I grew up on a beautiful island on Colombia’s Pacific Coast called Tumaco. My life was rooted in the land of my ancestors. We fished and traded. We were poor, and black, and neglected by the state, but lived in peace and with joy.
The decades-long armed conflict between the guerrillas and the paramilitaries erupted abruptly on our island in 2000, when I was 16. The guerrillas — members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, or FARC — had been in the region for many years, but then the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary group, arrived. We were stuck in the middle. Women were raped and the paramilitary group started recruiting the young people, telling them they had to take up arms for money or respect.
They got to two of my cousins. They were just kids. Tito, 16, didn’t want to join up. We’d send him off on trips farther into the countryside to get him out of the way. But one day when he was home, his friends called him to come outside. He went out and, just three blocks away, was stabbed 20 times.
Linder, 15, was tempted by the paramilitaries’ promises, but then he changed his mind. He went out one day after lunch and didn’t come home. We searched for him. Neighbors told us conflicting stories: that he’d gone off with friends, that he’d been taken. Two days later, a friend told us he’d been killed. Three days after that, his body washed up. He’d been shot three times.
My Uncle Victor and I spoke out about these killings; we’d tried to stop them. Now we received death threats of our own. We realized we had to flee. Uncle Victor went to nearby Ecuador, but was killed at the border, nearly dismembered. I went the other way, to Bogotá, where I live now. Thousands of people like us were displaced just from Tumaco.
The elders stayed. Today they say they are hungry; many of their farms were long ago taken over by the armed groups. Tumaco is a strategic point for moving coca, so they have been besieged from all sides. Things are no longer as bad as they once were. But when it came time for them to vote in the plebiscite this month on the peace deal that would have ended more than five decades of war, they noticed fierce-looking men walking around the neighborhood, saying things like, “Those who vote yes on the peace agreement will have to face the consequences.”
The local people didn’t know who these men were fighting for — the guerrillas or the paramilitary or some other group entirely — but some were afraid enough to stay home.
Others voted nonetheless, and they voted Yes — for peace — as I did, and as so many of the victims of this conflict did. But the No votes won.
We, the victims — the people who live in and come from the parts of the country where the war happened, those who suffered the pain and the bloodshed — we supported the peace. Many municipalities on the Pacific Coast voted in support of the agreements by 80 percent or 90 percent. Sadly, voters in the many urban areas that rejected the peace deal don’t seem to understand that the victims of the armed conflict don’t want more war.
Now we are scared; we are terrified about returning to the time when there was so much pain, so many bullets, so many bombs. People in Tumaco are calling me to ask what will happen. It is so sad to think that just because of an unwillingness to forgive or to give in a little, we could go back to that. The people who voted against the deal don’t seem to understand that a negotiation is not a capitulation. It is about politics, not justice.
The terms of the agreement weren’t perfect, but they included many good things. Since I came to Bogotá, I have been working to empower Afro-Colombian women, many of whom are victims of the conflict, and who face terrible discrimination in the city. We formed an organization — the Association of Displaced, Vulnerable Communities and Ethnic Groups — and worked with other groups to insert language into the peace accord about the needs and experiences of ethnic communities. We succeeded in getting provisions on redistributing land to the poor and investments in rural development, as well as support for the victims and ethnic minorities.
Now these things will not happen, because of the No voters, many of whom do not know what it is like to live in a war and did not care to listen to the rest of us.
When the peace deal is renegotiated, as it must be, I hope that victims will have a voice at the table.
Anyela Guanga, a business owner, is a leader of the Association of Displaced, Vulnerable Communities and Ethnic Groups. This article was translated by Ana Maria Archila from the Spanish.