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!!

Where is the blood?

Where is the blood?

The Humanitarian Space of Puente Nayero is the response of the Afro-Colombian people who live there to the violence that had pervaded their neighbourhood and homes.  Over 300 families live in the main street and 2 parallel ‘bridge streets’ which are on land reclaimed from the sea using rubbish and debris.

Before April last year, they felt that there was no hope.  The presence of the gangs (who have formed out of the paramilitary forces) brought fear on a daily basis; many of the residents were threatened, some were the victims of extortion in order to be able to continue running their small businesses, some just disappeared, some were tortured and killed within earshot of their neighbours who could do nothing about it.  The aim of these gangs is to intimidate the residents to such an extent that they leave this prime land (more about that in a future blog).

Yesterday one man, Don Pedro, told me that when someone just died in the community, one child said “Where is the blood?”  This child had not seen a natural death; children were so used to seeing violence and bloody deaths, that they didn’t know what a natural death was!

However, since the declaration of Puente Nayero as a Humanitarian Space, under the protection of precautionary measures of the Inter-American Courts for Human Rights, there has not been one death in the ‘Space’.

People feel like they can breathe again, they feel safe, there is a calm undertone in the community.  They can go about their daily lives with a measure of security.  The presence of the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace, and international accompaniers, gives this community protection. That is why I am so glad to be here; my presence gives them security too.

Hopefully, there will be no more blood shed in Puente Nayero and other communities will follow their lead too.

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.

Turn up the Heat!!

Turn up the Heat!!

From what I hear, in the UK, you are experiencing a heat-wave.  Here in Bogota it’s a bit chilly.  And it’s tempting to think – long live climate change if it means warmer weather for us in the UK!  However, the real effects of climate change haven’t really been seen in the UK – there have been more floods in recent years leading to increases in our insurance premiums; some coastal erosion, and the occasional extremes in temperature, but nothing life-changing.  The same can’t be said of other places around the world which are experiencing severe droughts or floods, leading to loss of land, crops and lives.

That’s why I was among about 8,000 people lobbying their MPs in Westminster a couple of weeks ago, asking them to put climate justice at the top of the political agenda for the sake of those things that we love and which are threatened by climate change.

I was reminded of this yesterday when Father Alberto referred to Pope Francis’s recent encyclical.  I asked him if Colombia was seeing any effects from climate change.  ‘Of course’, was the answer.   Colombia’s climate is quite complicated, with distinct zones with differing climate.  You can experience all weathers at all times in Colombia, from below zero temperatures in the mountains to hot humid rainforest.  However, what is happening is that the boundaries of these zones are blurring, so areas which are not so accustomed to as much rain as in the rainforest, are seeing more heavy rain and consequently, floods.  This is quickly leading to mudslides, like the one that happened on 18 May this year in Salgar, Antioquia.  78 people were killed and over 150 are still missing!

Which leads me to another question – why did we not hear about this in the UK?  I had to search the internet for any news on this disaster.  I found a couple of articles buried in the Latin pages of the BBC and Guardian websites.  How many people have to die before something becomes a major news story?  The day after it happened, the UK papers were full of the news that 4 members of a boyband had gone bankrupt, the start of the Chelsea Flower Show and how many twitter followers Barak Obama has!  Hmm!  Is that really the news people want to hear?  Are we really just a nation of heat-seeking gossip lovers, or do we care enough about our world to do something about it?

Gearing up for an adventure

Just over a week to go and so much to do. I travel to Bogota on Sunday next week.  In an ideal world, I would like to see ALL my friends before I leave, but that’s probably not going to happen.  Things I must do include ‘buy malaria tablets’, download some music onto ipod, make sure I have all the emergency contact numbers and insurance details somewhere safe, get some currency – US dollars and …… what is the Colombian currency again? Oh yes, pesos.  £1 is about 4,000 pesos. Hmm -won’t be carrying many coins around then!

So, yes, my adventure starts on Sunday, and at the moment, most of it is unknown.  I am going to be volunteering with Comision Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Inter-church Commission for Justice and Peace),  or JyP as I will refer to them.  If you met Father Alberto Franco when he was in the UK last year, you will know of the brilliant work that they are doing with vulnerable and displaced communities.  So, I will be doing whatever is needed to support their work, including travelling to the communities to ‘accompany’ them and give them visibility and profile.  Hence the blog!!  Their stories need to be told – getting their message out to the world is what will keep them safe and change their circumstances.

While I am there, I will also be supporting them practically too – working with a school or a women’s group and I am really looking forward to getting immersed into their lives.  I know I will miss everyone here so much and it will be hard in so many ways, but it’s a great opportunity to make a difference.

So please follow my adventures and share it with others who may be interested.  I have also joined Twitter  @ColombiaJill so follow me there too for brief updates.