12 September 2014 -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, in north-west Colombia.
The region had been the scene over the years of massacres, selective killings and displacement. It was chilling to realise that those capable of such crimes were apparently watching us – closely.
Photo credit: Christian Aid/Mauricio Morales
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.
Years of suffering
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 Bogota and later had to leave the country.
She is just one of the 6 millions of victims of the armed conflict in Colombia that 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 displaced around 5.7 million people internally, with an estimated further 400,000 in self-imposed exile abroad.
Peace and the Diaspora
In peace talks between the Colombia 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.
FARC and the Government said recently in a joint communique 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 not so far been included. On Saturday, however, an International Colombian Victims’ Forum arranged by Christian Aid partner AB Colombia will take place in London and other cities globally, aimed at ensuring the voices of those abroad are heard.
With the process supported by the UN refugee agency the UNHCR, the aim is to produce a set of proposals from the diaspora to put on the negotiating table – an essential, forum organisers says, if a peace deal is have any validity.
Calls for justice
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 the capital Bogotá but even there the threats intensified so eventually she had to leave the country.
Critically, 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 their land illegally and are not above using violence to advance their interests.
Such interests, and the paramilitaries in their pay, still remain a force to be reckoned which is evidenced by the fact that despite the talks, the aggressions against human rights defenders in Colombia who have become involved with land issues is actually increasing. And in the case of Afro-descent communities, repeated orders by the Colombian Constitutional Court that land seized should be returned, have been ignored.
The curbing of the activities of the paramilitaries and 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, the paramilitaries, other criminal groups and the State itself.
This blog was written by Thomas Mortensen, Christian Aid Country Manager, Colombia.
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