colombia developed into an international Wal-Mart for cocaine and marijuana, and a world leader in several major crime categories, including murder and kidnapping."—William Grimes, The New York Times
"Paternostro's stunning, no-nonsense prose truly lets you into her mind and the country's history."—Marie Claire

“In this elegant . . . exploration of Colombia, Silvana Paternostro journeys back to her homeland to confront the country that has long held a hypnotic hold on her psyche. My Colombian War offers not only insight into the troubled legacy of Colombia, but presents a beautiful portrait of a woman’s heartbreaking journey to understand the meaning of home.”—Danielle Trussoni, author of Falling Through the Earth
My Colombian War cuts far deeper than the typical work of an international journalist, while at the same time, by tying Paternostro's quest to rediscover the country she left as a teenager to the violent yet moving history and culture of that nation more generally, achieving the status of something altogether superior to simple memoir. This is personal history writ large, a moving, admirably objective, and deeply courageous examination of how Colombia has arrived at its present troubled state, sometimes with the aid of outsiders, sometimes all on its own; and it could only have been written by someone with Paternostro's unique personal history, gift of observation, and record of laying bare the myths of Latin America. An absolute must for anyone who either aspires to an understanding of what is happening in the region, or who simply wants to read about a life that has been genuinely fascinating.”—Caleb Carr, author of The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians
“In this intensely honest and revealing memoir, Silvana Paternostro takes us on her own Rip van Winkle voyage of return to her beloved, violent homeland. It is a compellingly bittersweet chronicle, with touches of great beauty, much like Colombia itself.”—Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life and The Fall of Baghdad

"A Colombian-born journalist returns to her homeland in an attempt to reconcile her own past and her country's chaotic present. Paternostro, a reporter and senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, turns her pointed journalistic skills inward to examine her own identity in the larger context of her roots in Colombia, a place revealed here as 'a beautiful country with an awful history and a terrible present.' Although the author left the country in the turbulent 1980s, her identity now as much American as Latin, Colombia haunts her as she stares every morning at a map and imagines it as a corporal entity, assigning a divided body part to each of the country's disparate regions. Paternostro takes assignments that suit her 'personal inquisition,' traveling to each region to pursue stories of kidnapping, drug-running and the politics of rebellion. These, however, are mostly missions of convenience, as the author adopts the subjects of her stories for comparison against her own experiences of the country. The voices that emerge—ranging from an American soldier in the drug war who goes native, to the everyday citizens who have learned to accept gunfire and kidnapping as a part of life—are vivid and compelling characters in the author's introspective history. There is something of a dichotomy between the Paternostro's remembrances of her fortunate childhood as the daughter of an acclaimed economist and her reportage of the country's violent civil war . . . her poetic descriptions of the country's cultural conventions and fractured consciousness . . . enliven her account of a Colombian war that is, in the end, 'brutal, sad, incoherent, and rarely resolved.' While some of these labels certainly apply to segments of the book, its graceful melancholy and conscientious reporting elevate it beyond the customary journalist's memoir. A conflicted memoir of bodegas, bullets and a country tearing itself apart from within."—Kirkus Reviews
"A member of a wealthy, landholding family, Paternostro attended American schools and universities and made a career in the U.S. as a journalist, while giving little thought to the country she left behind. Yet the crises of cocaine and civil war draw her professional attention and an assignment from the New York Times allows her to return to her coastal hometown of Barranquilla. Once there, she discovers how much her conservative family's life of privilege is at odds with her own romantic left leanings, and how the danger of being kidnapped is only matched by her countrymen's refusal to acknowledge the civil war around them."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Silvana Paternostro is a Colombian-born journalist. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and Time, among other publications, and she is the author of In the Land of God and Man, a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. In 1999 she was selected by Time/CNN as one of the fifty Latin American leaders for the millennium. A senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, Paternostro lives in New York City.

Read the full excerpt


  • Silvana Paternostro

  • Silvana Paternostro is a Colombian-born journalist. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and Time, among other publications, and she is the author of In the Land of God and Man, a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. In 1999 she was selected by Time/CNN as one of the fifty Latin American leaders for the millennium. A senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, Paternostro lives in New York City.