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Caught in the crossfire

Indigenous Peoples
Colombia
2014-12-10-irrael-590.jpg

Irrael with his bag of 'pure evidence' or threats against his life made by both the FARC and paramilitaries. © Mark Chamberlain

On International Human Rights Day, 51-year-old Colombian indigenous leader, Irrael Manuel Aguilar Solano writes on the continuing injustices in Colombia faced by his people and his hopes for the future.

In the last 10 years, 46 men and women from the Zenú indigenous people in Colombia – my people – have been killed in the struggle for land-rights. We have given the details of the people to the government.

Not one person has been brought to justice for their murders.

Our crime in the eyes of the perpetrators is that we live on land that is deemed ‘strategically important’. What this means is that the land we have historically lived on is rich in resources – gold and nickel.

On the left are the guerrillas – the FARC. An organization formed in the 1960s originally for the purpose of redistributing land. On the right, the paramilitaries – armed groups who oppose the FARC.  

A report from Colombia’s National Centre of Historical Memory last year stated that since 1958, the conflict has seen over 220,000 murdered. But the damning point is that over four out of every five victims are innocent men, women and children – people like my community caught in the crossfire between so-called ‘left’ and ‘right’ groups and the armed forces.

But after the cold-blooded murders come the survivors. Yes, they may have dodged the bullets, but what happens if you are forced from your home because you’re caught in the crossfire? As of June 2014, official registration figures state that 5.7 million people have been ‘displaced’ since recording began and in the first half of 2014 alone, 64,000 had been recorded ‘displaced’. This means they have lost everything: their home, possessions, neighbourhood, friends and sometimes even their family. It means leaving all they have and starting again.

I recently travelled to Europe with the Catholic aid agency CAFOD and the EC in a further bid for justice for the 46. Carmenza, a 51-year-old woman, travelled alongside me. She has been ‘displaced’ three times since 1991. Not only did she lose her house, but she no longer sees three of her six children because she had to send them away to other areas of Colombia for their own safety.

I am a victim in this. I was elected leader of the Zenú in 2000. The day before, the previous leader received a death threat and resigned immediately. Since then, there hasn’t been a year gone by when I haven’t been written to, spoken to or texted about my imminent assassination.

I know the threats aren’t idle: the 46 murders in my community show that they aren’t. I know the men on motorcycles who come to give me the verbal warnings mean business – their warnings have been delivered before and the recipient is soon ‘disappeared’.

I carry a bag. This bag is full of printed documents sent to me by the FARC and paramilitaries. Each one informing me that I need to leave my land or they will kill me.

But it’s not just me that is at risk in this; my family have been threatened. While my wife was in hospital, my daughters were visiting her and they were followed by men. My son, who was seven years old at the time, was approached by two men on motorcycles who wanted to know where I was, what I was doing.

On Human Rights Day this year, I hope and pray that the British government considers me, my family, my people, my country and stands by its history of championing the rights of oppressed people around the world. I hope that it calls on the Colombian government to guarantee justice for the 46 murdered Zenú people and protects our community. And this justice wouldn’t just be for the innocent dead, it would be for the living – those who, like me, have to live through a war we didn’t start, but we want desperately to end.

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