Bogota: Up until six years ago, Maria (name changed) used to lead a women’s group which denounced militants for subjecting women and girls to sexual abuse, campaigned against the recruitment of child soldiers and most importantly, supported families displaced by conflict.
That was until the July of 2010, when the men she spoke against kidnapped her, along with her 13-year-old daughter, and raped her for five days. Now, she works as a healer, 650 kilometres from home, even as her own wounds remain unhealed.
This is a story we’ve heard too often – of women being ‘punished’ with sexual violence for raising their voices against injustice. Six years ago, living in her hometown of Quibdo, Maria led the AfroMuPaz group to help support families being affected by an ongoing battle, among the many armed groups operating in the area, to access and control drug-trafficking routes and illegal gold mines. These militants are also known for preying on women.
AfroMuPaz was one of the few groups talking about the problem and calling for it to stop.
One day, a man invited Maria to his neighbourhood to collect some children’s clothes and shoes he wanted to donate to her group. “So I climbed into his truck suspecting nothing,” she recounted to BBC News. “But when we started driving out of the city I felt uneasy and asked where the donation was. At that point someone pointed a gun at me and pulled a hood over my head.”
When her hood was taken off, Maria found herself in the jungle surrounded by armed captors. She also saw her 13-year-old daughter Camila being led out of a hut. Her captors had lured her youngest daughter into a car on the pretext of taking her to her mother.
“At first I thought they were going to kill me. Then one of them told me they were going to punish me for talking too much. They started showing me their genitals and I realised what they were going to do. I started screaming: ‘OK do whatever you have to do to me but please don’t touch my kid. Don’t touch my daughter!'” she says.
Over the next five days, Maria was assaulted and raped repeatedly by five men. At one point she fainted – and found herself in a hospital when she awoke. Her daughter Camila had been returned to the family, physically unhurt. But the trauma from the kidnapping crippled the young girl. “They’d told her that if she breathed a word of what had happened, they’d come back and kill me. So she stopped speaking altogether. For a very long time she only said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and almost every day she cried,” said Maria.
Six months after her ordeal, Maria resumed her work for AfroMuPaz. But one morning a member of her captor group came to her home and told her she had 48 hours to leave town. “I just knew I had to go,” she says. Maria fled to Bogota, where authorities gave her a bullet-proof vest, a mobile phone and a monthly budget for taxis as it was unsafe for her to use public transport. Her three kids joined her several months later.
Her hometown is one of the poorest regions of the country – most of its population descended from African slaves brought over by Spanish colonisers.
In Bogota, Maria uses traditional medicine to heal patients at the Armed Conflict Victims Centre. People come to the state-run clinic to share their stories and get some relief from the war between left-wing guerrillas and the army.
She still struggles to adjust to her life in Bogota – she is homesick for her ageing mother, her friends and the sense of purpose she felt in her old job.
Her daughters are doing a little better than her, with Camila studying law at university now.
Like Maria, one in every 10 Colombians end up as refugees in their own country. Nearly seven million people have been uprooted and more than 220,000 killed since 1964, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) took up arms against the state to demand social equality and land reform.
India Today Edited By Vishakha Saxena