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Reclaiming their Communities – Stories from Colombia Responde

Published 03/09/2015 by Global Communities


Reclaiming their Communities – Stories from Colombia Responde

Residents of Montes de Maria share their stories on living in the shadow of drug trafficking and guerilla and paramilitary violence.
Colombia’s rural communities have lived for decades in the traumatic shadow of drug trafficking and guerilla and paramilitary violence. This vicious triangle of rivals forced millions from their homes into an uncertain future, and thousands more were intimidated, tortured or massacred. Those who were allowed to remain in their homes lived in an atmosphere of fear as communities turned on each other, while those who fled were often stigmatized, as host communities feared that they were associated with their persecutors.
Even as security has improved over the last decade, how do these communities rediscover trust and overcome trauma? How can people who lived in fear and silence advocate for their needs from municipal and national governments, and get what is rightly theirs under Colombian law?
Colombia Responde is a program of the Colombian government supported by USAID and, in one of the hardest hit regions, Montes de Maria, implemented by Global Communities. Colombia Responde’s role is make victims of Colombia’s internal conflict aware of their rights and what support is available to them, and to give them the training to be able to confidently access what they are owed. Simultaneously, it builds the capacity of municipal governments to respond to the needs of communities as they recover from past violence. These are the stories of some of the communities from across Montes de Maria, told by the leaders of the community development councils.

Alfonso’s story
“My community, Pijiguay, was abandoned for 13 years. In 1997 there was terrible violence. Many people were displaced and there was a massacre of 16 of our community leaders. The government didn’t identify us for help because we were too scared to speak up and tell them about the massacre, in case there were reprisals and more massacres followed. In 2010, Colombia Responde arrived. I was 14 and I remember that first day. It was the day my life changed. There was so much mud that their cars were stuck. The staff had on their rubber boots that were sunk deep into the mud. They arrived at 2pm, which was late in the day, and members of the community were too scared to go to the school where the meeting was meant to be held. I met one of the people from Colombia Responde and they asked me for water. I asked them why they were here and he told me. I could tell something was different, so I found the community leader and told him to bring everyone. We went door to door to round up people to come to the meeting. They were terrified. We had seen illegal groups call meetings then proceed to use the meetings to kill our leaders. But we managed to pull together the community to start the process.
“It took time and trust-building, but we progressed. One time, Colombia Responde had a meeting at night and I realized that we had overcome the fear. Before, night was the most dangerous time and now we could meet together without fear. We always remember the massacre with sadness, but now I remember our murdered community leaders as heroes who were willing to stand up to the illegal groups.
“Colombia Responde began by giving us psychosocial assistance and brought us together to form a community development committee. They provided training to the committee. With that training, together, we built a road that made access to our community easy, but that was not the most important thing. The important thing was the training. Now we have 60-70 young people who are community leaders. The training gave us the self-belief to keep going, and we have overcome the fear of violence.
“The training in ‘Voices and Sounds’ was very important. We created a radio center which received a prize from Semana, a major Colombian political magazine. We use the radio station to communicate with our community, everything from community initiatives to when new meat is available – when a cow or pig is slaughtered we play the sound of a cow, or the sound of a pig! We used to be known for our fear; now we are known for our creativity. Now we can talk where before we could not.
“The strength of Colombia Responde is that it is creating a whole new generation of leaders who support their community. The program taught us how to look for help in other government agencies. We do not expect everything to be delivered to us. We know that we will go to the agencies and get what we need.”

Lineth’s Story
“A guerilla group had stationed itself in Flor del Monte, my community, in the 1990s. There were then peace talks and the group demobilized. However, we did not experience the fruits of peace but instead the stigma of association. People assumed we were guerillas because of where we lived. Then with the absence of the guerilla group, other guerillas and paramilitaries moved into our community and began to threaten and kill us. They took down the public phones and destroyed any forms of communication we had, leaving us trapped and alone.
“In 2000, there was a massacre. Paramilitaries killed 60 people in a nearby community and the survivors fled and came to our community. Guerillas and paramilitaries followed them and more killing took place. Many years of fear and violence followed. In 2010, Colombia Responde came to our community and we worked with them to prioritize our needs and take stock of what we had lost. Trust had been destroyed. We received psychosocial help. Part of this involved arranging an event where everybody in the village cooked different cakes from around Colombia and the whole community got together to share in this simple exchange. It was the first step in healing, in making us see what we had in common, instead of dividing us.
“With Colombia Responde’s support, we built a community center and community cafeteria. It is where we meet, where our children eat their school lunches, where the community gathers for meetings. We created a community radio station, which we call ‘the voice of the silence of our past.’ One child listened to the radio and asked his father again and again to take him to see the man talking through the machine. He wanted to know which kind of man can broadcast on the radio. The father agreed to do so, and took the boy to the radio station. The boy saw that the presenter was just like them – a member of the local community. He was amazed that a normal person like them could speak through the radio, that it was not the voice of the government but their own voice. Today, children have their own program where they dramatize useful information and make learning entertaining. Now the children of our community want to be journalists.”

Francisco’s Story
“My region, Arenas, was prosperous and our agricultural products sold at the national level, but between 1989 and 93 guerillas entered, the ELN in 1989 and the EPL in 1993. Suddenly we could no longer produce as much. Then, to support us in this state, the government gave us handouts but we got used to these and stopped working.
I was displaced in 2000 and moved to San Jacinto, the urban center, and had to change my craft from being a farmer into making handicrafts. This was very hard, to completely change my life. Those of us who had fled from Arenas were too scared to talk and we were discriminated against by our names – people assumed we were guerillas by where we had lived. They would eavesdrop on our phone calls, insist that we report to them whom we were speaking to. We had no freedom and lived in fear and distrust. When Colombia Responde came, we did not trust them at first. But thanks to the persistence of the Colombia Responde team, they convinced us to work with them and we began to receive trainings and workshops to address our trauma and learn how to prioritize our needs and access the support from the government. Now we live in a different reality. We no longer live in fear. Thanks to God and Colombia Responde, we lost our fear and have the tools to speak freely. Now we are making progress and the future will be very different.”

Angel’s Story
“My nephew was working in a field and touched a landmine. It exploded and he lost one hand completely and part of the other. There was no health center in our community because of the violence. So we had to put my nephew in a hammock and transport him to the nearest city to get help. It was hard, arduous and painful.
We realized this meant there were many more landmines in our land and we needed to work on a program to teach people how to avoid landmines. But the illegal groups had forbidden media. Even health campaigns were forbidden. When Colombia Responde visited us, we formed a community development council. With the training and assistance of Colombia Responde, we were trained in first aid and we created a community readiness center for people who have been wounded. And we also developed a radio show to communicate with each other. Today I am a farmer, but I am also a journalist. Many of us who are farmers have become journalists and today we speak and report on our community without fear.”

Lizeth’s Story
“Our community was badly affected by violence. My brother was killed by guerillas. We lived in fear and distrust. Our road was in poor condition and in the rainy season it flooded. Even mules could not get through the water, and our crops were ruined. Many people lost their lives trying to get through the road in car crashes. Our animals and crops died because we could not get anyone to help us and the floods were so severe. I lost my bee-keeping business. Because of the violence, we did not trust each other and would not work together to fix anything or speak to the government to get our road fixed.
“Colombia Responde came and organized a community development committee. We prioritized our needs – first, we chose the road repairs. In the past, if we met, guerillas or paramilitaries would accuse us of being combatants, so we had lost a place to meet. As our next priority, we chose a community center where we could begin to meet again. They gave us psychosocial help and we began to rebuild our lives and our trust. They also brought us fruit trees that we harvest. We cannot bring back to life those we lost, like my brother, but the psychosocial assistance has helped us to begin to recover from those personal losses and pick up our lives and livelihoods. Today, we have a strong community development committee and we have the confidence to ask for what we need.”