Children are now playing football on the pitch where the lives of El Salado residents have completely changed.
In February 2000, around 450 paramilitary fighters stormed this small Colombian town. They forced people to leave their homes to go to the field and started drumming and drinking alcohol stolen from local stores. They then tortured and killed. Yirley Velazco was one of those gang rape victims. She was 14 at the time.
The El Salado massacre – which left at least 60 dead and many more “missing” – was one of the most brutal events in decades of armed conflict in Colombia.
Subsequently, Velazco, his family and other survivors fled to nearby towns and villages, where they often lived in extreme poverty and were stigmatized for being forcibly displaced. Two decades later, it is estimated that only 1,200 of the community’s 4,000 people have returned.
Today there is no sign of bloodshed on the soccer field and the children are kicking their ball over a faded peace sign painted on the ground. “When I pass by here, all the feelings come back to me. I saw a lot of people get killed. It is not easy to forget that. And there is still pain. There is still sadness, ”says Velazco.
Velazco and 12 other survivors have created a network, Mujeres Sembrando Vida (Women Who Sow Life), to support victims of sexual and domestic violence in Colombia’s northern region of Montes de María, a region still beset by conflict.
Sexual violence is a common tactic used by paramilitaries, guerrillas and state military forces to sow fear and assert power.
“Sexual violence against women and girls is a form of discrimination that stems from structures that have existed for a long time,” explains Linda Cabrera, director of Sisma Mujer, an organization that advocates for victims of gender-based violence in Colombia. “What he created are different types of trauma.”
In El Salado, there is no official register of rapes committed by paramilitaries. Velazco said the topic was missing from conversations about the repairs.
“When they started talking about El Salado, I heard them talk about a thousand things [the community needed] – a health center, a road, a church – but when they finished, I said to myself: ‘What about the women?’ », Says Velazco.
“Because I lived it. I have felt the pain, I know the helplessness that comes from being ignored.
At the start of the pandemic, cases of domestic violence increased with prolonged lockdowns across the world. It was particularly prevalent in Latin American countries, where rates of domestic and sexual violence were previously high. Although quarantines are no longer in effect, gender-based violence has continued at alarming levels.
Velazco and his team are guiding victims to report cases and ensure they are handled appropriately, and try to address the sense of impunity that comes with such crimes in Colombia.
“We are doing what state entities fail to do,” she said.
Members of Mujeres Sembrando Vida are part of several regional and national support groups. WhatsApp networks have been essential in contacting victims in rural areas.
Velazco and her team also run face-to-face workshops in rural communities, teach women about gender equality, and have set up a group savings account to help women in emergencies.
“Ninety percent of women depend on what their husbands give them. This is where violence is born. With this savings account, if a woman has an emergency, there is money, ”she said.
So far, the team has helped around 280 women in El Salado and neighboring communities. They have helped women get out of abusive situations, get medical help, and set up projects to achieve financial independence.
For survivors of sexual violence like Diana Chamorro, 56, such support has been transformative.
In 1998, Chamorro was walking to her brother’s house not far from her home when a group of men attacked her and one of them raped her. The men were in military camouflage, but she never saw their faces. She says she didn’t tell anyone about the rape.
“I haven’t told anyone about it,” she says. “What should I say if I don’t know who it was?” It was part of it. The other part was shame.
It was only after meeting Velazco four years ago that Chamorro began to address the trauma she had felt for decades with a psychologist. Since then, she has helped others.
“I felt protected, as if I had someone to rely on, that I am not alone like many women who have suffered more than me,” says Chamorro. “I want to make sure these women can join us.”
But Mujeres Sembrando Vida’s job has become increasingly difficult amid an upsurge in violence in Colombia. The Montes de María region is disputed territory used by armed groups for drug trafficking.
People say they felt some relief after the government struck a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) in 2016, which provided a respite from the fighting. But the peace process has collapsed as different groups fight over territory, says Elizabeth Dickinson, Colombian analyst for the International Crisis Group.
The militia, Clan del Golfo, or Gulf Clan, and a handful of small gangs control the Montes de María.
“Instead of a dominant group, you have three dominant groups [in Montes de María]Says Dickinson. “Then everyone wants a piece of the pie, and those who are suffering are the civilian population. “
Activists like Velazco are under constant threat. In Colombia, at least 1,205 social leaders have been assassinated since the signing of the peace accords in 2016, according to the Bogota-based think tank Indepaz.
Velazco says she has received around 500 death threats by message, 100 by phone and five threats written on her door. Threats often refer to rape, she said.
Sitting in her garden under a security camera installed by the authorities, she reads aloud a recent text. “Yirley Velazco, we are going to kill you, we have a lot of people around you… We are going to kill your mother and all your family if you stay here.” We will give you two days to go… we are the Clan del Golfo.
While driving, she is accompanied by two state-assigned bodyguards in a truck with bullet-proof windows.
Despite the risks, Velazco and Chamorro aim to expand their work. “We want to bring [new women] with us to help them clear their minds so that they can live in better conditions, tell their stories and thus heal their wounds.