Built with Berta

  1. I arrived in Colombia in August of 2014 on a Fulbright grant to research La Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas (The League of Displaced Women). They lived, for the time being, on the outskirts of Cartagena in a municipality called Turbaco, where La Liga had built over a hundred cinder block homes for victims of ‘internal displacement’ with the help of a human rights lawyer from Bogotá and a couple of international grants. Over the course of 10 months I met a number of original members of this organization and of other groups that meet, advocate, and fight for the advancement of women whose realities have been adversely shaped by the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia.

    Since the supposed inception of this complex civil conflict in 1964 some 220,000 have lost their lives and countless more have been maimed, abducted, and sexually assaulted. However, one of the lesser known impacts has been the forced removal of citizens from the places where they have been rooted, the places on which their social and economic security -- however humble -- depends. The number of Colombians driven from their homes by the conflict continues to rise towards the 6 million mark, although some sources say it has already surpassed that figure. Internal displacement, as it is euphemistically called, is the pressing theme of the country today; it has overwhelmed large cities and small pueblos alike; the government is aware but entirely out of its depth in terms of forming solutions. The crisis is exactly that and deserves international attention now as much as during any other time over the nearly 60 years of the conflict, to date. While refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa pour across European borders, attracting wide international media coverage, the crisis in Colombia “looks” less like desperate refugees fleeing war, than scenes of women, children, and displaced campesinos struggling to survive in places not their own, attempting to carve out a new life with neither capital nor community, in hostile, already ‘at capacity’ zones.

    More information below. For captions click on the individual images.

  2. Omayda, originally from San Pedro de Urabá, now lives in Refugio La Carolina, with her partner, her son, and his family. She makes beaded jewelry and sells it in Boca Grande, one of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods, right outside of "El Centro," Cartagena's historical and tourist district. Refugio La Carolina, comprised of four rows of about 15 basic, cinderblock homes each, is over an hour by bus from El Centro. 

    • 1

      Omayda, originally from San Pedro de Urabá, now lives in Refugio La Carolina, with her partner, her son, and his family. She makes beaded jewelry and sells it in Boca Grande, one of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods, right outside of "El Centro," Cartagena's historical and tourist district. Refugio La Carolina, comprised of four rows of about 15 basic, cinderblock homes each, is over an hour by bus from El Centro. 

    • 2

      Skeleton of a 'casita' near the Cartagena bus terminal, an hour outside the famous colonial district where the local and international tourism business is booming for everyone but the everyday Cartagenero/a. 

    • 3

      On April 9, 2015, internally displaced victims of the Colombian armed conflict who now live in Cartagena, marched from the famous Castillo San Felipe to the Mayor's office in El Centro in recognition of National Victims Day. The Mayor never exited his office. Here, they walk in front of a 'fun party tour bus' that shows tourists a very limited view of a Cartagena deemed 'tourist friendly' by the travel industry. There is a complete disconnect between tourists and the realities of daily life for many Cartageneros/as.

    • 4

      Neymar and Sebastian taking a bath in Barrio Membrillar, a community of cinder block and wood houses built by people who have been internally displaced. The boys' grandmother, Gavelys, was displaced from Atanquez, Valledupar, in 2006.

    • 5

      Gavelys' son Osneider carries her into the ocean, over an hour from their home. When Osneider was 16, he went to the jail where his mother was being held and confronted the armed group who had falsely accused Gavelys of guerrilla sympathizing. He said, "Kill me if you want, but tell me why you are holding my Mother and let me see her."

    • 6

      Eidanis in Bonanza, Turbaco, outside her house in the community known as "The City of Women." It was constructed by La Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas (The League of Displaced Women) in 2006 for victims who arrived in Cartagena in the late '90s and early aughts, with international aid and the help of a human rights lawyer from Bogotá. Building these houses empowered the women to take their future into their own hands, to become independent heads of households, and to learn to act as their own greatest advocates. 

    • 7

      Dayli and her son Sebastian at the beach. Dayli arrived in Cartagena with her mother, Gavelys. It was another year before she was reunited with her father, who had also been unjustly incarcerated, and her three brothers. They now live together in Membrillar. 

    • 8

      While they are just playing with helmets, the three grandsons of women who were displaced and now live in the community of Refugio La Carolina, will likely grow up to be moto-taxistas like their uncles, brothers, and fathers,who cannot find traditional work. Unemployment is high in Cartagena especially among Afro-descendents, women, indigenous, disenfranchised, and displaced communities, the most vulnerable groups.

    • 9

      Yuris Gomez is a young leader of Auto 092, a group that advocates for victim rights and a dignified life for women after displacement. Her family fled their farm in San Onofre when she was 12, and has since lived in some of Cartagena’s most dangerous neighborhoods. They never returned to their farm; her father has worked as a fish vendor for the past 13 years to make ends meet.  

    • 10

      Luz Marina in Refugio La Carolina. She arrived in Cartagena with seven children from Bojoyá, Chocó, on the Pacific Coast. She left in 2002 after the FARC set off a bomb in the church in Bojoyá and left about a hundred people dead. All three armed groups (army, guerrilla, paramilitary) continue to muscle for power and control of the Chocó region. 

    • 11

      Esecilis, 5, takes a nap at her grandmother Gavelys' house, who often takes care of her grandchildren during the day. It is always hovering around 95-100 degrees in Membrillar. Because of their prior separation, Gavelys' family now clings together.

    • 12

      Sara works as an advocate for at-risk, internally displaced women in similar situations in Riohacha, La Guajira. Every woman I met traveled with a state-sponsored bodyguard because of the direct threats made to the women by 'BACRIM' ('Bandas Criminales' or gangs). Sara's daughter was murdered in a drive-by shooting by a member of a gang who could not stand her rejection, Sara's teenaged son was left paralyzed from the waist down.

    • 13

      Three boys in Membrillar play near Daylis' house. The people in this area make their homes out of whatever material they can find. Tin roofs and wood and mud walls are common. There is no police station in Membrillar, adding to the community's vulnerability. In October, Gavelys was robbed at night despite the fact she is close to 50 and a well known member of the community.

    • 14

      Yuris' two sisters, one of whom gave birth in June of 2015. Her sisters don't share her dedication to the work she does advocating for the victims of sexual assault in the armed conflict, but it has shaped her identity throughout her 20s. Like Gavelys' family, the Gomez family is now all living in the same barrio for safety and economic reasons.

    • 15

      Gavelys at home in Membrillar. On the finca where she lived with her family in Atanquez, she denied members of the FARC food and shelter, and they returned later to slaughter all of her family's chickens. Two of her brothers were killed by another armed group (paramilitaries) in the area in the early 2000s. She was given 24 hours to clear out of her home by paramilitaries upon her release from prison. 

    • 16

      Alba and Fredi in Refugio la Carolina. Alba is one of the most active leaders in the community of women in the situation of displacement in Cartagena. She travels almost every day on her own peso to the Office of Victims or similar government entities for meetings or lectures, acting as her own advocate. Not everyone in the community could claim to have made the same effort nor received as much benefit. Despite the commonalities between the women of El Refugio, the community often splintered over such details.

    • 17

      Violet, originally from Caucasia, Antioquia, lives in Villa Estrella. She arrived in Cartagena in 2005 with her son and daughter - no partner. Her pueblo was divided between two armed groups. She, too, left behind a farm that provided her family with everything they needed. She registered as an official victim of displacement when she arrived but still has not received housing nor humanitarian aid.

    • 18

      Gavelys and her grandson Neymar trying to nap after lunch. Gavelys weaves the traditional bags ("mochilas") of her indigenous community, the Kankuamos. She sells them on the streets of downtown Cartagena but has a harder time making sales because she doesn't have a store front and she uses natural fibers, which tourists often overlook in favor of brightly colored, knock-off bags. Gavelys is one of 23 siblings. 

    • 19

      Interior of natural-fiber house. The personal security aspect of these houses is nil. 

    • 20

      A threat sent to the women of Riohacha by the known armed paramilitary group, Los Rastrojos, who often buy off police to get themselves out of jail after committing crimes ranging in severity. In Riohacha they are notoriously corrupt and demand "vacunas" (taxes) from local businesses  and some families in exchange for their "protection." They fear no government entity. The threat states: "We are going to get rid of all your leaders...[names written out] and everyone involved who helps with your kind of work. You have 24 hours to stop doing everything you do or we will kill you and your families. Leave La Guajira and fuck off to another part; this is what will happen to people like you. You have 24 hours or everyone dies; the state cannot help you." 

    • 21

      Maria Monroy, head of household, mother of three, a well-respected leader of Auto 092, and formerly of AFRODES. On the morning of the National Victims March she received a death threat from ERPAC via text message telling her to desist "or else." Yuris received the same message - they marched anyway.  

    • 22

      Elvis, one of Omayda's sons, recovering from a police-inflicted gunshot wound he incurred in January. A birthday party got out of hand and bullets went flying. As a low-income family, they received state assistance for the emergency, but they still struggled without his income for the five months he was recuperating in bed. 

    • 23

      Outside of Bonanza, where La Liga built their houses in 2006, a toddler roams around in socks. Bonanza is a mix of an urban and rural environment. While the displaced community makes up the majority of the population here, private development is beginning to go up around these houses. Those who have been displaced in Colombia often experience displacement more than once. Yuris, for example, has been displaced three times within Cartagena because of insecurity in the barrios. 

    • 24

      In Refugio La Carolina, where Omayda sits with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter who live above her in an add-on floor they built when the growing family began to run out of room. Early on, Omayda told me she does not identify with the phrase "displaced woman." She is a woman, a mother, a sister, and an artistan first; and 'displacment' is merely the deplorable circumstances through which she has passed. 

    • 25

      Blanca, daughter of Yadiris, a single mother of three who has been trying for over a year to secure housing via a state sponsored housing lottery for victims of displacement. Yadiris works 6+ days a week as a waitress an hour and a half away in Getsemaní. Yadiris worries about Blanca, who is often left to her own devices at home and in the neighborhood because of her demanding schedule. 

    • 26

      FUNSAREP is a non-profit organization run by a Spanish woman and a Colombian therapist specializing in trauma. The work supports women in the situation of displacement seeking advice, friendship, therapy. Here, the women are practicing a play they wrote depicting daily life in the pueblos they come from and the conditions that led up to their forced displacement. In April 2015 they were invited to perform the play in Bogotá. 

    • 27

      Estebana, whom I met at FUNSAREP, is a victim of sexual assault and forced displacement. She “doesn’t like to remember those things,” but engaging in art therapy at FUNSAREP and interacting with other women at lectures and workshops have helped to manage her trauma. She arrived in Cartagena in 1990 and has been displaced three times since. 

    • 28

      Kids run with a newly minted trophy near Yuris' house in San Jose de los Campanos, a sprawling barrio on the periphery of Cartagena. Although these communities are tight, the incidence of crime remains high because of the very real need for food, shelter, money. 

    • 29

      Violet in red in Villa Estrella. Although she participated in the play at FUNSAREP and attended various lectures and workshops on gender and victims rights, she always traveled alone; she had no real network of close women friends for counsel. She hadn't seen her daughter for nearly two years and couldn't afford the plane ticket to visit her in Cali, where she now lives with her young child. Violet's daughter was sexually violated in Villa Estrella a few years ago and left as soon as she could.  

    • 30

      At least half of every household in Refugio La Carolina are children, but there is still no school or medical center in the immediate area. The only way in or out is by moto or walking. When it rains, the 'streets' turns to mud, and no one attends school, as the nearest school is in neighboring barrio San José.

    • 31

      Nestor trying to nap after working in construction all day. Nestor, Gavelys' husband, arrived in Cartagena with their three young sons. He, too, was unjustly incarcerated in Atanquez, and had no way of getting in touch with Gavelys while they were both locked up. 

    • 32

      Ana had three boys with an abusive, alcoholic partner she met after being displaced to Cartagena, and sees her youngest 'taking after him.' She finally moved out and now lives in barrio 'Villa Daranguez,' where Maria Monroy also lives. After her father was killed by the FARC in 1992, she moved to La Guajira where she lived for 6 years. Her first husband’s family was killed in its entirety except for him - but he committed suicide 16 years later. She arrived in Cartagena with her oldest son and lived in Las Palmeras before heading to El Pozón. She sold fish and whatever else she could to put food on the table. This house was given to her by a government program but she hasn’t fully moved in yet because, as she says, she doesn’t have a mattress yet. Here she waters a very thirsty aloe that struggles to grow during Cartagena’s continued drought.

    • 33

      In El Pozón, a young girl's mother does her hair outside while talking about the original members of La Liga de Mujeres Desplazada. The group is said to have originated here, and later splt into two.

    • 34

      Violet's granddaughter spends the afternoon inside. Violet's in-laws often gave her a place to crash or have lunch, as her shoddy store-front lacked security of any kind and she lives alone. 

    • 35

      Dannys is a trained social worker who now works with her group, "Red de Mujeres Cristianas" (victim advocacy/empowerment) and founded the "Escuela de Formación para Victimas del Conflicto Armado" in Riohacha, La Guajira. She travels with a bodyguard as she has received direct threats from armed groups. She spent 9 months in Bogotá a couple of years ago to wait out the danger, but it returned when she did.

    • 36

      S., in Refugio La Carolina, at her grandmother's house. She was later sent for by a family member in Bucaramanga. They felt the situation in Cartagena for her was dire. 

    • 37

      At Omayda's granddaughter's baptism, a few months before her son (left) was shot by cops on accident at a birthday party. Omayda's family, like many in El Refugio, are very religious. Despite the oftentimes desperate situation of money and work, "If God should want it" is a common, if not comforting, refrain.

    • 38

      Wool dries on the clothesline in Gavelys' back yard. She weaves the traditional Indigenous bags and sells them in El Centro. A part of her story was told in the women's play at FUNSAREP; the episode whrein the FARC returned to her farm and slaughtered the livestock as a threat.

    • 39

      La Doña Marina, an original member of La Liga, has taken what she learned from building these houses in Bonanza, and is now overseeing the construction of 130 new viviendas for more women in need outside of Turbaco, called Villa Mayra.

    • 40

      The middle of Bonanza, outside of Turbaco, where La Liga de Mujeres built the 100+ houses for victims of displacement.

    • 41

      Yuris in El Centro, waiting for a victim right's meeting to begin near by. This is her full time work. 

  3. Additional Resources:

    The UN Refugee Agency

    Colombia Reports

    Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica

    Washington Office on Latin America


    La Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas

    Auto 092 

    Most of the women I met came from places where subsistence farming was key to a healthy, “rich” life: they would often tell me that once, they’d had everything they needed. The beauty and abundance of Colombia has also been part of its downfall: many of these women lived in areas exploited by armed groups (FARC, AUC/paramilitary, ELN, government armies, drug traffickers, big business) to get at other armed groups in the ‘war on drugs.’ As always, the victims are the innocents caught in the crosshairs of greed-fueled violence and struggles for economic dominance.

    These portraits and scenes of daily life were taken while getting to know these courageous leaders and their families, in communities and barrios far away from the bustling tourist zone of Cartagena’s “walled” and “romantic” colonial center. For these women, Cartagena is no vacation. Every day they must forge ahead, put food on the table, keep their children (and themselves) safe, and try to just “live” -- against all odds. These women seek humanitarian aid from the government, which rarely arrives; they seek out access to schools, health centers, and police protection in their communities -- a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare -- as well as access to affordable housing on the outskirts of Cartagena. All deserve housing after fleeing the nightmare of the armed conflict, but many still have not received promised government assistance. If one doesn’t register as a ‘victim’ in the system, one is not entitled to anything, and even so, humanitarian aid is never timely. It was only in 2011 that newly elected President Santos acknowledged the existence of millions of people who had been internally displaced; a verbal acknowledgement of a truth everyone already knew. #Politics.

    I spent almost a year in various neighborhoods far outside of Cartagena’s historical district. The money being spent on hotels and the tourism industry is outgrowing the need for tour guides, places to stay, or food, while the needs of Cartageneros/as continues to grow every day. Those on the fringes of Cartagena - most noticeably the struggling working class, Afro-descendants, indigenous, displaced, or women - are constantly swimming upstream without much infrastructure or help from government agencies/offices. If all of these things - Afro-descendant, indigenous or ‘mixed’ race, displaced, and a woman - finding solutions to the very basic needs of daily life can be overwhelming and often times impossible. To paraphrase James Baldwin, it becomes very expensive to be poor.

    When the NYTimes published its “36 Hours In...” piece on Cartagena in September of 2014, I noticed that all of the photographs and video were taken within the walled portion of El Centro and just across the street from the Clock Tower in Getsemaní on Calle Media Luna. I found it deplorable and embarrassing that their time was dedicated to shooting and editing talk of “linen clothes,” ice cream, and gelato spots (“to-beat-the-heat”) when the pressing issues of the city (and country) are so very clear. You want to talk about linen?!?!

    I began to see the incredible PR scheme that is Jet Blue tied in with a harmful and reductive tourism culture, and Cartagena’s highly privileged elites that includes both Colombian and foreign, who seek to privatize the location entirely for profit. The tours that should be given of this city lie at least one and half hours by bus outside of the ‘bustling’ tourism district of the Caribbean’s crown jewel, Cartagena de Indias.

    Most of the women I worked with arrived in Cartagena between the late 90s and early 2000s, forcibly driven out by their respective pueblos around Colombia (from Chocó to Antioquia to the mountain range behind Santa Marta). Many of them are also survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, the death/s of loved ones/partners/family members. All of these women live day-to-day, none are ‘salaried’ or have a solid job. Some rely on partners or family members, some sell perfume, iron or wash clothes. Many of these leaders (like Yuris and Maria) could not do the organizing work they do and also keep a ‘steady’ job. None plan on returning to where they are from, even though they have also been targeted (as they reported to government entities in Cartagena) by other armed groups who seek dominance of urban areas like Cartagena. Yuris, Maria, and Gavelys have all been sent personal text messages by members of ERPAC (Ejercito Revolucionario Popular Anticommunista/Antisubversivo de Colombia - paramilitary descendants) as far back as 2011 and as recently as 2015. The response time from the Office of Victims was four years; decidedly too slow.

    Of the many things I learned from Gavelys this past year, one of her adages was: “Ni pa’ tras pa’ recoger dinero,” a motto that roughly means “Always keep moving forward - never look back, not even to pick up money left on the ground.”