‘Don’t think you are safe’
The text message that Yomaira Mendoza received was menacing. ‘They’ had seen her the previous day, it read, by the river, with los gringos – meaning us, a group of humanitarian workers and journalists visiting conflict-affected communities in Choco, north-west Colombia.
Over the years, the region had been the scene of massacres, selective killings and displacement. It was chilling to realize that those capable of such crimes were apparently watching us – closely.
After we left, Yomaira, whose husband was shot dead in front of her seven years ago, received another text message. ‘We have seen the gringos leave. Don’t think you are safe’, it warned.
Yomaira, the leader of an Afro-descendant community campaigning for the restitution of land lost during the conflict, had already received a string of death threats, including one reading: ‘fighting for land, there will be more than enough on top of you’.
Asking the police to trace the messages proved pointless. Citing a new intelligence law, they said that would be illegal, and soon after our visit, Yomaira fled to Bogotá and later had to leave the country.
She is just one of the six million victims of the armed conflict in Colombia, which has now dragged on for more than half a century. An estimated 220,000 people have been killed, countless thousands wounded, while violence, or the threat of violence, has internally displaced around 5.7 million people, with an estimated further 400,000 in self-imposed exile abroad.
In peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas in Havana, Cuba – now entering the start of their third year – broad agreement has been reached on rural development, political participation and drug trafficking policy, and attention is now turning to victims’ issues.
In a joint communique, FARC and the Colombian government said that those who had experienced ‘serious human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law… are entitled to the truth, justice, reparation and guarantee of non-repetition’.
But while two delegations of victims still living in Colombia have been invited to address negotiators, members of the diaspora have so far not been included.
In early September 2014, however, an International Colombian Victims’ Forum arranged by AB Colombia, a Christian Aid partner, took place in London and other cities around the world, ensuring that the voices of those abroad are heard.
With the process supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the events produced a set of proposals from the diaspora to put on the negotiating table – an essential element, forum organizers says, if a peace deal is to have any validity.
Yomaira’s story is not exceptional. Forced with other villagers to flee her home in 1997, her husband was killed ten years later, after they had returned to the area. His ‘crime’ was refusing to pay a fine for chopping down trees on land that had belonged to her parents.
Despite witnesses, no-one was brought to trial. Four years later, as the intensity of the conflict seemed to be abating, Yomaira lodged a formal claim for her ancestral land. Death threats quickly followed, and she went into hiding.
Moved from place to place by Christian Aid partner, the Inter-Church Commission on Justice and Peace, she ended up on a protection scheme in Bogotá, but eventually had to leave the country when the threats intensified.
In Yomaira’s case (as in so many others’), her initial displacement, the killing of her husband and the subsequent death threats were not the work of the two main parties to the peace talks, FARC and the government, but paramilitaries working for businessmen who grabbed land illegally and who are not above using violence to advance their interests.
Such interests, and the paramilitaries in their pay, still remain a force to be reckoned with, which is evidenced by the fact that despite the talks, the aggressions against human rights defenders in Colombia are actually increasing.
In the case of Afro-descent communities, repeated orders by the Colombian Constitutional Court that land seized should be returned have been ignored.
Curbing the activities of paramilitaries and of those who employ their services is likely to be central to displaced people´s demands, along with the restitution of the land they have lost.
Peace in Colombia has to take into account not just those negotiating in Havana, but the multiple armed actors who have committed crimes – insurgents, paramilitaries, other criminal groups and the state itself.
Thomas Mortensen is the Christian Aid Country Manager in Colombia.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.