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.

 

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