Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fleeing the Guns of Big Business

by the Colombia International Team

Daira recalls her beloved village El Por Venir as a tight-knit community where people once moved freely and sang and danced into the late night. They had complete food sovereignty--growing traditional food crops and medicinal plants. However, today, Tumaco, the region where her village is located, is known for the large-scale cultivation of palm oil used for bio-fuels and for the devastating effects of Colombia’s internal conflict. In Tumaco, Nariño, 28,531 people have been forcibly displaced from their homes since 2002, the year that Alvaro Uribe Velez was elected president of Colombia.

In 1999, after helping her community gain legal access to 182 hectares of land, land that was and continues to be of interest to the palm oil industry, Daira began receiving death threats. Painfully aware of the links between big business and the paramilitaries hired to protect corporate interest at any cost, Daira recalls, “I knew that one day it would become too dangerous and that I would have to flee. I received threats like, ‘Shut up or we will cut off your tongue and gouge out your eyes.’” Tensions escalated and the situation became unbearable when the president of the community council and 6 others were violently murdered.

In 2001, Daira left behind the only life she ever knew—her loved ones, community, house and garden—and fled to Bogotá “alone, horrified, hopeless, desperate, and penniless.” Having cried every day for the first two years, Daira says, “I still have a deep pain in my heart, but I have learned to swallow the tears most days.”

Although Daira dreams of some day being able to return to her hometown El Por Venir, she knows it is still too dangerous to go back. With the December 2009 murder of her sister in Tumaco still fresh on her mind, she says, “It is like they are still telling me to shut up or else.” Refuting claims that Colombia is safer for all Colombians, Daira explains,

“We, the civilian population, are caught in the middle of a violent struggle between the military, the guerrilla and the paramilitaries---the illegal dark body of the government. The government wants everyone to believe that the conflict is over and there is only violence because of the guerrilla, but that is not true. We are being massacred for all of the richness that this country has—the oil, the emeralds, the minerals—even the water and the air.

We have lost thousands and thousands of good, brave people, but the truth of what is happening is being hidden. Everyday there is more and more impunity in this country. There is no truth, justice and reparations for the victims…that is the reason that I work to increase the social consciousness of people in Colombia. People do not realize that as soon as you leave Bogotá the conflict is very much alive.”

With her experience as a displaced community organizer, Diara helped found FUNDARTECP (Foundation for Art and Culture of the Pacific). Through FUNDARTECP, Diara works with other displaced people who arrive in Bogotá without “a place to live, food to eat or health insurance. They are scared, disorientated and desperate.” FUNDARTECP provides a myriad of services helping with everything from people’s basic material needs to workshops on dance, music, identity and human rights. “My mom taught me to sing,” says Daira with tears in her eyes as she remembers her mother who was violently murdered in Tumaco several years ago.

"Singing makes me happy and it is a means of resistance. Music helps us understand things that war cannot take away from us. It is an opportunity to move people, people who are tired and not interested in many things can still be moved by music—it motivates them and strengthens their spirit."

The work of FUNDARTECP focuses largely on Afro-Colombian women. According to Colombia’s Constitutional Court, Afro and Indigenous women are more vulnerable because they confront “triple discrimination for being women, displaced and an ethnic minority.”

Through FUNDARTECP, Daira and 280 women work with other displaced people, as well as with communities in Tumaco, to recuperate their culture, memory, identity and to revive hope and inspire new dreams. “When people are so violently murdered it affects the dreams and the hopes of the entire community—everyone is affected. I know that I, that we, must keep dreaming. When we stop dreaming then everything ends.”

When asked what message she would send to President Obama and the people of the United States, Daira answered,

“I would say that the people in Colombia are suffering. We do not need weapons or bases or more of these war policies being imposed on us. We need our children to be educated. We need people to have their land, to have houses and to have options. We need opportunities for a better country. When all the young people are sent to the army, how are we supposed to be able to escape this war and the war mentality? What are they going to learn there? They are going to learn to kill—kill their own countrymen, their brothers and their sisters.

You have already done enough. We need to be able to rise up from the ashes and construct our own history and our own process.”

Take Daira's story to your community and President Obama. Join the National Days of Action for Colombia:

Host a “Face the Displaced” gathering in March. Ask your school club, congregation, or peace and justice group to help frame the faces of courageous displaced Colombians like Daira (see above). Thousands of these poignant portraits will later be unveiled in eye-catching displays and delivered to representatives of the Obama Administration. Email ben@witnessforpeace.org for an organizing packet.

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