Montes de Maria, Colombia – Mayerlis Angarita is convinced she was born with a rebellious streak.
As a 15-year-old in the mid 1990s, she watched as clashes between rebel fighters, paramilitaries and the Colombian army swept in violent waves through Montes de Maria, the northern region where she lived with her family.
When hundreds of people marched through the streets, burning tyres, blocking roads and confronting the police with stones in protest at the warring groups, Mayerlis was among them.
“The guerrillas attacked us because they said we aided the paramilitary, the paramilitary attacked us because they said we aided the guerrillas, and the government was suspicious of us because they believed anyone speaking up was a left-leaning extremist,” she says.
She was growing up in one of the regions most affected by the decades-long civil war – and its violence had exacted a heavy and deeply personal toll on her.
Mayerlis’ mother, or Mami, as she called her, was her best friend. A loner at school, Mayerlis always looked forward to the end of the day and to her mother’s meticulously prepared home-cooked meals. She wasn’t the only person who appreciated them: Mami would also cook large quantities of food for homeless people.
Then, one day, Mayerlis’ mother set off to visit her sister in a nearby city as she often did.
When she failed to return, the family’s anxiety grew. Days passed with no word until Mayerlis’ aunt called. Some men “took [her] away in a big car”, she told them, soon after she had set off to feed a group of homeless people.
Her mother’s kidnapping is one of the thousands of still unresolved disappearances. Mayerlis suspects paramilitary forces, who were engaged in a process of social cleansing that included trying to rid the area of its homeless, were responsible.
Her father feared that they would come for his children next, so he moved them closer to his wife’s relatives.
Mayerlis suddenly found herself living in a faraway town, sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a small, dirty room with her father and two siblings. She was living in poverty, unable to attend school and haunted by questions about what had become of her mother.
The loss of her own mother inspired her to fight for justice for the other victims of the war.
She’s now 35, and her work takes the form of what she calls “peaceful feminism”. It is an ideology that permeates the women’s organisation – one of the most prominent in Colombia – that she runs.
The massacre of El Salado
Lying between the mountains of Montes de Maria, El Salado was once a town of around 7,000 people. By the mid-1990s, it had become a refuge for guerrilla leaders. Its fertile land attracted the FARC, the country’s oldest and largest Marxist-leaning rebel group, who later began a campaign of intimidation against residents of the area.
Meanwhile, in the nearby regions of Magdalena and Antioquia, the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group, was tightening its grip. Tracing its roots to powerful drug cartels, such as the Medellin Cartel under the leadership of Pablo Escobar, the group forged alliances with rich landowners, cattle raisers and prominent political figures.
The AUC became one of the most brutal forces Colombia has ever seen. It sought to eliminate the FARC and anyone associated with it. El Salado was an obvious target.
According to the Open Truth Project, a coalition of journalists and investigators who have taken on the task of recording Colombia’s historic violence, paramilitary forces began their descent on the small town on February 16, 2000.
Unable to confront the hundreds of AUC fighters entering the town, the few stationed FARC members ran into the nearby jungle, leaving the citizens of El Salado to defend themselves.
On the morning of February 18, approximately 450 AUC combatants arrived. In the hours that followed, they raided local stores, drank heavily and turned on the sound systems of music shops. What they were celebrating was a torture and killing spree.
Many of the town’s men were shot in front of their families and neighbours. Others had their ears cut off and were repeatedly stabbed before being killed. One man, it was reported, had ropes tied to his neck and legs which were then pulled apart by the AUC fighters.
Then they turned on the women: gang raping, torturing and killing many of them. It is estimated that more than 100 people were killed.
Word about the massacre reached the now 19-year-old Mayerlis. With several other activists and a local priest, she entered the town the next day.
As they walked through the streets of El Salado, they saw survivors collecting the bodies of the dead and throwing them into large pits that had been dug around the town’s central park.
At the open-air football field, Mayerlis found a table in the middle of the pitch. Beside it, a towel covered a pool of drying blood. The paramilitaries had forced the town’s inhabitants to play a morbid game of raffle, she was told: the winners had their heads cut off with a chainsaw.
“That’s when I realised that what had happened to me was nothing compared to what happened to these people,” she says. “And that what I was doing till then was never going to win against bullets.”
Mayerlis decided that she needed a new strategy.
To heal you need to tell
She felt a desperate need to tell people what she had witnessed and experienced, and believed other women – who had been disproportionately affected by the violence – shared that desire.
But the paramilitary that controlled most of her region threatened anyone who spoke out against them.
Fearful of being punished, Mayerlis and some other women said they were planning a collective harvesting project. But, in reality, they were narrating the tragedies of their lives to each other, unconsciously engaging in a form of psychological therapy.
That was how, in March 2000, the organisation Narrate to Live was born.
Beatriz Suarez remembers the first time she met Mayerlis. It was early March 2000 and Mayerlis had come to her hometown of Carmen as a volunteer for one of the many NGOs working there.
Beatriz was part of a government-sponsored programme that promoted citizen participation in the search for solutions to the conflict. Mayerlis stood out, she remembers.
“Back then, no one talked about victims of war, much less about the concept of women victims,” says Beatriz, who had herself been displaced.
A study by a group of women’s rights organisations and sponsored by Oxfam, entitled Violations and other Violence: Pull My Body out of the War estimates that between 2001 and 2009, more than 54,000 Colombian women were victims of sexual violence. The study also found that less than 18 percent of women affected by sexual violence report it – deterred, often, by the high level of impunity granted to the perpetrators of these crimes.
Sisma Woman, a national women’s rights organisation based in Bogota, estimates that more than 98 percent of sexual crimes go unpunished in Colombia.
In 2008, Colombia’s Constitutional Court issued a decree, known as Auto 092, which acknowledged that women were more affected by the conflict. According to the decree, 80 percent of the more than 5.5 million displaced Colombians are women and children. Once displaced, they are vulnerable to further human rights violations.
“It’s only logical that women bore the brunt of the conflict because they are the survivors,” says Luis Eduardo Celis, a researcher who specialises in Colombia’s conflict. The men were killed, he adds, but the women experienced multiple attacks.
Mayerlis believes that women have been the spoils of war in a conflict that has mirrored the chauvinistic society in which it has been fought. “I live in a very sexist society,” she says. “It’s normal for men to hit women, to degrade them.”
But, after what she had witnessed at El Salado, Mayerlis knew it was time to challenge that.
It all started with the concept of narration as a mechanism to heal. Mayerlis wanted to form a network of support groups across the region. Beatriz was one of the first 20 women to join her. They became “facilitators”, inviting others to their narration sessions. “It didn’t matter if they were married to a guerrilla member, their son was in the paramilitary, or their father was a policeman,” says Mayerlis.
There were women who had seen their children killed, women who had been raped, had limbs cut off, their faces disfigured.
They gathered in quiet places, and opened the floor to anyone who wished to tell their story. Those who listened showed their support by lighting candles to symbolise hope. It helped to improve the women’s self-esteem, Mayerlis says.
By 2005, Mayerlis’ organisation had grown to 839 women.
Until this day, the narration sessions remain a centrepiece of Narrate to Live. But Mayerlis, who is uncomfortable with the victimisation of women, has expanded the organisation’s reach. Now, it aims to demand justice for the thousands of women victims in Montes de Maria.
But to achieve that, Mayerlis believes the women have to be empowered. So the organisation has created a travelling school that educates women about their rights.
“Narrate to Live goes where the government doesn’t have a presence, informs women about the government’s duties, and then supports them in demanding its presence to guarantee their rights,” she explains.
In class, they talk about philosophies that exalt women as equal to men, provide psychological explanations to help them to understand their emotional state and discuss the international laws that should protect them.
Once the women are armed with that information, Narrate to Live supports them in contacting government organisations to demand things such as education, security and even victim-allocated stipends.
A Colombian women’s movement
Mayerlis’ work is an example of a broader national women’s movement.
Claudia Mejia, the director of Sisma Woman, explains that in Colombia, men occupy the positions in which formal conversations about peace take place. The government and FARC teams currently negotiating a peace deal in Havana, Cuba, for example, feature only one woman. So, in order to make their voices heard, women must organise within civil society.
Mayerlis and Narrate to Live have spoken out so loudly that they have garnered support from international organisations such as the United Nations. This profile means that the government can no longer ignore them.
Mayerlis has even been invited to Havana to address the government and FARC teams there on the importance of securing women’s rights as part of the peace.
This year, Mayerlis decided to make her voice louder still by running for mayor of San Juan Nepomuceno, where her organisation’s headquarters are located. Although she didn’t win, she did manage to mobilise a large group of voters. But the volume of her voice has attracted new detractors.
Some of the women involved in the organisation have had their homes burned down. Anonymous pamphlets showing images of butchered women often arrive at its headquarters. Laptops and important documents have been stolen. But the most devastating attack they faced took place on October 5, 2015. It was campaign season and the women of Narrate to Live were meeting at one of the facilitators’ homes to plan an election event in San Juan Nepomuceno.
Mayerlis was on her way to meet them, accompanied by five bodyguards that were allocated to her by the government after a murder attempt in 2012.
As her car slowed to cross a small stream, a rain of bullets descended on it. She threw herself to the floor, her bodyguards covered her with their bodies, and the driver managed to keep driving. Minutes later, she arrived at her friend’s home, unable to speak and so distressed that she began to vomit.
None of the women would dare say who they thought was behind the attack.
“This is the patriarchy refusing to die,” says Mejia. “Women who raise their voices are being attacked, not only for defending women’s rights, but also for the simple fact of being women. Mayerlis lives in a society so chauvinist that it doesn’t tolerate a tiny woman like her having any power.”
That patriarchy may be linked to a new generation of paramilitarism that experts fear is growing in regions the AUC historically controlled. The AUC demobilised after reaching a deal with the Uribe administration in 2003, but it has effectively been transformed into gangs the government now calls BACRIM, short for Bandas Criminales, Spanish for Criminal Gangs.
Celis says the military structure of these gangs may have been dismantled but their economic and political influence remains. “The big winner of the Colombian armed conflict has been the paramilitary,” he says.
The women now move between the different municipalities of Montes de Maria to avoid danger, and have chosen to congregate in smaller numbers and in secret places. “When we stop doing our activities, for fear of being hurt, we start to feel like there’s something missing,” says Suarez. “Narrate to Live is like that delicious dessert that you cannot stop eating. Except this dessert is actually good for you. It’s like a delicious, organic and super healthy dessert,” she adds.
But Mayerlis is still shaken and says there are times when she cannot stop crying. She has decided to take a step back from the organisation for a while. But she knows that at some point she will have to return.
“Collective forces are not that easy to sustain when a leader retires, or is not there,” says Mejia. “And those that attack her are very well aware of that.”
If they succeed in eradicating women like her, Mejia says, “the country will also suffer”.