The first day of the Caravana consisted of a day long introduction to the current issues in Colombia and the planning and strategy for the week’s work. It is fair to say much of it was a little dry and, freshly arrived and naïve, it all seemed a little remote. But the appearance of Yira Bolanos was both an emotional and brutal confrontation with the reality.
A report of the first day of the 2012 Colombian Caravana would be an ideal opportunity to whine about how the cancellation of the scheduled flight from Heathrow coupled with an 8 hour transfer at Houston led to a small group of us arriving in Bogotá at 4.30am just about in time to join a working breakfast at 8.
But the inconvenience of a 30 hour journey and consequent fight to survive the hardship of less than 9 hours’ sleep in 3 days quickly paled into insignificance when contrasted with coming face to face with the survivor of a genuine fight to survive which has endured for far longer.
Yira Bolanos struck an almost comic figure when she arrived. In a buckled raincoat with collar up, hat with brim pulled low and dark glasses she seemed a caricature of an incompetent spy and was curiously conspicuous amongst the 45 strong group of lawyers in their best attempt at Sunday casuals. Or perhaps she stood out due to the emotional welcome she excited from experienced caravanistas and friends and the buzz of enquiry from the rest of us. Her identity along with her shocking but by no means unique story was soon revealed.
Yira developed a practice representing political prisoners. In Colombia that means Trade Unionists and others trying to gain rights for workers and the poor. Besides those people being treated as criminals, so too are those who represent them.
In 2003 Yira was arrested, charged with ‘rebellion’ and held in prison pending trial. There was no trial. Afer 16 months of incarceration as a high security prisoner and transferred to 7 different prisons she was released and the charges dropped.
3 years later in 2007 she was still working and predominantly representing displaced persons trying to regain access to land from which they had been forcibly removed, when she was detained again on the same charges only, once again, to be released without charges being pursued.
On release she was subjected to a relentless campaign of harassment. Her home and office were attacked and vandalised and evidence stolen. She received so high a level of credible threats against both her and her family that she fled with them to Venezuela. Bizarrely, while her children were granted the protection of refugee status, she was not and, in any case, she was tracked down and continued to receive threats.
As she was no safer there, she returned to Colombia to work leaving her children protected. On 1 June 2011 she was arrested again and imprisoned. Beaten, faced with a host of trumped up charges and still denied a trial, her case came to international public attention. The International Human Rights Commission arranged to visit her in prison but 2 days before their visit she was moved to a different prison and so was not there when they arrived.
The pressure must have told though. This time she was afforded the luxury of a hearing which took place on 16 April 2012 and led ultimately to the charges against her being dropped yet again and she was released from prison on 27 July, less than a month before the Caravana came into town.
Yira is a tiny woman whose darkly ringed eyes betray the years of stress and recent maltreatment. In spite of her release, she does not feel safe. In tears, not for the first time in her story, she told us that she plans to flee again in order, literally, to stay alive. But, she added, managing a wan smile, ‘I hope to return one day’.