By Peter Cousins
The first thing that the traveller from Bogotá notices when stepping off the plane in Quibdó is the humidity. A captivating if violent city nestled amidst the tropical jungle of the Chocó, one heads for the banks of the Atrato river, from where arises a gentle breeze, to cool down a little. As the day wears on, heavy rain also lowers the mercury. Quibdó is one of the wettest places on earth.
The city centre hugs the Atrato. The city’s – and diocese’s – cathedral stands tall over neighbouring buildings. Across the road from its mother church, right on the river banks, lies its operational headquarters, a collection of offices, meeting rooms and a small chapel.
After a few ‘pilot’ interviews with lawyers in Bogotá, Emily and I have come to Quibdó to get a sense of what protection for human rights’ defenders looks like from the peripheries. The city suffers from serious levels of violence, much of it directed against its youngest residents, and high levels of displacement from the communities along the surrounding river basins.
After a couple of days getting our bearings, we arrange to meet a bereaved mother in the aforementioned chapel. She belongs to the victim’s movement in Colombia, having lost her son to the country’s armed conflict in 2003. I read over the questions prepared for the interviews, and focus my mind on the engagement ahead of us. Arriving at the diocese’s headquarters, we see a hand-stitched sign hanging on the wall: “Chocó – of colours and rivers, of mines and black people, of birds and indigenous people, of flowers and mixed-race people, of dreams and of life – thank you for the solidarity.”
The chapel is a visible manifestation of this spirit: filling its four walls are photos of chocoanos who have killed by the violence generated by the conflict. Following some small talk and a couple of initial questions, our interviewee goes straight to the point: she stands up and points to a photo of her son on the wall.
I became a victim when one of my children was murdered. Amidst the pain, the anguish and sadness, you feel powerless. I wanted to be able to do something, to demand my rights as a citizen and human being. This is what motivated me to get in involved in the field of human rights work, and in particular the rights of victims. As women and mothers, we are the most affected by this conflict.
A couple of interviews in offices in Bogotá were not adequate preparation for this encounter. A bereaved mother talking from her heart warrants a human response. Other circumstances make this task even more difficult: we are still not really acclimatised to the humidity, our eyes are drooping in the heat of the afternoon, the chapel’s benches are not comfortable for this sort of exchange, her regional accent is strong and there is drilling going on right outside on the street which drowns out of our conversation.
We do our best to remain concentrated on the job at hand, and on the subsequent pressures our participant has experienced. She has gained in prominence as a local leader of the victims’ movement, but this has entailed its own complications. The more visibility you gain, the greater the suspicion on the part of others that you start to work in your own interests, and not those of the movement. It’s a difficult circle to square, and is a constant work in progress: judging scenarios on a case-by-case basis as they arise; learning when to speak out and when to remain silent; turning to different sources for protection while retaining your own sense of centeredness and serenity.
The interview draws to a close after an hour and a half, but it seems longer than that. Emily and I (and probably our participant) are exhausted, physically and mentally. The evening is drawing in, and overhead the rain clouds threaten their daily downpour. We head to a nearby bar and crack open a couple of cold beers, sitting in silence as we cool off, let the interview sink in and watch the rain teem down outside.