blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff
By: Nicole Harvey, Seattle University
From my first day on the GYC Colombia Human Rights Delegation I was faced with the daunting challenge of addressing the following complex questions: How does Colombia’s history of human rights violations manifest in the contemporary context? To what extent has there been an attempt to respond to human rights abuses? And lastly, what elements are necessary for building peace? To examine these questions we visited various organizations ranging from government offices to non-profit organizations, and informal communities comprised of families who have been displaced by the internal conflict. Each of these experiences provided me with invaluable information regarding Colombia’s history of violence and the country’s need for human rights protections, however none of these visits prepared me for the emotional impact of the trip. Since stepping away from the experience, I have been able to reflect on my mix of intense feelings, both of overwhelming sadness and tremendous gratitude for everything I saw. I may not have arrived at answers for all of the delegation’s challenging questions, but the process pushed me to transcend my classroom education and grow intellectually and emotionally in unexpected ways.
My attempt to consider our delegation’s intensive questions on human rights and the peace process in Colombia began with a very visual scan of how more than 50 years of conflict has impacted the country. From the highly populated urban centers of Bogotá to the rural communities that are vacant remnants of the war, the effects of the conflict are evident everywhere. In particular, I was struck by the socioeconomic inequality and forced displacement that plagues the country. Densely populated urban centers are overflowing with bodies that have convened there in hopes of finding economic stability and opportunities unavailable in the rural countryside, though upon arrival they are often pushed out of the urban centers to informal squatter settlements where they appear to be forgotten about.
Over the course of the delegation I learned that the displacement of these communities is reflective of a hardened social stratification system within the country. Through speaking with various organizations and community members, our delegation learned that there is a six level hierarchy, in which each stratum carries its own set of privileges or limitations, including educational and professional opportunities. For example, in Cartagena there are two visibly distinct groups: that of the very affluent and those below the poverty line. As TECHO, a non-governmental organization that mobilizes youth volunteers to fight extreme poverty in Latin America, explained to our delegation over 80% of the population inhabits strata 1, 2, and 3 while only 10% of the population are in strata 4, 5, and 6 (with stratum 1 being the lowest income and stratum 6 being the wealthiest). As such, although Cartagena has a vibrant tourist economy, most of the city’s population lives outside the well-maintained city center and commutes to work or school with limited opportunities for upward mobility.
The problems created by such grave income inequality are compounded by the fact that individuals facing the unjust realities of a lower socioeconomic strata are disproportionately ethnic minorities, specifically from indigenous, Roma, or Afro-Colombian groups. During the delegation we spoke with indigenous activists who explained that they often experienced many injustices during the conflict, such as being forced to work for guerilla armies or forcibly recruited into the army, after which they lost their indigenous rights. However, we also learned that indigenous groups continue to face many injustices after the conflict, specifically in the absence of a political forum to advocate for themselves due to their position as a politically vulnerable group. At a later visit to Fundación Juan Felipe Gómez Escobar our delegation met with teenage mothers who shared their experience and told us how JuanFe has given them the confidence, resources, and opportunities to provide a better future for their children and break the cycles of violence that often led to them motherhood.
While I learned about many inspiring government and non-governmental organizations that are working to promote and protect human rights, the reality on the ground indicated that the impact of income inequality and displacement still manifests in disparities in education, employment and housing opportunities, and the ability to meet one’s most basic needs. Part of the challenge is that organizations’ efforts are counteracted by a decentralized government system that relegates responsibility to each of its 32 districts. As we went into the field, I encountered further difficulties facing the implementation of human rights policies in practice. For example, during our community visit to Montes de María in El Cármen de Bolívar, we were able to learn about the history of the conflict and the difficulties one often faces when trying to return home, but we were also provided with a visual representation of the tragedy in the vacant communities that lacked the basic infrastructure of their neighboring cities. These visits to rural communities most impacted by the conflict, where families lost lives or were forced off their land during the war, emphasized the need for private and state institution advocacy for displaced communities who were left without adequate economic resources to reintegrate into society.
The realities of the war and violence struck me the hardest when we saw the physical consequences of forced displacements in distant communities that have been relegated to the fringe of society. Visiting a squatter settlement in Girasoles de Betél, hundreds of miles from Bogotá, opened my eyes to the full impact of the conflict. Hundreds of displaced families are compressed into one informal community that lacks the basic necessities for quality of life. The extreme poverty that characterizes daily life for these families is symbolized by a pile of unfinished houses that are pressed together, leaving the families exposed to the elements of nature, while blistering heat cooks the garbage that lines the streets.
It was here, twenty minutes outside of Cartagena’s city center and five minutes up a gravel road, that I saw and came to understand what it means to be displaced. As I walked the streets of the settlement I saw fifty years of violence consolidated into one encampment of five hundred families. Yet, it was also here, standing in the dirt road as the sun beat down on my neck, that I was able to fully appreciate my experience in Colombia. Prior to my trip I wanted to be able to see and apply what I have learned in a classroom setting to the world around me, and in that moment I felt successful in that endeavor. And later as I assisted women in peeling yucca for a community meal, I understood what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz meant when he said, “participant observation is like deep hanging out.” I will never be able to adequately express the depth of emotions that I experienced in this moment, but as I struggled to peel away the vegetable’s tough exterior, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy because I knew that something significant had shifted inside of me and I would never be the same again.
By the end of the delegation I did not feel any closer to answering the key questions posed at the beginning of our trip, however, I left feeling fuller than when I had arrived. What is most interesting to me about Colombia’s history is not the tales of political corruption or the conflicting narratives that have pitted groups against each other. Rather, it is the way in which life has continued to move forward in spite of the vast inequality that sweeps the land. While I was in Colombia I did not see people who identified as victims. Instead, I saw people who were strong, resilient, and passionate about changing Colombia’s future. Does Colombia’s history of conflict continue to manifest in the contemporary context? Yes, absolutely. However, Colombia is a place that remains vibrant and full of life in spite of adversity. It is a country that has stolen my heart and my experience there is something that I will always carry with me.
 The figures are from a 2013 survey and were used during our initial visit to TECHO to prep us for our visit to Girasoles, a squatter settlement, later that week.
GYC will be running another Colombia Program in summer 2016. Start the application by clicking here.