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.

 

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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!!

Violence breeds Violence

Violence breeds Violence

On Saturday I was invited to a ‘Peace Breakfast’. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And it was! But it wasn’t all doves and poppies! Facilitated by members of an Anglo-Colombian, trans-national initiative called ‘Rodeemos el Dialogo’ (‘Let’s rally around the Dialogue’ – www.rodeemoseldialogo.org) – referring to the support they demonstrate for the Colombian peace talks; the guest speaker was Alejandro Parra, an outspoken conscientious objector in Colombia who presents the case with clarity.

He refused to do military service which is obligatory for all males in Colombia when they reach 18 years of age. His reasons for this are many, but mainly because he does not believe that taking up arms is the answer to Colombia’s 60 years of conflict. He pointed out various facts and figures:

Colombia has the second biggest army in Latin America (coming a very close second to Brazil, whose population is four times that of Colombia). There are 6½ soldiers for every 1,000 inhabitants in Colombia, but only 3½ teachers for every 1,000 inhabitants and just 1 doctor for every 3,870 people. What does this tell us about the priorities of the government? The level of investment of GDP in the military in Colombia is near the top of the list of top spenders, only being beaten by countries like Afghanistan, Russia, Iraq and Israel. Yes, they have been fighting a war on terror for decades, but what difference has this investment made? – over 220,000 conflict-related deaths, most of whom were civilians, over 65,000 disappearances in the last 20 years, around 5½ million people displaced from their homes, 17,000 kidnappings, and over 21,000 rapes (just in the last two years) and a high percentage of these were committed by the military!!

Surely the figures speak for themselves, violence begets violence. Children are being de-sensitised to conflict and violence. They get used to seeing soldiers, para-militaries, guns – they play ‘war games’, then when they reach 18 they take up the arms for real and there is no turning back. Many become disillusioned with the government and trade their army uniform for guerrilla attire; others take on the army’s ‘dirty work’ and join a para-military group.

A recent conference held at Cambridge University concluded that education hold the key to sustainable peace in Colombia; maybe if the government invested more in education and less on the military, a lasting peace would be within reach. Giving children a decent education, which eludes many in displaced communities, and giving them shared values and the principles for good citizenship, would help future generations to build a lasting peace.