“You’re from Santo Domingo?” I had protested that very bombing in demonstrations in front of the Los Angeles headquarters of Occidental Petroleum. The Colombian Air Force, intent on killing guerrillas who threatened Oxy’s operations, had relied on inaccurate information provided by the US. At least 17 civilians were killed and many others injured. Now I was talking to one of the survivors. “You were so young,” I said. “Do you remember?”
“A little,” said María Fernanda. “I remember my father lifting me onto his back. Like this, I crouched holding his shoulders. And I remember the sounds, the shells coming through the palm trees.”
We met in Barrancabermeja, Colombia where I was offering writing workshops and she was performing in the First International Theatre Festival for Peace which from May 20-30 brought us together with 400 artists and community members from different regions of Colombia and from 14 countries around the world, everyone committed to social justice.
Actress and activist Silvana Gariboldi from Argentina was impressed to see so many men involved. “In my country, it’s only women in the social movements.” I was impressed by the young man wearing a T-shirt denouncing the physical and mental abuse of women, and by the fact that many of Colombia’s broad-based programs for justice and human rights are focusing efforts today on the status of women.
Red Juvenil (Youth Network) of Medellín, for example, well known for encouraging young people to declare themselves conscientious objectors, has just initiated a three-year campaign linking women’s issues to all other campaigns. With a call to “Disobey and resist all forms of domination!”, the Network is organizing women (and men) to oppose not just militarism, racism, and economic exploitation but also machismo, seeing the evils as interconnected.
Women are not the only ones to suffer in six decades of armed conflict in Colombia but they, along with the children, have borne the brunt of displacement as some five million Colombians have been violently driven from their homes. Even where families remain intact, years of terror and trauma and social disorganization contribute to violence in the home and have limited opportunities for girls.
When I read Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir, Even Silence Has an End, about her years held captive by FARC guerrillas, it was clear she has no sympathy for their movement, but she couldn’t help but note the number of young girls in the guerrilla ranks who chose the FARC seeing it as better than prostitution, the only other option they thought open to them.
I thought of that in Barrancabermeja when I met 12-year-old Julieth. According to her teacher, she is the outstanding student in her entire rural school system. She is also outgoing, friendly and popular with everyone in town–including the classmates, some younger than herself, who one after another have turned to prostitution. Julieth is determined that will not be her life but I can’t help but worry. In her community, education goes only through middle school. Even if she finds a way to move to a city for high school, how will she support herself? Where will she live? What will she eat?
In my writing workshop Julieth invented a new consumer product: magnificient magical shoes, very pretty and very cheap. Any girl who wears them starts to think of love and not of money. She becomes incapable of selling her body.
Hermelinda ran away rather than accept the future that had been chosen for her. This teenager from the indigenous Sicuane community grew up on the resguardo (reservation). In 2003, the army came looking for guerrillas and gave people 30 minutes to get out or be killed. During the same military action, soldiers raped and killed indigenous people in settlements nearby.