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An attack against a social leader is an attack on an entire community

In Colombia there are 8,307,777 victims of armed conflict and 7,358, 249 displaced people. And when these people are social leaders, entire communities suffer. Español

Image: Pacifista!/Sara Gómez. All Rights Reserved.

Article originally published in Pacifista! and available here.

“Hello Carolina, I have a situation”. It was a Thursday at 6:40 in the morning when I received this message. The sender was a social leader who I had met two years prior whilst compiling a report.

I will not give their name nor many details because this leader has received death threats. Minutes before receiving the message I replied asking them various questions.

They responded as such through text and voice messages: “I’m in Bogotá due to a violent situation.. I’m in the Salitre terminal or however they call it here.. To see if we can take a look to comment on what happened.. I’m very cold.. I don’t know how to say this..”

Every one of those messages dug a deep hole inside of me. He had already been warning me that the security in his neighbourhood was getting worse. That he did not feel safe. That, above all, the threats from certain individuals who arrived dressed as rabbits anguished him.

“You’re talking a lot”. “Why would you look for unnecessary problems”. “Take care about what you say”.

But he believed it would never go any further. That nobody would dare to cause him harm because he never caused harm to anybody himself. Quite the contrary in fact, as his profession was to save lives. But they did dare to.

First, there came the threat that he ignored. Later, a second and more direct warning: “Don’t get yourself killed”, which led to him asking for money from a neighbour so he could flee.

He arrived in Bogotá on Thursday morning with 6000 pesos in his pocket and a bongo that he received as a present. He knew nobody. He had never visited that cold, huge capital “filled with bridges” as he said. The only thing that occurred to him was to look for me.

And when I found out, it filled me with dread, it paralysed me. Later, I spoke with various friends that gave me clues over what to do. The first was to report, to tell his story, to make his status as victim of a conflict official, which would provide him with new rights he could claim.

I told him to wait in the terminal, that there was a district office there that could attend to victims (I had read this in a report about displacement), and that he should look for it and tell his story whilst I continued to research what to do next.

Around 2pm in the afternoon we met in the terminal. When I arrived, he was sitting on the floor, by the victims’ office. He saw me and he tried to smile but he could not. His gaze was empty, lost: an expression I had only ever seen before at funerals.

He greeted me and then bombarded me with questions: What am I doing here? When am I going to see my wife and kids? What is going to happen with my home? Am I never going back? What am I going to do here? And my job? And the kids’ education?

It is time to stop talking about murdered or threatened leaders. Entire communities lose out when they are no longer there.

I am aware that in Colombia there are millions of victims and displaced persons. I have searched for exact figures in the National Register of Victims as an appendix for reports many times: there are 8,307,777 victims of armed conflict and 7,358, 249 displaced people.

Of course, with these numbers one would think that the cruel, unjust and painful nature of this war has been exemplified. 

But another thing is to look displacement in the eye, into the hopeless, empty eyes of the leader who had to leave behind his life because in his territory, like in many regions of Colombia, there is no state presence and criminals have taken over.

When he fled that morning, he did not only just leave behind his wife, his children and the house that was so difficult for them to build. He also left behind the boys from his neighbourhood with whom he worked, danced, sang and created a community over many years which experiences this cultural transformation that is often so spoken about.

Not long ago, a human rights defender was telling me that when a leader is murdered or when they must leave their threatened territory, the community becomes bereaved. Struck with fear, feeling abandoned and alone.

And this vulnerability, inevitably opens up the door to armed criminals for them to take over with more force.

The leader who wrote to me that morning has to carry out a ritual of faith, of hope, of bravery, every day to imagine a new life for himself in Bogotá. A life built from nothing. A life far from his community that remains there, in between the violence that has gained control over the territory and has taken it away from him.

It is time to stop talking about murdered or threatened leaders. Entire communities lose out when they are no longer there. Let’s talk about communities, organizations, threatened territories.

Let’s talk in plurals as they do themselves: the farmers, the afro-descendants, indigenous groups, members of community processes that are the most vulnerable, that they are also killing.

And it is time the state does the same, that it guarantees collective protection, because when a leader leaves, many lives are taken with theirs.

It is necessary that what is stipulated in decree 2124 of December 2017, that created a route for collective protection of groups and communities, goes beyond the paper upon which it was written. It is necessary to take the warnings of the Public Defender into account that in 2017, 480 cases of threats were reported. It is necessary to listen to communities and to understand what collective protection and security means to them, beyond the provision of convoys and bulletproof vests.

Above all this is necessary, because at the end of the day, they have been defending themselves and surviving this war for years with this collective thinking that we now have the task of comprehending.

Postscript: Today the leader is being seen to by an attention program which includes housing and food, at least until the Unit of Victims finishes their analysis of his case (it can take up until 3 months) and he has been declared as an official victim of this war. He will begin a new process with the government and he is also awaiting the transfer of his family, what he currently most longs for. 

About the author

Carolina es periodista de la Universidad de Antioquia y ha dedicado su vida profesional, principalmente, al periodismo investigativo y narrativo en la prensa escrita. 

Carolina is a journalist and graduate of the University of Antioquia who has dedicated her professional life to investigative and narrative journalism for print media.


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