I was going to write a nice list of facts about the armed conflict in Colombia, our theme of the week. For example, did you know that there have been more disappeared persons in Colombia, a country that boasts having the longest democracy in Latin America, than in Chile or Argentina, during the high of their military dictatorships? Did you know that Colombia is the only country in Latin America that has not undergone a process of land reform? The very same conditions and social divides that have encouraged conflict to break out since colonial days are still in place, discouraging any end to conflict. Did you know that Colombia is sometimes referred to as the Israel of Latin America, as it receives the largest amount of USA military aid outside of the Middle East? That many of the right-wing paramilitary groups that the government claims have demobilized have rejoined forces and are just as active as they were before demobilization? Or that many analysts predict Colombia’s conflict will continue to gain momentum over the next five years? There are thousands more facts like these, and I have been enjoying learning about them, putting them together, searching for connections, analysing conflict trees, debating root causes, and returning to my house at night in complete freedom.
On Tuesday, we met a person who lives within all of those facts, yet somehow managed to jolt us all out of simply viewing the conflict as a serious of facts, but a lived reality, one that is unimaginably different from any reality I have ever experienced. Tuesday, we heard from one of the bravest women I have ever met. I will call her Teresa.
Teresa lived in a small town in the Colombia countryside. It was so safe none of the houses had doors to keep anyone out. She married when she was only 15, and had two children. However, life changed forever when one of Colombia’s guerrilla groups, the FARC, came to town. Through a serious of escalating events, her husband and two other of her family members were killed in a massacre. Despite threats against her life, Teresa decided to denounce what had happened and report both the crimes and who had committed them to the Colombian army.
Twenty-two years later, Teresa is still on the run. The last know attempt on her life happened twenty days ago. She has lived everywhere in Colombia before coming to Bogota. In Bogota, on average, she is forced to change homes every month. Because of her denunciation, and later denunciation of crimes committed by paramilitary groups, and her eventual knowledge of collaborations between the army, the paramilitaries, and guerrillas, Teresa continues to face very real threats against her life and the lives of her family, including her now four children, all because she refuses to remain silent about the crimes that she has witnessed. She has been kidnapped, but managed to escape by throwing herself out of the car. She has not been able to communicate with her extended family for the last six years. Her children face threats and when not in school spend their time at home because it is too dangerous for them to go out. During the last 22 years, over 15 members of Teresa’s family have been killed. Her daily routine often involves carrying extra clothes so she can change during the day, going one direction and backtracking, changing her hairstyle and her phone number. There is always the fear that the next stranger standing at the corner will be someone waiting for her.
However, Teresa is not waiting around with despair but instead acts with bravery and determination. When she moved to Bogota, she joined a local church whose social programs help victims of the armed conflict. She has since become an active leader, always willing to help others who are in her situation or worse. Recently, she has joined a group that works with young people addicted to drugs. She says that it helps her to be with people whose reality is so different from her own. She also just finished taking a course on women and violence, and is sharing her new knowledge with the church.
Additionally, in a country where telling the truth is often the most dangerous crime, Teresa showed incredible bravery by coming to see us and sharing her story. Despite everything that has happened, Teresa refuses to remain silent.
Teresa’s journey is not over yet. She is desperately trying to flee the country and seek political asylum. She has received visas to go to a European country, but her two oldest children have not been accepted because they are over 18. Teresa refuses to leave the country without them, stating that it would be better if they went and she stayed. Her family is now waiting to hear from Canada, which has traditionally had a strong relationship with Colombia refugees. However, Canada has decided to close its doors to Colombian refugees. Canada has recently signed a free trade deal with Colombia, on the basis that human rights violations in Colombia are under control and the armed conflict is over. Allowing human rights refugees into Canada would violate those premises, as the presence of people like Teresa is a blatant sign that conflict continues. Therefore, the doors have been shut, although no official date has been given and some refugees are still being allowed in. No one knows how much of a chance Teresa has to go to Canada. We are hoping and praying she will be granted access and finally be able to enjoy the peace I so take for granted.