Ana*, 38, vividly remembers the black-and-white tennis shoes of one of the men who held her and her family at gun point in their home as they searched for her father to kill him. It was 2001, and she was 18.
It was not the first assassination attempt against him.
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For decades, Colombia has been immersed in civil war, with leftist guerilla groups – the largest of which was the FARC – on one side and the state and the AUC (United Self-Defence), an umbrella organisation for different right-wing paramilitary groups, on the other.
As a young man, Ana’s father was a member of the UP (Patriotic Union), a left-wing political party formed in 1985 as part of an attempted peace process between the FARC and the Colombian government. He was also a human rights advocate and an activist for the Afro-Colombian community, of which Ana’s family is a part.
Thousands of members of UP were killed by state and paramilitary forces, including two presidential candidates, in what became known as the “genocide of the UP” between 1985 and 2002, when it ceased to exist as a political party after failing to acquire enough votes to remain in Congress. According to CNMH (the National Centre of Historical Memory), more than 4,000 UP members, elected mayors and town hall representatives were targeted in these killings.
“Many people thought that my father was a guerrilla from FARC, because he was part of the UP, but he never was part of an armed group,” Ana says. When the right-wing paramilitaries began taking control of Tumaco, a small town with a population of 170,000 on the south Pacific coast of Colombia, where the family lived, Ana’s father was asked to join them due to his influence in the community. He refused.
One night, in 2000, Ana’s father witnessed the execution of a homeless man by right-wing paramilitaries in Tumaco. It was part of a spate of killings of homeless people, prostitutes, petty criminals and drug users, carried out by right-wing paramilitaries to stoke terror in neighbourhoods they controlled. He identified the gunmen and reported them to the police. From that moment, the family lived under a siege of death threats and assassination attempts.
Because the state-armed forces were known to be allied with the far-right paramilitaries in Tumaco, there was no way to ask for protection. Ana and her family had to leave the town in 2000, and she became one of the more than 6 million people in Colombia who have been displaced by the conflict.
Ana’s family moved to a new city where her father continued his activism with another leftist political party, POLO Democrático, as well as working with other human rights advocacy and Afro-Colombian rights organisations. But, fearing the repercussions this might spark from right-wing armed groups, he remained alone in this city while the rest of the family – her sister, mother and brother – lived elsewhere.
Colombia’s decades-old war had finally broken the family apart.
In 2017, after surviving two previous attempts on his life, Ana’s father was killed. A gunman the family believes was from a right-wing paramilitary group from Barranquilla arrived at his home on a motorcycle and shot him several times in the chest.
A month later, a threatening anonymous letter arrived at the family’s home. Soon after, two men arrived on motorcycles and told them to leave or be killed. So, they packed their bags, borrowed some money from friends and relatives, sold many of their belongings and fled. In total, nine members of the family – Ana and her siblings, their partners and their children – arrived in Spain, where they knew no one, in December 2018.
The siblings had considered Canada and Mexico but eventually settled on Spain because there are no visa requirements for Colombians to enter and stay for 90 days.
The family currently lives in Huesca, in the community of Aragón, near the Pyrenees.
They have dire memories of the first shelter for asylum seekers they arrived at – underdressed and under-prepared for the winter weather – in Madrid. They struggled to adjust to sharing a shelter with 100 other people, where they could not cook for themselves and the food was poor.
But soon Ana and her siblings landed their first jobs in Spain, as extras on a TV show. They were paid just 3 euros and a sandwich each for 10 hours of work, but with that money they were able to buy some food outside the shelter. When they were relocated to a new shelter in Huesca, the first thing they asked was if they could cook and, when told yes, they were “screaming and laughing” in joy, Ana says.
In Spain, Colombians can stay for up to 90 days without a visa, but after this they must obtain permission.
The process of applying for asylum, for Ana’s family, has been bittersweet. It does not always make sense. Her sister, Maria*, was denied asylum in June 2020, even though it was granted to Ana and her brother during the same process. The official explanation was that the Colombian government had signed a peace accord with the FARC, and the country was therefore safe for her sister to return to. No explanation was given as to why this had not been applied in the case of Ana and her brother. Her sister is now applying for a “family integration” residence permit, on the basis that she has a child who was born in Spain in 2020 and who has Spanish nationality.
An attempt at peace
Ana and her family are among 400,000 Colombians living in exile around the world, according to a recent report from CNMH. In Spain, 27,556 Colombian citizens applied for asylum in 2020, according to data from the Ministry of the Interior of Spain, a staggering rise from the 656 Colombian asylum seekers in Spain in 2016. It is hard to say exactly how many Colombians are living in Spain right now because, while some move on to other countries or go back home if they can’t get asylum, others remain illegally.
In 2016, then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace treaty with the FARC that aimed to bring peace after decades of armed conflict.
But since then, the war has raged on in Colombia regardless and reprisals against former FARC fighters have continued. According to the political movement Comunes (the FARC’s political party), more than 250 ex-fighters have been killed.
The ELN – the largest left-wing armed group in Colombia since the FARC was demobilised – has a strong presence in large parts of the country, while right-wing paramilitaries continue to operate and compete for control of different areas. The “cocaine economy” remains a major part of the political and economic landscape. And the current president, Ivan Duque, and members of his right-wing political party, Centro Democrático, have been reluctant to implement the peace agreements, mostly because they do not agree with the FARC becoming part of the mainstream political process in Colombia, and want members to be tried as criminals instead.
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Comissioner for Human Rights, denounced the rise of violence in Colombia in December 2020. The UN has documented massacres, killings of minors and the murders of human right advocates and ex-FARC combatants in the country.
‘A leader does not falter’
Even in the relative safety of the Basque Country in Spain, Lucia* fears for her safety and for the lives of her family back home in Colombia. In 2019, she was declared a “military target” by one of the FARC dissident factions and forced to flee her home.
Lucia, 49, is what is termed a “líder social” (social leader) in Colombia; even in exile, she continues to feel like one. “I still communicate with people back at home, they tell me their problems, I seek information and continue to stay in contact, that is my life,” she tells Al Jazeera. “I take it that way, a leader even with all the pain and suffering that they see or suffer, a leader does not falter, they continue to go ahead, and that is the way I feel.”
In Colombia, social leaders are those who have a leadership role in their communities; political activists, human rights defenders, Indigenous and afro-Colombian leaders, environmental activists and LGBTI rights activists. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, more than 400 social leaders have been killed since the 2016 peace accord.
Lucia believes that she was targeted because of her work to halt the flow of minors being recruited by illegal armed groups, FARC dissidents and right-wing paramilitaries. The only “legal” groups in Colombia are state security forces, police, army, navy and the air force – all other military groups are officially illegal. Through organising cultural and sports activities for young people, she and other community leaders in her region talked to young people about the value of peace and the consequences of war and violence, in an effort to prevent them from joining these groups.
She also reported recruitments of young people to the UN verification mission in Colombia, which functions to verify the reintegration of former FARC members into political, economic and social life, and to gain security guarantees for them and their families. She was approached by a FARC dissident fighter in 2018 and told to leave. She says she tried to talk to the commander of the dissident faction, but the decision about her forced displacement had been made. She went to Spain.
Violence was nothing new to her. On many occasions, she found herself caught in the crossfire of the Colombian army and the FARC; she saw the bullets that hit civilian houses and schools in her area. Even after the 2016 accord, the clashes between the dissident faction of FARC, right wing paramilitaries and the Colombian army continued in her area. “The FARC fighters of before are the same now,” she says, meaning she believes many will never demobilise.
In 2019, when Lucia arrived in Spain she was assisted first by the Red Cross. Then, four months ago, CEAR-Euskadi, an NGO that gives assistance to asylum seekers, found her a spot in one of the flats they use to receive asylum seekers in the Basque Country.
It is only recently that Lucia, who is still going through the process of applying for asylum, has started to feel she is recovering mentally from the ordeal of losing her home, her family, her friends and her work. This feeling of profound loss is common among refugees and exiles, she says.
Lucia says she is “going ahead with my life”; she intends to begin studying and joining feminist activist groups in the Basque Country. But like many other asylum seekers, she is waiting for the final decision on her case before she can make plans for the future.
After gunmen arrived, he packed up and fled
Requests for asylum must be granted by the Ministry of the Interior in Spain, and a case should be decided within six months of the application being made. However, many take longer to process and there is no data on the average amount of time.
One reason for the delays may be the unprecedented number of refugees who have been coming to Spain in recent years – right up until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, 118,446 people applied for asylum in Spain – more than double the previous year. A large number were from Colombia, Venezuela and Honduras.
If asylum is granted, the asylum seeker will be granted residence and work permits. If asylum is denied, the person can appeal. If that appeal fails, the person is expected to leave the country in order to apply for an ordinary, permanent residence and work permit instead, but this process may require sponsorship from an employer and applicants must demonstrate they have the means to support themselves and any family members for a year.
Yezid Arteta was one of the lucky ones. A former FARC fighter in the 1980s, he spent 10 years in prisons in Colombia after being shot in the leg and captured in 1996. On his release in 2006, he went to Spain rather than risk being forced back into armed conflict. He now lives in Segur de Calafell, about an hour’s drive from Barcelona, and, instead of obtaining asylum, was able to secure employment with the Peace Culture School of the Autonomous University of Catalonia.
Many failed asylum seekers do not leave the country, but remain illegally. After five years, however, they will be able to apply for a temporary work permit so, for some, running the gauntlet of five years without a work or residence permit is worth the effort.
One Colombian living in exile in Spain who has gone down this route after having his asylum request denied, is Adalberto Trillos, 58, from Norte de Santander in eastern Colombia. He now lives near Plaza Eliptica in Madrid, where many migrant workers come to offer their labour to employers in construction who will pay cash in hand.
Back in Bogotá, Adalberto was part of an association (he is reluctant to say which one for security reasons) working on behalf of displaced farmers who wanted the government to grant them land on which to work and live. The organisation also advised displaced farmers on how to obtain state protection in return for denouncing those responsible for their forced displacements.
After gunmen – he has no idea which group they were affiliated with – arrived at his house in Bogotá and shot at him through the door in 2007, Adalberto packed up and fled to Spain.
He did not have the money to bring his wife and two children with him and had no idea how long he would be gone. So far, it has been 14 years, with just one visit to Colombia in 2015.
He applied for asylum as soon as he got off the plane at Barajas international airport in Madrid. But after six years in limbo and no explanation as to the delay, in 2013, his asylum was denied on the basis that his life was not considered to be in danger in Colombia. He then had to apply for another type of residence permit that he was able to obtain because he had been living in Spain for more than five years, and was granted a 10-year work permit in 2013.
Adalberto says he doesn’t like having to stand in the square every day to ask for work. He finds the labour exploitative because it is paid below minimum wage. But finding work continues to be a challenge – even more so during the pandemic. “There have been days that I went to bed without eating,” he says. Even with a temporary work permit, it is difficult for Adalberto to find a steady job. Normally he finds temporary jobs as a handyman or construction worker.
Home from home?
Colombian exiles in Spain have experienced a mixed reception. Spain has seen a growth of anti-immigrant sentiment, and the far-right political party, Vox, is growing in popularity. While in 2015, Vox had no candidates in the general elections, in the last general election in 2019, the party managed to obtain 52 seats out of 350 with the fourth-most votes.
Ana and her siblings say they have experienced racism and xenophobia since they arrived. Ana’s sister, Maria, says that when she wanted to register the birth of her child, born in Huesca in 2020, an official asked her why she had come to have children in Spain if she was not Spanish. “I am tough but that day, she broke me, I began to cry,” she remembers.
Ana would like to be a social worker, but says she has never seen a Black or immigrant social worker during her time in Spain. “Many of us come with a story of pain behind us, but many in Spain don’t acknowledge this,” she reflects.
The murder of her father caused her great trauma. In Colombia she was afraid of motorcycles approaching. Her brother has to remind her that Spain is safe, because she has felt afraid of walking alone at night, but one thing is certain; she won’t go back to Colombia.
Mateo Gutierrez, 24, from Bogotá, says he feels welcome and in a safe place in the Basque Country. He is still waiting for a decision on his asylum request, which he applied for when he arrived in 2018. He lives in Gasteiz in the Basque Country, where he works in a bar in the city centre. The political and cultural heritage of the Basque Country is something that interests him and feels familiar, he says. He feels that the past conflict in the Basque Country helps locals to have a better understanding of conflicts elsewhere and, therefore, more empathy with his situation.
In 2017, Mateo was charged by the Colombian General Prosecution Office with being involved in a series of low-level bombings in Bogotá between 2015 and 2017. He was arrested and spent 21 months in Bogotá prisons – La Picota and La Modelo. He was accused of being part of the MRP and ELN (leftist guerrilla groups) and was charged with terrorism. He was declared innocent in 2018 in his first trial and freed. Five days later, however, he fled to Spain, fearing that the authorities might try to find something else to charge him with.
Mateo is learning Euskera (the Basque language), has a Basque girlfriend and is beginning to build a life in Gasteiz. He wants to go back to Colombia, but he feels that he doesn’t have the legal guarantees that he would be safe. If the asylum request he made in 2018 is approved, he will not be allowed to go back to Colombia in the next five years or he will lose his asylum in Spain.
Can we ever return?
An investigation by the Colombian weekly news magazine, Revista Semana, in 2020 revealed that more than 130 people – foreign and local journalists, social leaders, activists, NGO workers and politicians – were being actively followed and profiled by the Colombian National Army in 2019. Andrea Aldana, 39, a Colombian journalist, was one of them.
Andrea arrived in Madrid in December 2020 via a temporary protection programme run by Reporters Without Borders for journalists in danger of harm in their own countries. This was not the first time she has had to flee Colombia for reporting on conflict issues in her home country – in 2010 and 2012 she left for Ecuador and Argentina.
On one of her first reporting assignments, in 2008 for De la Urbe, a local media news organisation based at the University of Antioquia in Medellín, Andrea investigated reports about people who had allegedly been killed by the Colombian army and whose remains were filling up the vaults of the small-town cemetery of Frontino in the Antioquia region.
With a colleague, she entered one of the vaults and saw first-hand the remains scattered there, many with gunshot wounds in the skull.
When she left the cemetery and went back to her hotel, she says, a man knocked on her door and told them they better leave immediately, so they did. They went to the main highway and a car pulled up with three men who got out and stood near them. They began to talk loudly to each other and bragged about how they had killed a woman by dragging her from a moving car.
Andrea and her colleague were able to get on a bus back to Medellín. “The fear I felt was horrendous, I felt like peeing, you don’t know how to respond, you are another person. I understood that was the fear the people in these rural areas feel every day. The domination, the need to be silent in front of an armed person.”
Since then, Andrea has felt a responsibility to tell the stories of conflict from the rural areas where the war is more intense, but her latest investigation of the Colombian state security forces has landed her in exile. After her 90 days in Spain as a “tourist” from Colombia is up, Andrea faces a difficult choice between going back to Colombia or applying for asylum in Spain.
Meanwhile, in Huesca, Ana is worrying about her mother who remained in Colombia. Now that she has been granted asylum, she cannot return to Colombia for at least five years without invalidating her asylum claim. Her main concern is for her mother’s health and whether they will see each other again.
It is the same question that lingers for many exiles in Spain: Will it ever be safe to return to Colombia?
*names changed for anonymity