Children now play soccer on the field where the lives of the people of El Salado completely changed.
In February 2000, some 450 paramilitaries stormed this small Colombian town. They forced people out of their houses into the countryside and began to play drums and drink alcohol stolen from local stores. Then they went on to torture and kill. Yirley Velasco was one of those gang-raped. She was 14 at the time.
Later, Velasco, his family and other survivors fled to nearby towns and cities, where they often lived in deep poverty and faced stigma for being forcibly displaced. Two decades later only an estimated 1200 of the 4000 the people of the community have returned.
Today there are no traces of bloodshed on the soccer field and children kick the ball over a faded peace sign painted on the ground. “When I pass by here, all the feelings come rushing to me. I saw a lot of people die. It is not easy to forget that. And there is still pain. There is still sadness, ”says Velasco.
Velasco and 12 other survivors created a network, Mujeres Sembrando Vida, to support victims of sexual and domestic violence in the Montes de María region of northern Colombia, an area still plagued by conflict.
Sexual violence is a common tactic used by paramilitaries, guerrillas, and state military forces to spread fear and assert power.
“Sexual violence against women and girls is a type of discrimination that comes from long-standing structures,” says Linda Cabrera, director of Sisma Mujer, an organization that defends victims of gender-based violence in Colombia. “What he has created are different types of trauma.”
In El Salado there is no official record of violations committed by paramilitaries. Velasco said the issue was missing from the reparations talks.
“When they started talking about El Salado, I heard them talk about thousands of things [the community needed] – a health center, a road, a church – but when they finished I said to myself: ‘What about the women?’ ”Velasco says.
“Because I lived it. I’ve felt the pain, I know the helplessness that comes from being ignored. “
At the beginning of the pandemic, cases of domestic abuse increased with prolonged closures around the world. It was particularly rampant in Latin American countries, with previously high rates of domestic and sexual violence. Although the quarantines are no longer in effect, gender-based violence has continued at alarming levels.
Velasco and his team guide victims to report cases and ensure that they are handled appropriately, and seek to address the sense of impunity that accompanies these types of crimes in Colombia.
“We do what state entities do not do,” he says.
The members of Mujeres Sembrando Vida are part of multiple regional and national support groups. WhatsApp networks have been crucial in reaching victims in rural areas.
Velasco and her team also organize face-to-face workshops in rural communities, teach women about gender equality, and have created a collective savings account to help women in emergencies.
“Ninety percent of women depend on what their husbands give them. From that comes violence. With this savings account, if a woman has an emergency, there is money, ”she says.
So far, the team has helped some 280 women in El Salado and nearby communities. They have helped women to get out of abusive situations, have obtained medical help and have created projects to enable their financial independence.
For survivors of sexual violence like Diana Chamorro, 56, that support has been transformative.
In 1998, Chamorro was on her way to her brother’s house, not far from their home, when a group of men attacked and raped her. The men wore military camouflage, but she never saw their faces. She says she didn’t tell anyone about the rape.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” he says. “What do I say if I don’t know who it was? It was part of it. The other part was shame. “
It was only after meeting Velasco four years ago that Chamorro began to address the trauma he had felt for decades with a psychologist. Since then he has helped others.
“I felt protected, as if I had someone to count on, that I am not alone like many women who have suffered more than me,” says Chamorro. “I want to make sure these women can join us.”
But the work of Mujeres Sembrando Vida has become increasingly difficult amid the resurgence of violence in Colombia. The Montes de Maria region It is disputed territory used by armed groups for drug trafficking.
People say they felt some relief after the government peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) in 2016, which offered a respite from the confrontations. But the peace process has fallen apart while different groups compete for territory, says Elizabeth Dickinson, Colombia analyst at International Crisis Group.
The militia, Clan del Golfo or Clan del Golfo, and a handful of smaller gangs control the Montes de María.
“Instead of one dominant group, you have three dominant groups [in Montes de María]”Says Dickinson. “So everyone wants a piece of the cake, and the ones who suffer are the civilian population.”
Activists like Velasco are constantly threatened. In Colombia, at least 1,205 social leaders have been assassinated since the peace accords were signed in 2016, according to a group of experts based in Bogotá. Indepaz.
Velasco says he has received around 500 death threats per message, 100 by phone, and five written threats on his door. The threats often refer to rape, he says.
Sitting in her backyard under a security camera that authorities have installed, she reads aloud a recent text message. “Yirley Velasco, we are going to kill you, we have many people around you… We are going to kill your mother and your entire family if you stay here. We give you two days to leave … we are the Clan del Golfo ”.
When she drives, she is accompanied by two state-assigned bodyguards in a truck with bulletproof windows.
Despite the risks, Velasco and Chamorro aim to expand their work. “We want to bring [new women] with us to help them clear their minds so that they can live in better conditions, tell their stories and so that their wounds can heal ”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism