May our silence become a scream

May our silence become a scream

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By Ana María Rodríguez

“We are civilians and we want them to respect us. We are afraid, but we have always lived here and in silence we will continue to resist, because we are not going to give up our lands, we are not going to leave "

I have never seen so much pain and suffering. For 8 days I lived in some of the communities of the Municipality of Bojayá in Chocó (Colombia). In the company of two colleagues, we arrived in the area responding to the call that the Afro-Colombian and indigenous inhabitants of this area had made to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to participate in a mission to assess the situation. humanitarian in the area.

Around noon on April 27, we left Quibdó, the capital of Chocó. It took 4 hours by speedboat on the Atrato River to get to Bellavista, the municipal seat of Bojayá. The first time I heard of Bellavista was three years ago, exactly on May 2, 2002, when 119 civilians who were sheltering in the town's church died, in the midst of the fighting by illegal groups that fought in this area.

Around 6 p.m. A white woman with a German accent brings together almost 60 people from 22 organizations, including UNHCR, in the school canteen. "We will divide ourselves into 9 commissions that will be responsible for visiting 4 or 5 communities in the area."

With list in hand, Ursula, a missionary from the Diocese of Quibdó, begins to read the names of each of the people who were there and the communities that we would have to visit. For his part, the Legal Representative of COCOMACIA (Greater Community Council of the Integral Peasant Association of Atrato), explained to us that this mission had been convened to commemorate the three years of the Bojayá massacre, since they could not miss this date simply by remembering the dead, they knew that the humanitarian crisis continued and the armed conflict did not stop in Bojayá.

They explained to us that COCOMACIA, the Inter-Ethnic Forum Solidaridad Chocó and the Diocese of Quibdó, who had convened, decided to call this mission: Inter-ethnic Minga for the defense of territory. With this name they sought to symbolize the collaboration of different organizations and communities, since the "Minga" is an indigenous tradition of collaboration between local inhabitants, to achieve a goal that a single person could not achieve or would be very difficult.

Finally, Ursula explained to us that the departure time the next morning was 8 a.m. I had to be part of commission 6, which would visit one of the tributaries of the Bojayá river where 881 people from 4 Emberas indigenous communities were.

The commission was made up of representatives of the Diocese of Quibdó, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia -ONIC-, COCOMACIA, members of the Emberas indigenous communities, a colleague from UNHCR and myself. We sailed for 8 hours, in a 9-horsepower boat, and we passed through 5 completely abandoned villages, because as one of the members of the commission told us, “these Afro-Colombian communities moved because they were afraid of being in the middle of the crossed bullets of the armed groups "

Every minute that passed was scary, the river was taking us into the depths of the jungle. From time to time we saw some camps of armed groups that, as part of the vegetation, camouflaged themselves as we passed. Towards noon we finally saw people who appeared on the river bank to greet us, they were Emberas.

One of the members of the mission and leader of the indigenous communities began to tell us that in March 2004, 1,120 Emberas had been displaced by the fighting in the area and after three months, they decided to return to their territories: “For us the land It means everything, we always talk that the earth is our dear mother, because we live in it, it provides us with all the food that we consume in our communities, in it is our traditional medicine, this is our culture, that is why we are resisting and that is why we we are going to stay ”.

It was 4 p.m. and finally we were in the first community where we were going to spend the night, the women and children welcomed us, they seemed a little scared because strangers had come to live with them for a few hours. They told us that we would sleep in the community center, where people would also meet to talk with us.

There were 150 Emberas gathered, on one side the women sat with the children, on the other the men. It was beginning to get dark and the busy women began to look for white rags to ward off mosquitoes and protect their children. After the presentation of the team and the objective of the Minga, the Emberas began to tell us about their situation.

A man got up and spoke in his own language to one of the Embera leaders of the commission, who translated: “We are not used to living with people who have weapons, the illegal armed groups want to take over our guards and force us to live among they. They demand food from us and steal from us when we refuse to let them enter the communities ”.

One after another he got up to tell us that the gasoline cost $ 125 thousand pesos to get to Bellavista to get food, that as we had realized, it was 8 hours of travel, and that when they finally reached the town, the Public Force they demanded an invoice for what they had bought, if it exceeded $ 50 thousand pesos they would withhold their food, as they accused them of feeding the guerrillas. When they returned to their community with what little market they had been allowed to go through in Bellavista, they had to pass at least three AUC checkpoints on the river, which also checked what they were carrying and threatened them. When they finally arrived with some food for their families, the guerrillas came in and stole what little they had left.

As I said before, I have never seen so much pain and suffering. The Emberas are hungry, afraid, ill, they can no longer hunt, fish, gather or cultivate, because every time they leave their homes they meet armed men who threaten them.

“We are civilians and we want them to respect us. We are afraid, but we have always lived here and in silence we will continue to resist, because we are not going to give up our lands, we are not going to leave ”.

Finally, the entire community stood up and shouted in their language: "May our silence become a cry of unity, territory, culture and autonomy." Despite all the pain, they showed us that in that little piece of Colombia, there were communities willing to fight and resist the war.

Night came and all the men had already spoken, so they informed us that they had finished the meeting, however, I felt that the women were talking to each other in a very low voice. I tried to shine the flashlight on them, not understanding why none of them had spoken to the commission. One took courage and stood up “Women are afraid, we know that armed men have raped Emberas women, we don't want anything to happen to us and that's why we no longer go out to collect wood alone. We are also afraid that our husbands will leave because we do not know what time they are delivered to us dead ”.

There were three more communities that I visited with the commission, in each of them the testimonies were the same: 881 Emberas threatened and confined, a strong economic blockade, violations of International Humanitarian Law committed against the indigenous population by the armed groups, injuries to their autonomy and culture, that all the armed actors have entered the indigenous reservations pointing out and pressuring the civilian population, that some women have been raped, restrictions on free movement in the territory to carry out their daily tasks and finally that the situation of indigenous communities has been worsening as the armed conflict has increased.

After three days with the communities we left for Bellavista, again along the River, to meet the other commissions. I had a commitment, because before leaving a woman approached the boat and in her little Spanish told me: “We demand that it is not the only time that you come, we need your support, that we are accompanied and please let the whole world know that in Chocó there are indigenous communities that are being killed by the war ”.

* Ana María Rodríguez is a UNHCR official in Colombia.

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