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Colombia: art in the midst of violence
29 May 2012

Many of the displaced residents of Buenaventura live in the La Playita neighbourhood. The homes sit on stilts over the water, and the roads usually flood in the daily rains. Buenaventura, Colombia. (Christian Fuchs/JRS)
Our goal is to show the young people of our city that there are better people to admire than the guerrillas, gangsters, and paramilitaries who run our town, said one of the founders of Rostros y Huellas.
Buenaventura, 29 May 2012 – Between the western range of the Colombian Andes and the Pacific Ocean in the region of Valle de Cauca lays Buenaventura – Colombia's principal port city, and also one of its deadliest.

Few international headlines highlight the on-going nearly 50-year-long armed conflict which has caused the displacement of thousands of Colombians in recent years. Buenaventura is a strategic location for both left-wing guerrillas and right wing paramilitaries seeking to capture valuable drug, weapon and mineral shipping routes; it has one of the highest rates of intra-urban displacement and a 60% unemployment rate.

The fear and violence is palpable as we walk through the neighbourhoods, and confirmed in meetings with our Jesuit Refugee Service colleagues, humanitarian organisations, Catholic Church partners, displaced residents, leaders of the local community and other NGOs.

Kidnapped and terrified. We meet with one couple displaced from their farm on three different occasions in the last 11 years by illegally armed groups. During their last encounter with a paramilitary group, Don Jose* was kidnapped and tortured. His wife, Doña Diana*, seven months pregnant at the time, lost their baby two months after she was born and blames the stress of their trauma. They are still living the nightmare of their separation, unable to offer comfort to one another.

As a psychiatrist who counsels the family explains, their case is emblematic of the trauma that haunts many of the displaced here. Continued violence and lack of resources for the affected individuals prevents these torture and trauma survivors from reaching full recovery, even years after the underlying events occurred.

We learn that paramilitary groups, including the Black Eagles and the Rastrojos, control sectors of the inner city of Buenaventura, while the rivers and rural areas surrounding the town are controlled principally by the FARC, a left-wing illegally armed group. On the outskirts of the city we find illegal mining linked to the illegally armed groups has become an endemic problem, causing environmental devastation, while displacing families from their land.

The government is said to have shut down a gang-controlled mine on three different occasions, equipment reappears and the mine is up and running again within a week of these government actions.

Leaflets announcing the presence of these illegally armed groups regularly appear on the doorsteps of residents of Buenaventura’s poorest neighbourhoods. Pamphlets distributed by the Black Eagles targeting women and girls for violence, specifying the types of clothes women may wear and how late they may leave the house at night, are especially worrying. Our office has documented a surge in threats and violence specifically targeting students, community leaders, teachers, and those agitating for land rights or restitution. Targeted assassinations of community leaders and forced disappearances are also on the rise.

Armed groups continue to demand vacunas, or war taxes from the residents of the town; those who refuse have been murdered, raped, or disappeared. Of particular concern is the targeting of youth and children vulnerable to coercion and recruitment.

The arts of resistance. We meet with a group of young artists, Rostros y Huellas foundation, Afro-Colombian men and women in their twenties leading a movement to resist violence and displacement. JRS has partnered with this organisation in an effort to prevent the use and recruitment of children into armed groups.

Inaugurated after a brutal massacre of athletes and artists in the Punta del Este community, the foundation is leading outreach efforts to elementary-aged children in Buenaventura, employing audio-visual tools to teach children about their right to live in peace and free from fear.

One of the artists describes with horror the kidnapping and dismemberment of the young community leaders of this neighbourhood.

"We decided we must find a way to resist," says one of the founders of Rostros y Huellas.

"We use music, art, poetry, hip-hop and dance. Our goal is to show the young people of our city that there are better people to admire than the guerrillas, gangsters, and paramilitaries who run our town. This is our home, and we want a brighter future – a future free of femicide, of racial injustice, of displacement. We don’t believe that is too much to ask".

Invoking the legacy of deceased Colombian Bishop Gerardo Valencia Cano, whose life's work centred around inclusion and justice for Afro-descent communities in the Pacific Coast of Colombia, the members of Rostros y Huellas express their hope for a future where their voices are valued, they can be free from the horror of violence, and liberated from the constant encroachment of government-sponsored development projects that would likewise leave their communities disenfranchised and homeless.

"We seek to give voice to our reality", says another founder of the group, a young woman in her late 20s.

Their mission strikes me as particularly important in the climate of fear created by the armed groups here, where assassinations, disappearances, and campaigns of terror have produced spaces of strained and bitter silence.

Shaina Aber, JRS USA Associate Advocacy Director

*Their names have been changed for their protection.

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