“We lived somewhere for two years, then somewhere else for a year and a half,” Hermelinda said.
Her education was interrupted until her people were able to return home. But then her family decided to marry her off.
“Girls get married at eleven or twelve years. At thirteen they have babies,” she told me. “I said no.”
Hermelinda took refuge with a staff member at the school where she wanted to continue her studies.
The festival drew participants from Canada and Chile and Cuba and France and Germany and Israel and Italy and Venezuela. Many came from Mexico, including theatre scholar Rocío Galicia who has been studying the narratives now coming out of the US-Mexico border areas plagued by violence. When asked who she thinks is murdering hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, she offered her opinion: Impunity made the killings multiply. “People saw they can do it and get away with it.” Now there are many different motives, different killers. “Because of impunity, the femicide has taken on a life of its own.”
Colombians know about impunity.
“We’re still waiting for justice in Arauca,” said María Fernanda as she told me about the little girl who was raped and killed by soldiers who then killed the witnesses, her two little brothers. Only one of the men believed to be involved was ever charged and even he has not been tried because the judge, a woman who was assigned to hear the case, was assassinated. (There are many women judges in Colombia; some say it’s because the job is too dangerous and men don’t want it.) “At the site of the burial, people came carrying photos of 200 people who were killed by the army and there I saw the photo of my older brother.”
To explain what happened to him she had to go back to the bombing of Santo Domingo. “After that, we spent eight years as displaced people in the town of Filipinas. We got three months of assistance, just basically for food, and we weren’t used to being in a town instead of the countryside. If we had for rent, we didn’t have for food, if we had for food, we didn’t have for clothing.” Two of her brothers crossed the border into Venezuela looking for work and were killed there by persons unknown. As for her older brother, “He had gone to a farm and asked if there were landmines on the property because he wanted to go down to the river to fish.”
She explained that landmines are planted throughout the area by the FARC “Now and then an army dog will sniff one out but there’s no campaign to get rid of them and we don’t really want that. If the mines are removed, the FARC will plant new ones and we might not know where. Right now, we walk on the highway or you can walk where the cows walk to be safe.”
Or, you do what her brother did, and ask around about the existence of mines because the guerrillas usually warn people. But the fact that FARC guerrillas communicate with local civilians makes noncombatants suspect.
“The Army heard him talking about mines. They came for him and took him and two others away barefoot and killed them.”
For civilians in the conflict zone, it’s equally dangerous to talk to the police or the Colombian army. “Seven girls were killed for talking to soldiers or flirting with them. For this it was believed they were passing information,” she told me. “When the army is around I don’t leave the house even to go to the store. If there’s no toilet paper in the house, well, I just splash water on myself. You can’t go out.”
But she does go out at night, braving car bombs and dodging bullets in order to participate, as does Hermelinda, in a theatre program for youth sponsored by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Through the program, young people work and play together, dismantling cultural barriers, reinforcing respect for human rights, specifically training youth to take a stand against gender-based discrimination and violence.
María Fernanda dreams of becoming “a professor or lawyer or someone who can help people but I’d also like to be a singer who sings about peace.” With her surviving family members, she has now returned to Santo Domingo but they no longer own their old farm. “It’s very hard. But I have to be strong. If my mother has to cope with their having murdered three of her sons, the oldest, the ones that most helped her, we the others have to be capable.”
I am haunted by these girls and by the role that we in the US have played–and still play–in their lives. The US has poured billions into military support for Colombia, ostensibly to fight the war on drugs (and now repeats the same misguided policy in Mexico). Germany has taken a different approach: the German federally owned enterprise GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) helped support the theatre festival as part of its ongoing work with Cercapaz, an organization dedicated to strengthening civil society and developing nonviolent conflict-resolution strategies for government and community in the interest of sustainable development and peace.
“The fundamental problem isn’t the narcotraffic,” insisted speaker Carlos Lozano, director of the leftwing weekly, Voz. “It’s the hunger and misery.”
Not to mention that, as he pointed out, the Colombian government spends six times as much money on a soldier as on the education of a student. Students like María Fernanda, Hermelinda, Julieth.
In the meantime President Obama has abandoned a campaign pledge and thrown his support behind the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia which will only exacerbate conditions of inequality. He relied on agreements with Colombian president Santos that human rights would be respected and community leaders protected but little more than a week after I returned to Los Angeles, I received word that Ana Fabricia Córdoba was assassinated in Medellín. She had continued, after the murders of both her activist husband and her son, to work on behalf of displaced families who wished to return to their land. Because of repeated death threats, she had requested protection from the government. She got none.
The last day in my workshop, Julieth wrote, “I’m afraid of not knowing how to face situations that shake my sense of self, my emotional security. The worst that could happen would be if bad circumstances knock down my dreams like coconuts from the trees. I couldn’t stand it if all my efforts turned out to be useless.”