City of displaced

(images of Soacha - click here >>)

Luz Marina Becerra is secretary general of AFRODES and a strong leader. Some of us visited her in her friend's home as well.

Sean: Introduction. Know long history of struggle. We’re a group of activists struggling for peace and justice, brought together by a commitment to change our country’s policies toward Colombia and we hope that our work and yours will be made stronger by the connections of solidarity that we build here.

Jattan Mazzot I., vice president of AFRODES. In Marino Cordoba’s absence, I took over leadership of organization, as I think Marino has already told you. [IT's have met him previously.] We are engaged in ethnic and cultural struggles for cultural rights of Afro-Colombians and struggles for their human rights. For us, it’s a great pleasure to be here all together and we hope that our conversation will bear fruit.

Jailer, functions as spokesperson/advising on governing board. It's great pleasure to have us here share experiences, tell about the organization, as Afro-Colombians want to be more about sharing. We can answer your questions, share about how AFRODES was legally founded August 1,1999. Initially it was an initiative of AfroColombian leaders, some of us met  in the US. Basically people who created AFRODES pushed the logistic. Mainly Marino Cordoba and two others pushed the organizing. Basically regional leaders who came from the Pacific coast. People who came from Western Colombia and had been working in community organizing before being community leaders became targets of armed groups, as leaders against the armies of the armed groups. This was especially true as the armed groups sought to expropriate natural resources of the area for their own ends. And so in order to protect their lives, they forcibly displaced to start the initiative here. Started with 50 displaced families here in Bogotá, and the purpose of organization was what Jattan said, basically in a rudimentary way, what is AFRODES. Would love to hear some of your questions and concerns.

Carol: When the 50 families came to the city did they come together or one at a time? How many displaced came here at a time?

Extremely difficult to explain how many families are here because most came here anonymously. Most came in small family groups. There are probably 3000 in Bogota and Soacha. How many cases here anonymously? There are established about 3000; came in small parts one family at a time. [In our debriefing, we were not clear whether they meant to say there were 3000 people or families here.]

Andy: Could you talk about the displacement in 1996 from Riosucio and how it happened ?

It has been a long time and continuous struggle by a number of Afro-Colombian organizations for our territorial rights. The 1991 Constitution was able to get passed transitory Article 55, which deals with lands in the Pacific coast watershed, particularly lands along river banks. Out of that transitory article, Law 70 was created, which covered our territorial right to participate in local government organization as an Afro- Colombian. Law 70 also gives us certain cultural and organizational rights as Afro-Colombians. We don’t assume the land is for private use. It’s for public use and should be available for everybody. So we have been working to get the collective title to the land as the law allows us. The most important thing is that these lands we hold in collective title are permanent, cannot be transferred/sold/no liens by third parties.

Immediately after collective title was granted the army came in and started bombing (three places: Cacarica, (Salaqui?, attrato?): indiscriminate bombing. The pretext was clearing out guerrillas. Because of that 20,000 fled in deep fear from those three river basins. Quite a few fled to Cartagena, some to Panama, a city near Panama [This probably refers to the group that went from Cacarica to Turbo]. But the vast majority went to Pavarandó, Antioquia (bordering Choco). This has been, until now, the largest ever displacement in Colombian history. This was done with paramilitaries marching in while the army was bombing. The cooperation was clear. [This operation happened at the beginning of 1997. It may have started in 1996. The people of Cacarica place the main date of their displacement in February of 1997.]

Andy: Can you explain the role of the paramilitary?

Something done in conjunction during bombing by the army, the para came marching in.

Willy: We are told that Afro-Colombians are 25% of the Colombian population, but only hold four seats on the National Assembly. What are some obstacles to getting people involved in government?

The cultural-ethnic movement has not taken on a political dimension. Most Afro-Colombians are deeply into the Liberal and Conservative parties. There has been a very small part that has tried to create political movement. Extremely difficult because of political machinery. Even within ethnic movements some say to get involved in political movements is bad. Those Afro-Colombians who have made it to Congress have not obeyed the Afro-Colombian population, rather followed orders of the traditional political parties. Could say in the entire history of the republic of Colombia, only 3 Afro-Colombians have taken on desires of the people. Also we have a Constitutional right to 2 seats in the lowers house, the House of Representatives. Unfortunately people who occupy those seats have been co-opted by traditional political parties, so don’t serve our interests. We are hoping that from 9/15, the last day of the First National Congress of Afro- Colombians, from that point on we will be immersed in electoral politics

Judy: Please talk about what are some of the challenges facing the displaced communities here.

Let’s talk about the characteristics of each community. Each has its ethnicity, each has own characteristics.

Mestizos- The displacement of Mestizos is eminently political. For example, if they don’t adapt to para/guerrilla policies

Afro-Colombian indigenous displacement is due more to the expansionist tendencies, the appropriation of our territories.

So our goal is to retake our territories/our land and that is our goal. In the meantime, while displaced, we have to pursue other projects to improve our standard of living, because we feel we still have to live in dignity here.

While at the same time we try to create conditions to facilitate our return.

This return has to be a moral and physical reconstruction and a moral reconstruction.

Margaret: Do people displaced from land maintain property rights to protect their territory?

Technically, yes, because the lands are collectively owned. We are now in discussion with the government about this issue. From legal point, we don’t lose our land, but in fact our lands are immediately appropriated on our departure.

Speakers said that they would like to know the concept we all [i.e. members of our delegation from U.S.] have in light of the Colombian conflict.

Carol: As US citizens, we are very concerned about how our tax dollars are used, with regard to human life and human dignity. We know that our tax dollars promote fumigation and other policies that we believe are policies of death instead of policies of life. Many of us have been in Congressional offices, in the streets of DC, to prison to protest against these policies.

Sean: We understand policies of the US to Colombia in the global context, believe many wealthy leaders see the resources of other countries, and believe they have the right to use any means necessary to get those resources, and they are very afraid to lose wealth and power that they have so they use violence to keep it. There are also many people in the US who aspire to be in balance with the earth and want peace for all the peoples of the world. And I feel a deep sense of solidarity with your struggle and a deep sense that the same struggle is carried out in different places in different ways.

Catherine: Good Morning. I’m Catherine from Atlanta, Georgia. It is obvious and sad that there are no African-Americans in this Witness for Peace delegation and I wonder if you could tell us what message to take back to our friends who are African-American and who are also struggling in our own country.

So I wanted to first respond to something. I want to thank you for solidarity, both you and other groups who come here. We don’t want to deny the process of human beings becoming more human. "We recognize that our governments do not listen to us as people. But we are planting the seeds that will eventually create harmony among all of us." We Afro-Colombians all came originally from Africa. " We feel united as Afro-Colombians, and we feel linked to any struggle that any African person is experiencing anywhere in the world." We know that Afro- as a prefix is universal, and that is why we’re working to create regional ties all over Latin America that will overcome traditional boundaries. Unfortunately, some of our cultural differences have not allowed us to have one single people throughout the world. "So what you can tell your African-American friends, is that anything they could do in solidarity with us would be greatly appreciated, and not just us but Afros throughout the hemisphere."

Steve: The people who took over your lands: are any of them business or industries that we could put pressure on ? Do you know who took your land?

Many. The foundation called Natura is the group that is most pressing the communities regarding environmental issues. It is U.S. funded. Also think there is a significant presence of oil exploration companies, believe they are North American as well. At the same time, we are convinced the US government interest in inter-oceanic canal is precisely the reason for the Riosucio displacement. We think the most important lobby is before your own Congress: they approve the budget. [The communities referred to above, Cacarica, etc., are all in the Riosucio municipality. It’s a huge municipality, mostly rainforest, next to Panama.]

Joe Jr: Life before displacement/ in general, was there any nonviolent resistance ?

There has been resistance and there have been long histories of peoples’ resistance to leaving the land. Naya River massacre: 140 were killed, leading to massive displacement. In Bellavista (city seat of Bojaya), on 5/2/02, after 4 years of massive resistance, 119 people were massacred. [This occurred when the FARC launched the canister of gas into the Catholic Chapel, where people had taken refuge during a fight between FARC and the AUC.] So everybody fled. There continue to be other pockets of resistance.

Want to clarify social fabric: Worst thing that can happen to Afro-Colombian is to be kicked off land, to be taken out of our environment, because we feel so deeply connected to nature. It doesn’t just break the social fabric, but the overall natural fabric.

Ken: Where are we geographically? We came through many barrios; are they all displaced peoples?

Soacha is a municipality, southeast from Bogotá. We are in the Oasis neighborhood, which is part of Soacha. Not everybody here is displaced. There are some displaced for economic reasons. In the whole area about 40% of people are displaced.

Q. Are the displaced concentrated in Bogota?

A. Afro-Colombians are dispersed throughout Colombia in major cities. The biggest are Cartagena and Bogota. In Quibdo, we are the large ethnic majority. So people there are largely with families and are better off than here. It’s a unique situation. Buenaventura is also largely Afro-Colombian. The displaced are better able to mix in in the cities of Buenaventura and Quibdo.

Initially large majority of Afro-Colombians, majority live with family and friends in Quibdo, Choco’s capital and enjoy sweet/generous ad hoc response of families and friends.

What relation with UN and what relationship are you building with other groups in Soacha?

The relationship with UN is pretty limited and we tend to have very short meetings with them. Initially met about the fact of displacement, and met again later about the living conditions of the displaced.

Re. Coalitions: We tried to organize displaced people across ethnicities. This was not successful. The most recent thing we decided was to work in coalition with all Afro-Colombians, not just the displaced. This has been more successful. Mid-September is the first National Congress of Afro-Colombians. We hope to address 7 principal themes. Will be hosting the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus. Hoping by the end of national Congress will have achieved many groups together under the theme "Life and Resistance."

Daniel: Clarifying question about the Oceanic Canal. I am interested in what it was; somebody was talking about canal.

Set goal of 2005 to start the project. The most affected communities (Sounded like: Endrosucre, putado, botau, buala fuente, murcy, Bojaya, Riosucio, Jurado Bay, Vigia el Fuerte, Murillo?)

Melissa: When initially the displaced came here in 1996, what did they do ? What are the conditions now? Electricity? Water?

A. It was extremely difficult to come here. Such a huge city, no one in solidarity, kind of save self if you can, dog eat dog. This was the first obstacle we encountered as we came from communities with generosity. Because of conditions here, we had to organize. We organized housing project for some families, 20 small businesses which employ 80 people. We work to stabilize families but this is an extremely precarious situation.

Willy: We've seen AUC graffiti seen on walls, and heard that they come in here on weekends. What exactly does their presence look like?

Anyone not directly involved in the AUC is afraid of them, they are the most dangerous terrorist in Colombia. They don’t just kill people, they dismember them, will rape a man in front of his wife. Will rape a woman in front of her husband. We have evidence about their presence, but no proof. Known in the zone, don’t know where. Also dismember people. They announce themselves through grafitti, etc.

Judy: about being torn from your environment. Psychological effects?

Ever since the 16th Century, the process of colonialization of Afro-Colombians was concentrated in Cartagena; then it dispersed. Far from cities, nature really shaped our culture; nature is our mother. To take ourselves out of this is to cut our roots. We could take examples from parallel life in regions and life in city where we are deprived of our traditional way of life. In the country we had sustainable agriculture, use of wood and other natural resources, clothing. In city those customs are neglected because of the conditions here.

I think there will be a chance to go and meet with families and find out the perspective of individual families. I think I could talk more about differences -- simple things -- bathrooms. There we’d go to the local river to bathe. Here we shower. There isn’t the pollution/toxins and industry there. There the vegetation cleans the environment. In city we have to constantly carry a little cash to travel, there (canoe, river). There live in such small communities we all know each other, all help each other out. Could talk about basic things, such a natural richness -- cultivate plantains. There we don’t need money; everything is available to us in that space.

Walking in Soacha: Eusebio Mosquedo was with one of the groups. He’s one of the three founders of AFRODES.

Another group had Andy from the I.T. and Hattan from AFRODES. There was also a young lady from AFRODES who works with youth. Her name may be Nelly. We saw a building under construction which is AFRODES’s gift to the community. It will be a pre-school and day-care center. Then we visited the home of a member of AFRODES, named Hilson Antonio Lemos. We visited him and his brother and nephew. Hilson built the house himself. He had help from the organization to get materials. His house and most houses in that section of Soacha are made from red blocks, similar to concrete blocks but not as substantial, that are produced somewhere nearby. Hilson is currently attending school ot get his high school diploma. He has 16 brothers and sisters. Living in his house are 3 brothers, a sister-in-law and a nephew. He said there’s no church in the area. Mass is said on Sunday in the school. (In the bus later we saw a couple places that seemed to be very small evangelical churches.) After visiting Hilson, we went to another home and visited a woman with four children. She came to Soacha because her husband had been killed. Her house was made of boards. We then went back to the building where we had the meeting.

Visit to home: presentation by Luz Marina Becerra -- There are no public services and no running water. She explained that the roof top tanks are filled weekly. People frequently will tap into the electrical lines to pirate energy.

Despite our contributions as Afro-Colombians, we have been discriminated against. Afro women cannot get jobs in the city, except possibly as a domestic. Women in Soacha suffer three-fold discrimination : as women, as Blacks, and as the displaced. We are not accepted in the universities, and cannot affford the private universities.

Life for the Afro woman is very different in the city than it was in the campo. In the campo many woman are widowed and raped. When they flee to the city, they discover they must be both parents, and must make enough money to sustain the family.

African culture in the campo is such that women can have many children and can care for them very well. There we have ample resources. In the city we lack resources, and are discriminated against for housing. Many women are forced into prostitution.

Domestic workers are expected to do everything, often working 16 hour days. Then the employer might not pay them, and sexually abuse them as well.

Kids face discrimination in school, such as being called "chocolate boy"; they are often excluded from study groups. One girl wanted to participate in the Student Council, but the school official told her she could not, because it would be too embarrassing.

Current community project is the building of a day care center and playground for the children. Some children have to stay alone all day long, while parents commute to work in Bogota. There is not always room for them in the school. They got the start-up money for the day care center from a group in Austria.

Next visited the home of a young woman from Riosucio; she has been in Soacha for 2 years. Most AFRODES families are from Choco, and many are from Riosucio.

Plantains, fish, yucca, and casaba were plentiful at home. Much more difficult here because we must buy everything and there are so few jobs. Sometimes there is domestic work in Bogota -- a 2-hour commute. When she can work, her three little girls are alone all day. Govt offers very little help; most help comes from ngo's. Govt did give "Solidarity Funds" of $1500 -- to start up small businesses. But many families had to use those funds to build their homes first; then they'd get cut off for misuse of funds.

Next we were shown the day care center in its early stages, and we were asked to consider supporting its construction. WFP said they could provide contact information, although they won't be directly involved in any material aid projects.

(images of Soacha - click here >>)

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