Raped for speaking out against rape
AColombian woman who denounced armed groups for sexually abusing women and girls was abducted by the militants and subjected to a terrible punishment. Her story illustrates just how much power lies in the hands of armed men in Colombia - despite a ceasefire by the left-wing Farc rebels - and how lawless some parts of the country remain.
A statuesque AfroColombian woman wearing a bright turban and loose flowing robes hovers over her patient and gently prods his stomach. “Where does it hurt?” she asks the man who is lying on his back in a room filled with plants and brightly coloured posters. She uses traditional medicine made from roots and seeds to heal her patients at the Armed Conflict Victims Centre in a rundown suburb of Bogota.
People come to this staterun clinic to share their stories and get some relief from the suffering they have endured in a war between left-wing guerrillas and the army, which has lasted for more than half a century.
Maria, the healer in the turban, is herself recovering from a terrible ordeal which led to her being driven from her home.
Like one in every 10 Colombians, she has become a refugee in her own country. Nearly seven million people have been uprooted and more than 220,000 killed since 1964 when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), took up arms against the state to demand social equality and land reform. And although Farc leaders have agreed a ceasefire and there is a hope for an end to the insurgency, other armed groups, including right-wing paramilitaries, still terrorise large areas of the country.
At her small flat over a car repairs shop Maria tells me her story. Six years ago she was living 400 miles away in Quibdo, capital of the department of Choco, in the west of Colombia, one of the poorest regions of the country where most of the population is descended from African slaves brought over by Spanish colonisers.
Maria was a leader in a women’s group called AfroMuPaz which supports families displaced by conflict. She also campaigned against the recruitment of child soldiers by the many armed groups active in the region and denounced them for subjecting women and girls to sexual abuse.
Criss-crossed with rivers and bordering both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Choco has long been a battleground for those fighting to control drug-trafficking routes and access to illegal gold mines, and they have preyed on local women. AfroMuPaz was one of the few groups speaking out about the problem and calling for it to stop.
In July 2010, a man came to see Maria and said he wanted to donate some children’s clothes and shoes to her group. He offered to take her to another neighbourhood to collect them.
“So I climbed into his truck suspecting nothing,” she says. “But when we started driving out of the city I felt uneasy and asked where the donation was. At that point someone pointed a gun at me and pulled a hood over my head.”