Navigating Challenges in Colombia with Dignity and Perseverance
by Diane Lefer
“When I was three years old, the army bombed my village,” the girl told me. She was sixteen, which meant the bombing happened in 1998.
“You’re from Santo Domingo?” I had protested that very bombing in demonstrations in front of the Los Angeles headquarters of Occidental Petroleum. The Colombian Air Force, intent on killing guerrillas who threatened Oxy’s operations, had relied on inaccurate information provided by the US. At least 17 civilians were killed and many others injured. Now I was talking to one of the survivors. “You were so young,” I said. “Do you remember?”
“A little,” said María Fernanda. “I remember my father lifting me onto his back. Like this, I crouched holding his shoulders. And I remember the sounds, the shells coming through the palm trees.”
We met in Barrancabermeja, Colombia where I was offering writing workshops and she was performing in the First International Theatre Festival for Peace which from May 20-30, 2011 brought us together with 400 artists and community members from different regions of Colombia and from 14 countries around the world, everyone committed to social justice.
Actress and activist Silvana Gariboldi from Argentina was impressed to see so many men involved. “In my country, it’s only women in the social movements.” I was impressed by the young man wearing a T-shirt denouncing the physical and mental abuse of women, and by the fact that many of Colombia’s broad-based programs for justice and human rights are focusing efforts today on the status of women.
Red Juvenil (Youth Network) of Medellín, for example, well known for encouraging young people to declare themselves conscientious objectors, has just initiated a three-year campaign linking women’s issues to all other campaigns. With a call to “Disobey and resist all forms of domination!”, the Network is organizing women (and men) to oppose not just militarism, racism, and economic exploitation but also machismo, seeing the evils as interconnected.
Women are not the only ones to suffer in six decades of armed conflict in Colombia but they, along with the children, have borne the brunt of displacement as some five million Colombians have been violently driven from their homes. Even where families remain intact, years of terror and trauma and social disorganization contribute to violence in the home and have limited opportunities for girls.
When I read Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir, Even Silence Has an End, about her years held captive by FARC guerrillas, it was clear she has no sympathy for their movement, but she couldn’t help but note the number of young girls in the guerrilla ranks who chose the FARC seeing it as better than prostitution, the only other option they thought open to them.
I thought of that in Barrancabermeja when I met 12-year-old Julieth. According to her teacher, she is the outstanding student in her entire rural school system. She is also outgoing, friendly and popular with everyone in town–including the classmates, some younger than herself, who one after another have turned to prostitution. Julieth is determined that will not be her life but I can’t help but worry. In her community, education goes only through middle school. Even if she finds a way to move to a city for high school, how will she support herself? Where will she live? What will she eat?
In my writing workshop Julieth invented a new consumer product: magnificent magical shoes, very pretty and very cheap. Any girl who wears them starts to think of love and not of money. She becomes incapable of selling her body.
Hermelinda ran away rather than accept the future that had been chosen for her. This teenager from the indigenous Sicuane community grew up on the resguardo (reservation). In 2003, the army came looking for guerrillas and gave people 30 minutes to get out or be killed. During the same military action, soldiers raped and killed indigenous people in settlements nearby.
“We lived somewhere for two years, then somewhere else for a year and a half,” Hermelinda said. Her education was interrupted until her people were able to return home. But then her family decided to marry her off. “Girls get married at eleven or twelve years. At thirteen they have babies,” she told me. “I said no.” Hermelinda took refuge with a staff member at the school where she wanted to continue her studies.
The festival drew participants from Canada and Chile and Cuba and France and Germany and Israel and Italy and Venezuela. Many came from Mexico, including theatre scholar Rocío Galicia who has been studying the narratives now coming out of the US-Mexico border areas plagued by violence. When asked who she thinks is murdering hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, she offered her opinion: Impunity made the killings multiply. “People saw they can do it and get away with it.” Now there are many different motives, different killers. “Because of impunity, the femicide has taken on a life of its own.”
Colombians know about impunity.
“We’re still waiting for justice in Arauca,” said María Fernanda as she told me about the little girl who was raped and killed by soldiers who then killed the witnesses, her two little brothers. Only one of the men believed to be involved was ever charged and even he has not been tried because the judge, a woman who was assigned to hear the case, was assassinated. (There are many women judges in Colombia; some say it’s because the job is too dangerous and men don’t want it.) “At the site of the burial, people came carrying photos of 200 people who were killed by the army and there I saw the photo of my older brother.”
To explain what happened to him she had to go back to the bombing of Santo Domingo. “After that, we spent eight years as displaced people in the town of Filipinas. We got three months of assistance, just basically for food, and we weren’t used to being in a town instead of the countryside. If we had for rent, we didn’t have for food, if we had for food, we didn’t have for clothing.” Two of her brothers crossed the border into Venezuela looking for work and were killed there by persons unknown. As for her older brother, “He had gone to a farm and asked if there were landmines on the property because he wanted to go down to the river to fish.”
She explained that landmines are planted throughout the area by the FARC. “Now and then an army dog will sniff one out but there’s no campaign to get rid of them and we don’t really want that. If the mines are removed, the FARC will plant new ones and we might not know where. Right now, we walk on the highway or you can walk where the cows walk to be safe.”
Or, you do what her brother did, and ask around about the existence of mines because the guerrillas usually warn people. But the fact that FARC guerrillas communicate with local civilians makes noncombatants suspect.
“The Army heard him talking about mines. They came for him and took him and two others away barefoot and killed them.”
For civilians in the conflict zone, it’s equally dangerous to talk to the police or the Colombian army. “Seven girls were killed for talking to soldiers or flirting with them. For this it was believed they were passing information,” she told me. “When the army is around I don’t leave the house even to go to the store. If there’s no toilet paper in the house, well, I just splash water on myself. You can’t go out.”
But she does go out at night, braving car bombs and dodging bullets in order to participate, as does Hermelinda, in a theatre program for youth sponsored by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Through the program, young people work and play together, dismantling cultural barriers, reinforcing respect for human rights, specifically training youth to take a stand against gender-based discrimination and violence.
María Fernanda dreams of becoming “a professor or lawyer or someone who can help people but I’d also like to be a singer who sings about peace.” With her surviving family members, she has now returned to Santo Domingo but they no longer own their old farm. “It’s very hard. But I have to be strong. If my mother has to cope with their having murdered three of her sons, the oldest, the ones that most helped her, we the others have to be capable.”
I am haunted by these girls and by the role that we in the US have played — and still play — in their lives. The US has poured billions into military support for Colombia, ostensibly to fight the war on drugs (and now repeats the same misguided policy in Mexico). Germany has taken a different approach: the German federally owned enterprise GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) helped support the theatre festival as part of its ongoing work with Cercapaz, an organization dedicated to strengthening civil society and developing nonviolent conflict-resolution strategies for government and community in the interest of sustainable development and peace.
“The fundamental problem isn’t the narcotraffic,” insisted speaker Carlos Lozano, director of the leftwing weekly, Voz. “It’s the hunger and misery.”
Not to mention that, as he pointed out, the Colombian government spends six times as much money on a soldier as on the education of a student. Students like María Fernanda, Hermelinda, Julieth.
In the meantime President Obama has abandoned a campaign pledge and thrown his support behind the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia which will only exacerbate conditions of inequality. He relied on agreements with Colombian president Santos that human rights would be respected and community leaders protected but little more than a week after I returned to Los Angeles, I received word that Ana Fabricia Córdoba was assassinated in Medellín. She had continued, after the murders of both her activist husband and her son, to work on behalf of displaced families who wished to return to their land. Because of repeated death threats, she had requested protection from the government. She got none.
Julieth and Hermelinda and María Fernanda persevere, preparing themselves intellectually, ethically, and psychologically for an uncertain future.
The last day in my workshop, Julieth wrote, “I’m afraid of not knowing how to face situations that shake my sense of self, my emotional security. The worst that could happen would be if bad circumstances knock down my dreams like coconuts from the trees. I couldn’t stand it if all my efforts turned out to be useless.”
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. Her new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change through activism and art. Lefer writes for LA Progressive, where this article originally appeared. More about her work can be found at: http://dianelefer.weebly.com/.