Beloved ashes – remembering a tireless human rights defender

A small homage to a human rights defender, a close colleague, a tireless example of dignity, someone who never gave up. In memory of Giulia Tamayo; may she rest in peace.

By Ángel Gonzalo, press officer at Amnesty International Spain.

I met Giulia Tamayo towards the end of February 2003, when I applied for a press officer post at Amnesty International Spain. Twenty-seven years old at the time, I showed up in a corduroy jacket, with reams of articles under my belt, and brimming with nervous energy and a great desire to work on human rights. She was head of Campaigns for the organization and was on my interview panel.

Exiled Peruvian human rights defender Giulia Tamayo, who was longtime head campaigner at Amnesty International Spain. © Amnesty International Spain
Exiled Peruvian human rights defender Giulia Tamayo, who was longtime head campaigner at Amnesty International Spain. © Amnesty International Spain

Giulia met me with a deep, warm, almost maternal smile. It would have won anyone over and it bestowed her trust in me without her even having to utter a word. Amnesty International Spain’s Director Esteban Beltrán and the organization’s then-president Eva Suárez-Llanos were also on the panel, and they fired questions at me for nearly two hours, covering my work experience, my interests, and who knows what other trivialities.

All the while, it was Giulia’s indigenous eyes that told me: “go ahead, you’re doing well, show them what you’re worth”. I was 27 and was about to begin working at Spain’s leading human rights organization.

After that, I have many anecdotes about and lessons learnt from Giulia, in the midst of her organized chaos that only she knew how to navigate. Among my final memories of her is when she was sitting on her office floor, surrounded by papers, searching for some facts gathered during her latest research into the forced evictions of Cañada Real – one of Europe’s largest slums, on the outskirts of Madrid. Or, not long before that, when she met Madrid’s Mayor Ana Botella to raise awareness about the case of Shakira, a girl with cancer who was living in a van in the northwest Madrid neighbourhood of Puerta de Hierro.

Or the Christmas, back in 2007, when the news broke about Spain’s Historical Memory law dealing with the legacy of Spain’s Civil War. The hurried bustle of the days before, and the disappointment when the law came out, following years of work on the issue (in 2005, Giulia had written Amnesty International’s first report on the victims of the Civil War and the Franco era). We almost worked right through Christmas Eve because – for love or money – Giulia wouldn’t stop working on the press release in response, while my colleague María del Pozo and I just wanted to get home to our families.

What can I say about Giulia’s satisfaction when she told us how she felt on 10 December 2007 in Lima, when Peru’s former President Fujimori was brought to trial. Or when we launched a campaign to tackle violence against women in Spain, which she was a driving force on. And the fight she championed for universal jurisdiction to be implemented in our country. The Pinochet case, the Couso case, the Garzón case. So many names, so many interviews I attended with her. So many cigarettes that she never stopped smoking, so many rums that she sipped slowly, or those Chinese berries that she had taken a liking to, nibbling them the way some people eat sunflower seeds.

And then her cancer – that cruel enemy. At first, she conquered it, and was only kept out of the game for a while. I remember how she came back, a pirate’s kerchief knotted around her head and full of more fighting spirit than ever; maybe she was aware that life was giving her another chance. She had so much left to do. In that sense, Giulia was the Amnesty International researcher par excellence. She allowed no-one to intimidate her. And she never gave up. She lived with cancer, the same way she lived with risk her entire life: it was there but she didn’t seem too bothered by it.

She studied law in her home city, Lima, and from the beginning advocated for social causes, giving succour to prisoners, peasants, women and minority groups.

In 1984, she joined the Flora Tristán Centre for the Peruvian Woman (Centro de la Mujer Peruana Flora Tristán), the first feminist organization in Peru and all of Latin America. She defended abused women and their children.

After that, she was the chief researcher for CLADEM’s (Comité de América Latina y el Caribe para la defensa de los Derechos de la Mujer) work on violence against women in public health services, as well as Peru’s programme of forced sterilization of rural women. From 1997 onwards, she suffered constant intimidation and even death threats for this work.

That’s when she crossed paths with Amnesty International, after the organization issued an Urgent Action to protect her. In those days, Giulia lived her life in the crosshairs of all sides – paramilitaries in collusion with the Peruvian government on the one hand, and the Shining Path armed group on the other. She carried shrapnel in one leg, as a testament to an attack she had suffered.

In 2001, she had to flee Peru, in fear of her life. She went into exile in Spain, where she settled, with a few interruptions, such as when she spent several months in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, researching the numerous cases of sexual violence against women. Or when she travelled to Colombia, to look into the use of rape as a weapon of war in several parts of the country. These brief absences helped to shine a light on human rights violations and abuses.

Then, a year ago, she moved to Honduras, returning, in a way, to her roots – defending human rights in the field. Her contractual ties to Amnesty International were over, but not her moral ties.Giulia was always the one who turned out the lights in our office. Unfailingly, she would be the last to leave. And today she’s been the first to leave, 55 good years behind her, a life lived to the fullest.

It happened in the wee hours, in Uruguay, where she had sought out her final haven of peace. As her partner Chema, from whom she was inseparable, wrote to us: “The lucky handful of stardust that Giulia brought to life in a graceful woman’s body for 55 years and almost nine months, has now become a little pile of beloved ashes”.

We love you, Giulia. And we won’t forget you.