Remembering Cristhian

Remembering Cristhian

A year ago today, I met the Aragon family in the Humanitarian Space of Puente Nayero in Buenaventura.  I learned that they had been threatened for standing up against the forced recruitment of young people into the paramilitary groups that are terrorising the region. Doris and Ezekiel had recently returned to their home, a wooden shack built on stilts over the sea, after spending a year in exile with their 4 children because of the threats.

That evening, their 17 year old son, went out with his mates, against the advice of his parents, and never came home. Cristhian Aragon was tricked into meeting with members of a paramilitary group, where he was beaten up.  He was then brutally murdered, shot several times in the back whilst trying to escape his captors.

I met the family again that evening, at the hospital where Cristhian’s body lay on a gurney in a courtyard; that sight will stay with me forever!

The family were quickly moved to a safe house, but the threats continue.  Just 10 days ago, Doris received a phone call from one of the killers, saying that she will ‘pay with her life’ and claiming to have friends in the police who will find her. He blames her for ruining his plans and thanks to her, 3 of his best men are in prison!

This was a shocking experience for me, but these threats, acts of terror and violence, and forced displacements are common place all over Colombia.  Cristhian represents so many others who have been the victims of injustice, forced displacement and violence, many for economic or political gain.

I will always remember Cristhian: his death and his family’s stance against the violence impacted me and changed me.  I want to stand up for justice, and stand with the people of Puente Nayero as they remember their victims.  The Humanitarian Space is a haven of peace in a city of terror; if Cristhian had stayed in that space, he would probably be alive today.  The people in that neighbourhood won my heart, their courage and strength are inspirational.

 

Back to School

Back to School

My last couple of weeks ‘in the field’ were spent in the Choco región of North West Colombia with the community of ‘Las Camelias’. It’s in what used to be part of the rainforest, but has now become home to field of palm and banana plantations and open fields for cattle grazing.

The community is a mix of Afro-Colombians and ‘mestizos’ (mixed race). Almost 20 years ago the whole area was ‘purged’ by para-militaries allegedly looking for the FARC terrorists. Many innocent people from these communities were killed and the people of Camelias remember seeing bodies floating down the river. They did what most of us would do and fled the area. They lived as refugees wherever they could for several years, but in 2006 decided to return and formed the Humanitarian Zone of Las Camelias, with the help of the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace. It is recognized by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights and no arms are allowed within the community. In this way the people were able to return with a measure of security.

However on their return they found that the land where they used to grow all their food had been taken over by palm oil companies and the whole area had become an agro-industrial machine. They bravely went and cut down some field of palm so that they could replant their own crops, and they are still fighting to get the collective ownership of the land.

One aspect of life as a refugee that gets overlooked is education. David is 18 and was a baby when his mother fled with him in her arms. His grandfather and several of his uncles were killed. His family only returned to the area about 7 years ago and he has not been able to complete his education due to the displacement.

That is why ‘Justice and Peace’ have initiated a school for people to complete their senior education. The school runs for one week a month and covers all areas of the Colombian curriculum in order for students to attain their bachillerato. It started about 18 months ago with 30 students and now has 100 ranging in age from 13 to 30. Students come from other communities too, including some indigenous people who travel for several hours for the opportunity to learn.

My task for the week was to teach English!! This was not easy for someone with no proper training as a teacher and very little experience. But we went through the basics of introductions, the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’, talking about family, etc. We played games and the 11th grade even learnt ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’! I was readily accepted and addressed as ‘profe’ along with the other (real) teachers who come in for the week on a voluntary basis.

The rules of the Humanitarian Zone apply to the school and those who come from other areas adhere to these rules – no arms, no association with para-military or terrorist groups, no drugs or association with drug dealers, respect for all and equality. The students also learn about their local history and hear accounts of those who were affected by the displacement – it’s important to keep the memories alive and that the stories are passed on – it’s now part of who they are.

It was a wonderful experience to be part of giving something back to these young people that was taken from them – the right to education. This will give them more possibilities and potential for their future.

Palm Oil Company Poligrow – shame on you!

Just wanted to share this excellent video with my followers.  It’s just 12 minutes long but shows the disgraceful behaviour of big companies like Poligrow and their implication in the violence and displacement in Colombia.  Just days after this video was published on You Tube, William, who speaks out in the video about being forced from his land and having his house burnt down, received death threats from paramilitaries because “The allegations that he is making are very serious for Poligrow and for us and could lose us a lot of business”

What more evidence do we need that the paramilitary groups are linked to business interests?

Life in a Sports Centre

Life in a Sports Centre

The indigenous Wounaan tribes of Buenaventura Department live mostly along the rivers Calima and San Juan. These rural areas are perfect for self-sufficient living, and the communities grow all types of fruit, vegetables, rice, maize, etc. But over recent years, the situation in these communities has become more and more intolerable as they are caught up in the internal conflict between the FARC guerillas and the armed forces. There have been incidences of threats, extortion, accusations of being guerrillas, to the point where many of these communities are unable to get out to farm their land, fish or hunt because of fear of violence. Many of them have left their communities and sought refuge in Buenaventura city, either forcibly or under duress.

One such community is that of Agua Clara. 523 people from Agua Clara were forced to leave their homes on 28 November 2014 after being persecuted by the paramilitary forces operating in the area. They came to Buenaventura and were told that they could be accommodated in the Sports Arena. Around 350 of them had nowhere else to go, so have been ‘living’ in the arena since then.

The conditions in the sports arena are not fit for living. The well-being of these Wounaan people is at risk; already 2 babies have died because of the insanitary conditions. They are sleeping on a cold concrete floor, they have an irregular supply of clean water, little in the way of health care or education for the 100 children living there. They receive food supplies from the UN World Food Programme, but there is little fresh food and the poor diet is affecting their health. They have to go and try to find wood to build fires to cook on because they can’t afford to pay for gas for the cookers. Leaving the sports hall is risky because they aren’t used to busy city traffic and they are targets for paramilitary abuse (particularly the women).

When I met with the women there they were feeling desperate, with no hope in sight. They feel that they are losing their culture and identity as indigenous people. They can’t follow their normal customs or way of life. As the saying goes here in Colombia, “A community without land is not a community”.

The local government is not doing anything to help. They have had 7 meetings now and have got nowhere, either in terms of improving their conditions in Buenaventura or in terms of negotiating a safe return to their land. They are the forgotten victims of Colombia’s conflict. There seems to be no willingness from official sources to help their situation.

And once again, the land is at the centre of the violence. They have heard that there are plans afoot to build a military barracks on their land, and there is also interest in the gold mining prospects in the area. So, a link between displacement and political/economic interests rears its head again. And it begs the question, why aren’t the local authorities taking action? Because it’s not in their interests to do so when the land is such a valuable asset for commercial investment!

Wounaan women cooking at the sports arena

Wounaan women cooking at the sports arena

Buenaventura – City of Good Fortune?

Buenaventura – City of Good Fortune?

The name of the city of Buenaventura means ‘good fortune’.  It’s a name with much potential for a city with much potential.  67% of Colombia’s trade passes through the port. 12 million tons of goods, both legal and illegal, are exported and imported through Buenaventura; it’s the gateway to the Orient; to Japan, the Philippines and, of course, China.

However, it’s been a long neglected city by the government; it is cut off from the rest of the country by the Andees and has been left to its own devices in many ways.  Ten years ago, the internal conflict between the FARC terrorist group and the state forces was at its height here, the FARC were cleansed from the city by the paramilitary forces that were recruited to deal with the terrorist threats although they still operate in the rural areas.  But the situation with the paramilitary forces got out of control so the government initiated a de-mobilisation of the paramilitary, and ‘officially’ the paramilitaries no longer exist here.  However, many of them are still active and are classed as ‘bacrim’ or “bandas criminals” (criminal gangs).  That’s how those in authority want them to be thought of – gangs of lawless criminals who are committing atrocious crimes because of gang warfare and control of their ‘turf’.

However, behind the violence there is another story emerging, as has been the case all over Colombia.  Wherever there is violence there are always economic and political interests in the land.

Over recent years, there has been much more interest in the port of Buenaventura, particularly from external investors and international companies, but also by interested Colombian stakeholders such as the government, big exporters and drug dealers.  It is in the interests of all these parties to expand the Port and modernise Buenaventura in order to attract investors, business and tourism.

So, plans are afoot to raise the profile of the city, to expand the Port and to build a boardwalk.  The boardwalk is planned for the whole of the seafront of ‘la isla’ (the part of Buenaventura that is connected to the mainland by just one road).  However, all along that seafront are the wooden houses built on land reclaimed from the sea.  The houses (built on stilts) are home to thousands of Afro-Colombians, most of whom earn their living from the sea.  There have been overt and covert attempts to remove them from this prime piece of land.  Some have been offered rehousing, but for a family that rely on fishing for their livelihood, a concrete block 9 miles from the sea, is not an upgrade!

Those who those who have led the resistance against displacement live with constant threats against them.  The neighbourhoods are scenes of brutal violence with the famous ‘chopping houses’ where people are taken to be dismembered alive and their body parts thrown into the sea. The residents live in constant fear with daily occurrences of disappearances, extortion and murder, all intended to intimidate them into leaving.  These atrocities are being committed by the ‘bacrim’, but the local people know that this is just a byword for the paramilitary who are ‘incentivised’ by those who hold the money and the power.

I am coming to the end of my time here in Buenaventura and I have come to realise that it is a city of good fortunes, but only for the rich and powerful!!

The one glimmer of hope is the Humanitarian Space in the neighbourhood of La Playita, which is right on this much sought-after seafront; it is a haven of peace within a city of carnage.  Everyone who I have spoken to says the same thing “We didn’t sleep at night through fear, but now we sleep secure”.  This little street is now known as the safest place in Buenaventura.  Thanks to the work of the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace, and the bravery of the residents of Puente Nayero, a precedent for peaceful resistance has been set.

These homes will be destroyed if the planned boardwalk is built.

These homes will be destroyed if the planned boardwalk is built.

Happy Independence Day?

Happy Independence Day?

Today is Colombia’s national day – 20 July – celebrating Independence from the Spanish.  It’s a national Bank Holiday.  All around the city, people have put flags up on their homes, there are streets set aside for parties and traders have put up stalls filled with all sorts of food being prepared and cooked on the street.  A day for celebration; a day filled with music, hustle and bustle; a day of fun.

But in Puente Nayero tonight there will be a different kind of gathering.  What should be a ‘fiesta’ – a day of celebration – has turned into a day of mourning.  One of their own, Cristian Aragon, together with his friend Angel Mina, were murdered; they were both just 17.

The whole Aragon family had received many threats from the criminal gangs (former paramilitary) because they had refused to give in when the gangs wanted to ‘recruit’ their children.  About a year ago the family moved out of the area because it got too much.  But a month ago they decided to return and moved back into their home which is within the Humanitarian Space.  However, the ongoing threats made them prisoners in their own home; they were afraid to go out and certainly would not leave the safety of the Humanitarian Space.  Cristian’s parents, Doris and Ezekiel, had tried to drum home the importance of staying thin the ‘Space’, but a boy of 17 doesn’t want to listen to his parents’ advice; he just wants to do his own thing and go out with his mates.

Cristian and Angel were murdered just a few yards away from the Humanitarian Space of Puente Nayero, where police and military are stationed.  They were killed by well-known gang members and a girl who was with them, was also injured.

So tonight, instead of celebrating independence, the family, friends and neighbours of Doris, Ezekiel, Cristian and Angel will be holding a wake.  It’s not fair; it’s not just; it’s sad; it’s outrageous; it’s unbelievable; it’s heart-breaking. Words are failing me, but one thing I know – this is not a country that should be celebrating independence, freedom and democracy!!