Héctor Abad Faciolince grew up in what had been one of the most violent cities on earth. Since Colombia won its independence more than 200 years ago, it has weathered political unrest, military crackdowns and violent drug cartels.
His own father, who had accused the military of sponsoring death squads, was assassinated in 1987 by paramilitary forces that had turned his hometown, Medellín, into a war zone.
But his brush with death came half a world away.
At the end of a trip last month that he and two fellow Colombians hoped could aid their quixotic quest to build support in South America for Ukraine’s battle against Russia, a missile tore through a crowded restaurant where they’d just raised their glasses for a toast. At least 13 people were killed, including their guide, the Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina.
“I could only think: they killed us,” Mr. Abad said. “That was the last thing I could think of.”
Nearly a year and a half since Russia invaded Ukraine, much of South America has largely avoided picking sides in the war. Longstanding views that a multipolar, less-Western global order is in their best interests have prompted governments to oppose the fighting but reject attempts to isolate Russia diplomatically, impose economic sanctions or supply weapons to Ukraine.
And many average citizens, polls suggest, view the war as something too distant to care about, a proxy war between global powers doing what they’ve always done: impose their wills on smaller countries.
Opposition to such widespread apathy put Mr. Abad and two fellow Colombians — Catalina Gómez Ángel, a journalist, and Sergio Jaramillo, a former defense minister who led the government’s peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — unwittingly in the line of fire.
They had attended a literary conference in Kyiv, where they spoke about a campaign created by Mr. Jaramillo, “¡Aguanta Ucrania!” (“Hang On Ukraine!”), that has collected supportive videos from Latin American politicians, intellectuals and artists, including the Chilean writer Isabel Allende and the Uruguayan songwriter Jorge Drexler. So far, it has attracted a modest following: just over 4,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram combined.
But after the conference, Mr. Jaramillo said, the he wanted to “take the campaign to the places where Ukrainians suffer most.” Ms. Amelina volunteered to guide them through villages in the battle-scarred Donbas region to document stories of Ukrainian soldiers and families who had been victims of war crimes.
They hoped to tell those stories back home and promote solidarity with Ukraine, where Mr. Abad said the fight for sovereignty echoes the struggles of South American nations.
“When one defends certain freedoms of the West and Ukraine, one is also defending those of Colombia,” Mr. Abad said.
They had finished their tour on a warm Tuesday last month in Kramatorsk, about 20 miles from the front line and the devastated city of Bakhmut. Ria Lounge, one of Ms. Amelina’s favorite restaurants, was lively and crowded even though local officials had limited the sale of alcohol in the city, in hopes of keeping people off the streets. Instead, the companions toasted with nonalcoholic beer and apple juice.
“Victoria looked at my glass and joked: ‘Looks like whisky,’” Mr. Abad said. “She smiled, and I smiled. At that moment, there were no sirens. There was no whistle, nothing. Just something like an explosion that I had never felt in my life.”
Mr. Abad, Ms. Gómez and Mr. Jaramillo sustained minor injuries. But Ms. Amelina, one of Ukraine’s best-known young writers, died in a hospital four days later. She was 37.
The attack prompted President Gustavo Petro of Colombia to publicly condemn Russia for the first time since the invasion, and he called on his country’s foreign ministry to “deliver a diplomatic note of protest.”
But three weeks later in Brussels, at a summit of European leaders and their Caribbean and Latin American counterparts, Mr. Petro chose to sit on the fence when it came to discussing the war.
He chastised the West with common refrain in South America. “No doubt there’s an imperialist invasion of Ukraine. But what would you call what happened in Iraq? Or in Libya? Or in Syria?” he said. “Why does this one cause this reaction and previous ones in this century do not?”
President Gabriel Boric of Chile, one of the few South American leaders to condemn Moscow, urged his counterparts to be more assertive. “Today it is Ukraine, but tomorrow it could be any one of us,” he said during the summit.
But the summit stalled as the countries couldn’t agree on how to address the conflict. In their joint statement, they did not mention Russia at all, restricting their communiqué to expressing “deep concern on the ongoing war against Ukraine.”
Many South American leaders have more pressing priorities, like economic stagnation and soaring inflation, and fear the potential economic fallout of taking sides. Brazil’s vital agribusiness, for example, is highly dependent on Russian fertilizers.
Public interest has also waned. A recent Ipsos poll showed that attention paid to the war has receded significantly in major Latin American countries, including Mexico, Argentina and Colombia, compared to many other parts of the world. A majority of people polled in the region believe that Ukraine’s problems are none of their business and the survey found little support for any kind of intervention.
There is also continued distrust of the United States, which has a long history of backing regime changes in the region, including military dictatorships. It’s a deeply embedded memory that should not be taken lightly, said Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, a professor of international relations and the provost of the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires.
Latin America’s top concerns, he said, are inequality, poverty and pandemic recovery — and avoiding a return to the days when the continent was caught between competing superpowers.
“Latin America lost development opportunities and experienced the dramatic costs of the Cold War,” he said. “If a similar division happens now, historical memory will count. And, for Latin America, going back to a Cold War is unacceptable.”
But that’s exactly why supporters of Ukraine say it’s crucial for Latin America to take an interest in Ukraine.
Sergio Guzmán, the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political consultancy, said the war could reshape the global power map, and the region risks being left out by trying to take a middle path.
“If Latin America wants to have a seat at the table, it needs to get involved,” he said.
While South American leaders were in Brussels, ¡Aguanta Ucrania! posters had gone up around the city. About two weeks after the missile strike on Kramatorsk, Mr. Abad and Mr. Jaramillo visited the city to promote their initiative and attend a tribute to Ms. Amelina at the European Parliament along with Ms. Gómez.
Back home in Medellín, Mr. Abad said he’d begun reading the Spanish edition of Ms. Amelina’s 2017 novel “Dom’s Dream Kingdom.”
“It’s very entertaining, and you learn a lot of Ukrainian history,” Mr. Abad said. “It’s the story of a family in Lviv, and you learn how complex the Ukrainian identity is, as many spoke Russian and were part of the Soviet Union.”
He said he hoped that Ms. Amelina’s 10-year-old son would come of age in a free and independent Ukraine.
“That’s what they are fighting for,” he said. “I hope that they will not lose this war. Because if Ukraine loses, we all lose.”