Three stories, one continent, hundreds of cultures, and infinite violence.
Luz María and her son Marcos have been in the house refuge for months. She tells me her story while looking into my eyes. She does not avoid my glance, and she has her hand on the table. Her smile is beautiful, she finishes each sentence with “yes Sir”. I insist that she please do not refer to me as sir. She replies “yes sir, without problem”. She speaks with her sweet accent, her diction is soft with an attractive cadence that captures attention. When explaining her story, she has the gift of the African pause. I promise her that we will not reveal any details that could put her at risk. She smiles agreeing. Cata, the untiring companion of Casa Matilde, repeats my sentences in a language much better known to her. Her presence is a relief for both Luz María and me.
She was born in a community at the border between Colombia and Ecuador. She grew up with her family, her mother and her 3 siblings. She had an absent father (I have chosen this more educated way of saying it). She studied primary school and worked in the border area. Looking for a better future, she moved to Argentina. There, like many other people, she began showing interest in romantic relationships. But, in her case, she fell in love with a “countryman”, and the story showed that she did not have much luck. With Juan, violence did not take long to appear: aggressions, insults, and many blows. After the violence came the reconciliation with the flowers, the kind words and the “it won’t happen again” sentence. While pregnant with her son, the blows continued and she looked for refuge in a friend’s house. After the pregnancy and despite the violence, she decided to move in with her partner. He promised that he would change, and take care of her and their son. But Argentina did not give them the opportunities that they expected, and (running once again) they decided to go back to Colombia, their community, their home. The change of scenery did not appease the violence. Instead, the blows continued on that fertile and humid land.
The return to Colombia was coming back onto the spears. The supposed Colombian peace gave the opportunity for former armed groups to recycle, and change their initials. But they continued to do what they did: recruit young people to keep controlling their power zones and go on with the extorsion of the population. Juan did not want to be a part of the armed movement. One night he hid and fled from them. The armed groups made life-threads against him, Luz María, their family, and any person close to them. Nobody can say no to weapons. They do not allow it.
With a few possessions, they crossed the border and arrived at Quito. They did not have money. A humanitarian organization gave them the minimum to rent a room in the neighbourhood in Quito. The blows came back, this time with more intensity. Luz María feared for Marcos. That was what gave her the strength to make the final step. She left at midnight. Marcos walked barefoot. They could not even pick up the bare minimum. They found shelter at an acquaintance’s house. The following day, someone told her about Casa Refugio Matilde. Since then, she lives hidden.
Luz María’s story has infinite faces. Thousands of Colombians cross the border running from an endless conflict. The vast majority can not return. As always,the most vulnerable are the ones who suffer. Luz María will have to start a new life in a country in which the xenophobia increases more and more due to an avalanche of people from neighbouring countries. Violence and more violence.
Clara arrives with her daughter Elena who is barely 4 years old. She speaks Spanish altering the sentence order “the community from which I come, very hard is”. She lived in an indigenous community of Chimborazo that was more than 4000 meters high. It is the second time that she comes to the house. She tells me that she saw her sister maintaining a supposed extramarital relationship with a man she worked with (they went for walks at the end of the workday). That makes her an accomplice, and (like her sister) she must undergo the punishment dictated by the indigenous law. It could be lashes, ice baths, hits with nettles,… They had to pay for their fault -said her relatives, headed by her mother. In this occasion, the violence comes from the person who brought her into the world. The first time, she ran away with her daughter and later, they separated them. From the house refuge and with a court order, they managed to bring her daughter back to the shelter. There are threatens against her, her sister, and the workers of the Casa Refugio that managed to reach the girl.
Like her, thousands of women suffer the violence of relatives under the protection of a supposed tradition and wisdom. I know that there is a lot of debate behind these words: world-view, anthropology, … But to see this woman (that is hardly 20 years old) and her 4-year-old run away from physical punishment for seeing alleged treason that a relative committed is a thing that I can not understand. I can not understand that it exists some kind of humanity with this behaviour. Violence and more violence.
In the middle of the interviews, in a state between rage, surprise, indignation and shame I remember the movie “Embrace of the Serpent” and the centuries of war between humans in this land, in this our Latin America. I see scales of this snake, how its skin sheds, but it remains the same devouring creature. There are stories of personal violence, of aggression and domination of women. There is a story of collective violence. There are political conflicts that exceed borders. In this state of mind, I confess that I had a hard time continuing with the interviews.
As you can imagine, it has not been my intention to go deep in the stories of Mari Luz and Clara. What is more, tomorrow we will have another interview with Jesselin that, like many others Venezuelans (almost a million) are running away from a humanitarian crisis that is out of control (I do not want start other political and geostrategically debates), and (at the end) I have written this notebook without her story. It was the third story. I will meet her, you will not. I do not want to devalue her experience of violence, but we have already got close enough common denominator. Women that suffer, considered property and also doubly beaten by extreme social and political conflicts, and a society that talks about social classes but does not want to acknowledge the conflict between them.
Actually, I could have written 3 notebooks with the details of their stories but, after all, these meetings have been intimate moments: just for them, for me (my notebook blog) and Cata (who accompanied me in the sessions). They are stories of violence and dehumanisation but, unfortunately there are many of them: now, in the past, and in the future.
What I want to tell as the protagonist of this story (and yes, I say protagonist with a well-filled mouth at the risk of being branded as a western foreigner again) is that, at the end, it has to be a group of women warriors in an environment that wants to devour them (the social investment in Ecuador has fallen significantly in the past two years), the ones that are fearless and build a refuge (Casa Matilde Foundation was created 30 years ago) with only 30% of support of the state (that not always arrives). They: Cata, Elvira, Elizabeth, Charito, Carmita, Jeny, Andrés, Pamela and others are the heroines that offer this oasis so that hundreds of women have every year at least a chance to survive and build a new life project. Where are the governments? They visit quickly and they only call when there is a possibility of appearing in a picture inaugurating something. Where are the big help agencies? Apart from excellent diagnosticians, they do very little to help. And, above all, where is the private capital in this drama? I have not seen any philanthropist nor any banks.
But, from the oasis, is there no other way out than walking to the desert? After hearing these lives, are you doomed to return to dependency? After hearing these lives, are you doomed to return to dependency? After hearing these lives, are you doomed to return to dependency? After hearing these lives, are they doomed to return to dependency? In the house refuge they accompany them, they attend them psychologically, and they teach them how to do certain jobs. Some of them will be successful, many will come back at-risk of death in the only reality they know: one of their aggressors, one of their judicial communities.
I ask Cata and Eli what will happen with Luz María and Clara. With great force in their eyes, they tell me that they may be able to make their own way, with their sons and daughters, in the jungle of Quito.They say they know many cases that have been successful. I cannot get out of my mind what they will feel the day they leave the house.
This clear night of Quito I write from the rage, as you have probably already noticed. Yes. I am sure that loneliness does not help. But, even with company, after having listened to these women and the drama (that goes beyond their personal stories)I would not see the light in the construction of a new Latin America: an egalitarian, non-violent one without the wild inequalities that (I believe) are the fuel of so much violence. I know that the companions at Casa Matilde will understand what I am saying. We are together in this fight. It is the fight of David against Goliat. I also know that those who will read these written lines from the middle of the world will find some meaning to them. That is what these notebooks are all about: telling from experience what I see. I have never wanted to self-congratulation our work. I am sorry to say that it is not as romantic as many would imagine. Many days it hurts deep inside. But, being realistic it is not the same as giving up. To feel overwhelmed is human.
These days I read and reread Galeano, The open veins of Latin America. It has been almost five decades since its publication and I feel that we are not close to suturing these wounds. Galeano said, “Poverty is not written in the stars; underdevelopment is not the fruit of a dark design of God“. I ask myself: Is the violence is written in the stars? Is it a design of God? If humans are the creators, don’t we have the ability to banish it from our world?
Iván Zahínos Ruiz
International Relations Coordinator
*Translated from Spanish to English by Susanna Pujol Clivillé