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!!

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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.