Perhaps it was tiredness beginning to tell but on Day 4, in Sincelejo, I think the emotion really got to me. For the first time we met direct victims as well as their ‘defenders’ and they broke my heart.
From the little we saw of Sincelejo, it did not appear to be an attractive town. The largest urban sprawl for around 150km, it was busy and with nearly all shop and business fronts along the main road in use, evidently thriving. But its architecture is practical not beautiful and there was none of the warmth of Cartagena.
Long regarded as one of the most dangerous areas of the country and scene of the murder of a lawyer barely 2 weeks earlier, at 9am we were ushered by bodyguards into bullet proof vehicles. It was a disconcerting experience even though the security was not for our benefit but that of our hosts.
The local co-ordinator and her husband are members of the Communist Party and both have been granted personal protection by order of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Therefore both have bodyguards and both have the use of bullet proof cars.
We were driven at speed to what appeared to be a residential area. By home standards it would be considered as run down but by reference to the villages we had passed the evening before, it seemed a moderately wealthy neighbourhood. Two storey houses built to a recognisable standard and blessed with water, electricity and even space for vehicles at the front.
Our destination did not appear to be a home however but a meeting place. After being allowed through metal security gates, we were led through the building into a large courtyard at the rear. The interior displayed no furniture or other signs of residential life with large rooms and a long hall largely empty save for a mish mash of chairs, tables and pieces of office equipment.
In the courtyard, gathered around a line of garden tables beneath a large straw roofed sun shade, we introduce ourselves to between 30 and 40 people comprising victims, defenders (the term used to describe those who represent groups of victims) and one lawyer. There is no other lawyer because barely any practice in the area at all and none will touch claims for displaced persons or victims of paramilitary aggression.
Out of a busy day of meetings, we had set aside 2 hours to meet this group. We stayed for 3½ and another day would have been inadequate for them all to tell us their desperate stories.
There is the son of a civil servant who, after disclosing links between the local government and the paramilitaries, was persecuted with false accusations and eventually murdered. In spite of some 15 witnesses also being killed, a conviction was ultimately secured and his father’s name cleared but he and his family continue to be harassed.
There have 3 attempts on the son’s life and he was forced to flee to the US for 2 years. Criminal charges were presented against him in order, he believes, to force his return in 2011 and within a couple of months he began receiving new threats.
He is not unique. Others tell their tales of land being stolen and attempts to secure restitution being met with harassment, threats, violence and murder. One man explains how the risks have been acknowledged by the authorities and provision made for a bullet proof car but he has to share it with 3 others. While I ponder on the contrast with our co-ordinator’s family having 2 cars, he notes laconically that sharing a car between 4 families makes it hard to get around.
Near the end is a woman who had been forced to watch her father being killed by paramilitaries who took the family land by force. She, along with many others now lives in a community of other displaced persons. Their homes are hand built shacks lacking proper services.
She sees the begging which now surrounds her owing to the poverty; most of the displaced people were working the land and so have also lost their livelihood. She sees the paramilitaries forcibly recruiting children. She sees her own children reacting to the tension; becoming aggressive as they rail against the iniquity. She fears for them. She weeps. We all weep.
She was unable to find a lawyer to help her so, in spite of only a limited formal education, she has been trying to represent herself. It is obvious she is finding it difficult but she says she is determined to see it through. Rarely have I felt so hopelessly unable to offer comfort or help.
Yet, the visit appears to bring hope. Time and again we are told of the importance of our coming, that for the world at large to know even some of these stories makes a difference. The many we have not heard seem genuinely heartened as they thank us with broad smiles and a kiss or pat on the arm.
But I still feel lousy for leaving