By Rob Hawke
Puerto Wilches, Colombia. Summer 2009. I am on an accompaniment with community organisers from the OFP, the Popular Women’s Organisation. Wilches is a one street town banking the Magdalena River; the heat is still and stifling. The leader I accompany, Martina*, is convening a meeting of victims of sexual violence and forced displacement. In the room are sixty or so women who step up to share their stories and draw solidarity from group. My gender (male) appears to be an irrelevance; I’m an international, a white-t-shirted PBIer, and my presence is a small but welcome part of the machinery that sustains the courage of those organising and attending to carry on.
Shortly after 2pm, Martina receives a call on her Nokia from San Pablo, a smog choked town up river. The leader of a local mining union has been ambushed and killed on a road leading out of town. The call has come from his wife, now widow. She is panicked and distraught and requests Martina’s help to assist her in reporting the crime and making the rapid funeral arrangements a tropical death entails. Martina asks me to travel with her to the scene; San Pablo is a town well known to us but these aren’t normal circumstances. I call for back up to the PBI team in our local field office who respond straight away with telephone calls to the police, military, and civilian authorities giving notification of our visit and expressing concern about the situation.
The Union Leader’s widow greets us at the docks and it is instantly clear that the emotional support and solidarity we can offer is as important as any of the bureaucratic tasks that await. Nonetheless it is here that the critical work of both the OFP and PBI plays out. We are on hand to make sure that the Prosecutor’s Office deals seriously with lodging the case and documenting witness statements; to hold the Police accountable for investigating the crime and providing security for the family of the victim. It is a tense and arduous afternoon, not least seeing the Unionist’s widow having to bargain over coffins only hours after his murder.
As dusk falls we prepare to take the last launch back to Barranca, where plans for the night are shelved in order to document what has happened, liaise with local NGOs, and to raise the alarm with our support networks in Bogota and around the world. It’s an experience that has stayed with me ever since. Justice can be a long time coming in Colombia, but what impressed me most that day was the chain of solidarity that formed in response to a brutal and senseless attack effectively designed to shatter such bonds. In PBI’s small way, and in my own small way, we played our part in ensuring that the spirit of resolve for a just and peaceful future continues.
Rob Hawke volunteered with PBI Colombia from 2008-2009.