Encounters with Human Rights Defenders
Mariana Bermúdez Astudillo
Attorney, Government of Colombia
Portrait: Verónica Giraldo Canal, 2012.
July 5th, 2012
I discovered my passion for human rights in high school. Nowadays, national institutions apply international human rights standards, but this was not the case at the time. I wondered: “Why do so many people remain silent? Will I remain silent too? I joined youth groups in my neighbourhood and soon realized that many others had chosen to speak out against injustices. When I was 19, I became student representative at the Cauca University. There had emerged a space to express ideas freely, to address student concerns and to take political actions regarding university financing. That was in 2003, and the political context was very polarized. The more important the issues we addressed, the greater our problems became. This is how I eventually came to face personal security problems as well.
The year of 2005 was a terrible one for the student movement, and I experienced it first hand. We put considerable demands to the Government and were openly opposed to some of its policies. Many students started receiving written threats from paramilitary groups, that were organizing a campaign of defamation and intimidation against us. At Del Valle University, two students were assassinated. As responsible for human rights for the Asociación Colombiana de Estudiantes Universitarios, I requested protective measures for threatened students and publicly denounced the threats to the Government’s institutions. This made me personally visible, and I finally received a threat from the Bloque Calima of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). A written pamphlet contained a list of targeted students’ names, including mine. [The AUC was a major paramilitary organization active at the time.]
I continued my work despite the threats: we kept sending out press releases and petitioning the institutions. The most important thing for me was to make the threats publicly known, so as to force the Government to fulfil its protective duties. The institutional response was very disappointing, because it gave no credibility whatsoever to the student and the human rights organisations. Worst still, President Uribe [in power from 2002 to 2010] claimed that terrorists were hiding behind the student associations’ banners! Such affirmations opened the door to any kind of abuses. For instance, in 2005, I met with the Governor of the Department to discuss the threats against us. His position was that there was no paramilitarism in the country! I eventually learned later on that this very man was imprisoned for “parapolitics” [that is, collaboration with paramilitary groups]. The level of confrontation was far worst than what it is now, because the Government would not even listen to us. On top of the threats, they would send the ESMAD [the anti-riot police] to confront us at all of our demonstrations.
The threats disrupted my lifestyle. I had to develop self-protection strategies, which often involved not going out with my friends and staying hidden at home because I was scared. I realized later on that I had developed an emotional barrier in order to be able to continue with my work. Most of all, I was worried for my family, which was very preoccupied about me. While I had always been the one who was doing things and organizing things, I was spending all my time locked up inside.
Some student leaders from Del Valle University received protective measures form the Government, but not me. These were not adapted to our reality anyway. They were giving us escorts, but I was not going to attend class with armed bodyguards! I was continuing to do the public complaints, but when I learned that they had started killing students at the Cauca University, I knew that I was the next one on the list. I fled from Popayan to Bogota. I stayed in the capital for two months, before the threats picked up again. I had to leave the country, and fled to Spain with the support of a temporal asylum program.
I stayed in Spain and at Venice University for eight months. This obviously interrupted my studies and political activism, and severed a lot of my personal relations. The solidarity we received from Spanish organisations was extensive, especially since it was the first time they supported students asylees. However, I could not help but feel out of place, in a country of foreign customs and different ways of work and life. A lot of people asked me if I would take this opportunity to settle in Europe, but I always wanted to go back to Colombia to continue the work that I liked. I actually never doubted that I would come back. I also noticed how many Colombians faced discrimination and racism in Spain, which added to my feeling of strangeness.
When I returned to Colombia, I could not continue with the same level of political activism, for fear of being targeted again. I stayed outside of the student movement and only participated in punctual events. I focused on graduating and becoming an attorney, and decided to work on the human rights of women victim of the conflict. I realised the importance that lawyers can have in accompanying social movements and supporting the projects of vulnerable populations. I wondered: “What do people think after having been for so long in an armed conflict? How do repeatedly raped women feel and cope? What is their day-to-day?” My curiosity for human rights came back, with an added gender perspective.
I decided to join an organization called La Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres and discovered the stories of the women of this organization. Those women became for me mothers, sisters and friends. I realized how resilient we are. For example, one mother told me that after an armed group had abducted her daughter, she decided to follow them. Unfortunately, her daughter was repeatedly raped, but she eventually got her daughter released. A lot of women were never listened to, and I think that it is imperative to generate spaces for them to tell their stories and demand their rights to be fulfilled.
I presently work for the Government of Colombia and face a level of risk that is no longer as elevated, despite the fact that I am in a highly conflictive area. With the ongoing land restitution processes, violence against women remains widespread in the region. The main reason for which I returned to this line of work when I returned from Spain is my convictions. I am passionate about what I do, and this allows me to continue despite the obstacles. If I did not like my job, it would be much easier to simply work as an attorney in any firm: I would make more money, and wouldn’t be in danger! But helping people and making them aware of their rights gives me great satisfaction. It gives me energy to think that I can tell people, like a women victim of ongoing abuse for over 15 years, that they should stop living in fear because they have rights. Moreover, it motivates me to think that all the things that I ask for are guaranteed in fundamental human rights instruments. Finally, it is truly beautiful and rewarding to feel the gratefulness of people, when they step out of their state of ignorance of their rights and of vulnerability.
The fact that I am a woman advocating for human rights and denouncing injustice is not well received in an environment where many remain silent. Sexism is prevalent in this country. I experienced fear personally, because this type of conflict affects us, women, in a particular manner. We feel it in our bodies. When you’re in a situation of risk to your personal integrity, not only can they shoot or kill you, but they can also attack your body, cut your intimate parts, rape you. As a result, we go through the armed conflict thinking that they can harm our body. We dress differently, we act differently and we stop doing things than we did before receiving the threats. The night, for example, a moment usually devoted to oneself, becomes a particularly dangerous moment for us. In intense conflict zones like Cauca, Arauca, Montes de María, and Caquetá, several women bear the traces of the armed groups on their body. Even though I work for the State, the fear that I experiences when I received those threats remains latent to this day and I think of what could happen to my body because I am a human rights defender. My work with women victims of the conflict makes me conscious of the fact that the same could happen to me at anytime because of my condition as a woman. No woman is exempt from this violence, especially if she works on the conflict. Obviously, sometimes I feel like running away from this reality, whenever I get tired of hearing this never ending chain of violent stories. But I have decided to be a woman that speaks out, that gives conferences and that keeps her head high, and I know that for me there are no other options.
It was only in 2010 that I had the opportunity to tell my own story. I was working as an attorney for a group of women victim of the conflict, when they asked about my own. I asked: “What story?” To my eyes, I had not lived anything, in comparison with all these women who had been abducted by armed groups or raped. On that occasion, however, I confronted myself and told them my story. I was surprised to see myself starting to cry. I cried all day, and I cried, and cried, and cried. I realized how much all this had affected me. I think that many women, mothers or professionals like myself, want to keep on living with their heads high, but we have to get it out. For example, I was always avoiding the subject and wanted to continue advocating for others. However, if I had not done this, I would be impossible for me to tell my story today.
In conclusion, I think that the role of human rights defender in Colombia remains highly relevant. It supports important mobilization processes in response to the armed conflict, by accompanying women, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian organizations. Along with international human rights organizations, it has greatly influenced the way national institutions think about human rights and Colombia’s constitutional obligations today. To witness so many organizations determined to find alternatives to war gives me the hope that, one day, this conflict will end and that our rights will be respected – even though it will not be easy. This is why I think that it is so important to support peace initiatives that emerge from the conflict, like the ones of women and farmers victim of the conflict. This gives me optimism to continue along the same path.