Medellin – the city where no one feels safe

By Josefina Salomón, from Amnesty International’s team in Bogota.

Marta doesn’t feel safe in her own home.

Every night, she hides with her children under a mattress or places mattresses against the walls. Many women in her community do the same in a desperate effort to protect themselves from bullets tearing through their flimsy wooden homes.

Marta (who prefers not to give her real name for security reasons) lives in Comuna 13, a marginalized community in west Medellin – Colombia’s second largest city – that has been severely affected by the country’s 40-year-long armed conflict.

We met Marta along with a group of women from Comuna 13 who told us about their fears of living in the community. Nine years ago, Comuna 13 was the target of a military operation with the purported aim of forcing out guerrilla groups controlling several parts of the city. Its result was that army-backed paramilitaries took control instead.

One illegal armed group was simply replaced by another.

During “operation Orion”, as it was called, in October 2002, hundreds of people were arbitrarily detained, tortured or killed. Women and girls were sexually abused and many people were “disappeared”. The authorities took little action to stop the abuses or bring to justice those responsible.

Women from the community told us that almost a decade on, and even though the paramilitary forces have supposedly demobilized, little has changed in the Comuna 13.

Killings are common, women and girls are being raped and people simply “disappear” without a trace.

In some cases, the abusers are members of drug gangs. In others, security forces are allegedly responsible for the crimes.

“We live in fear. I’m very scared,” said Rosario, another woman who preferred to not give her real name. “The authorities don’t do anything. If they did, we would not be living this situation. The police always patrol the same place, not where things are happening. I want them to do something so we can live in peace.”

Sister Rosa, a nun and human rights activist who has dedicated much of her life to help victims of human rights abuses in places such as the Comuna 13, told us: “We thought that with time, the situation was going to improve but unfortunately in the past 10 years, the community is living in a state of absolute chaos.”

Sister Rosa believes women are the ones who bear the brunt of Colombia’s armed conflict.

“Women are very affected; it is women whose sons go to war, it is the women who are raped by the armed groups when they feel like it, it is the women who have to keep silent because the (armed groups) can take their children away to rape them. It is the mothers who have to deal with all the tragedies with no support. I admire them because right now, it is women who suffer all those consequences of war.”

According to a recent Amnesty International report on sexual violence against women in the context of Colombia’s armed conflict, women are treated as “trophies of war”, raped and sexually abused by all warring parties to silence them and punish them or their adversaries.

“Since President Santos took office in 2010, the government has made clear commitments to tackle the human rights crisis but we have yet to see real improvements in bringing to justice those responsible for human rights abuses, such as sexual violence against women,” said Susan Lee, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

The solution to Colombia’s conflict might not be a simple one. But what is clear is that political will from the authorities to take action to protect human rights would go a very long way to ensure people like the women of Comuna 13 feel safe.