This is the transcript of a Seeking Peace podcast episode featuring Clemencia Carabalí.
Melanne Verveer From Georgetown University, this is Seeking Peace. I’m Melanne Verveer.
In 2016, after over 50 years of armed conflict, the government of Colombia signed an historic Peace Agreement with the FARC guerrillas. Four years later, a Colombian woman appeared before the UN Security Council to testify about how peace still seems out of reach.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: CLEMENCIA CARABALÍ RODALLEGA AT THE COLOMBIA – SECURITY COUNCIL, 8749TH MEETING] “Since the Peace Accords were signed between the Colombian government and the FARC guerilla group, around 686 people have been murdered – including signatories of the Accord, leaders, and Human Rights defenders. One hundred and twenty of them happened just in 2020, this year.”
Melanne Verveer Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega is an Afro-Colombian human rights defender. She lives in Cauca, one of the rural areas most affected by the conflict. For 20 years, she’s been fighting for women’s rights on the frontlines, frequently going toe to toe with armed militias and drug traffickers.
Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega I’ve devoted a big part of my life defending territorial, ethnic, and women’s rights. And I am, unfortunately, another victim of this armed conflict that all of us had to go through in Colombia but particularly here in the Northern Cauca territory. A conflict that’s not ours, but has been imposed on us, and that we’ve had to deal with.
Melanne Verveer In today’s story, produced in collaboration with UN Women, we will learn what Clemencia is doing to build a lasting peace from the trenches of the conflict. For her, the 2016 peace accords have had little effect. The threats keep coming and the number of murders around her have gone up in recent years. But Clemencia continues to risk her life to support the rights of the Afro-descendant women of Cauca.
Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega Despite the hardships of people from communities of African descent, and particularly Afro-descendant women in Colombia, we cannot lose the hope we get from dreaming of peace. I believe that we have to persist for there to be justice, and that justice will bring about reconciliation.
Melanne Verveer Producer Laura Ubaté in Colombia has more.
Laura Ubaté After months of not seeing each other, Clemencia Carabalí gathers with 50 women in a two-floor brick house in Santander de Quilichao. It’s a small town in Cauca, a region of southwest Colombia surrounded by tropical mountains.
Clemencia arrives in a white dress, her hair wrapped in a traditional turban. She is the founder and leader of the Association of Afro-Descendant Women from North Cauca – ASOM for short.
For weeks, they have continually been texting each other while in quarantine. Today is the first time they are hosting an in-person meeting since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, during which attacks on human rights defenders have increased. Time is of the essence: they are building a community center and a home for women under threat.
Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega When there are threats to a leader, man or woman, there will be a place where that person can stay for a few days until they can be relocated further away.
Laura Ubaté Here, Clemencia is explaining to these women that it’s their right to be heard… and to be seen. They must take action to protect their rights. Being visible, getting together in these community centers, is critical to their survival.
Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega I think it amplifies our efforts to care for and protect our environment. It helps us be more visible as an organization and it encourages women to keep fighting for life, for our territory, for our ethnic and territorial rights.
Laura Ubaté Last year, Clemencia brought the women of ASOM together to tell their side of the darkest years of the conflict. They even wrote a full report and sent it to the Truth Commission, which is currently researching the true impact of the conflict in rural Colombia. Clemencia herself presented their findings to the envoys from the Commission, who came all the way from Bogotá to La Balsa, the village where Clemencia lives.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: CLEMENCIA CARABALÍ RODALLEGA AT THE COMMISSION OF TRUTH FOOTAGE] “We present our voices to the Truth Commission our – the voices of Afro Descendant women from Northern Cauca that have been invisible until now. Because without our voices, the history of the armed conflict in Colombia will not be complete.”
Laura Ubaté This was the first report prepared about the effects of the conflict on Afro-Colombian women in Cauca.
Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega For us, being able to tell the truth – a truth that we articulate, by ourselves, as the women who suffered through so many years of war and clashes between various armed groups fighting over the land, this report represents our voices. It’s a report that represents what we really went through. That’s why it’s so essential for us.
Laura Ubaté The report was groundbreaking. That’s why the ASOM women composed and interpreted a song for the release. “We are brave voices”, they sing, “voices that sing the truth.”
Since the launch of the report, Clemencia began to be recognized more and more as a social leader in Colombia.
Laura Ubaté This is a clip from November 2019, when Clemencia was awarded the National Human Rights Prize for Defender of the Year.
[ARCHIVAL AUDIO: CLEMENCIA CARABALÍ RODALLEGA AT THE PREMIO NACIONAL A LA DEFENSA DE LOS DERECHOS HUMANOS EN COLOMBIA] “This recognition is for women and especially for the Afro-descendant women of Northern Cauca, and my 220 colleagues in the organization. For me, it’s also about the recognition of the collective work of a group of women that defend life.”
Laura Ubaté The award brought renewed interest and support for the ASOM women. They recently got a three-year peacebuilding grant from UN Women, under an initiative named ProDefensoras. Alma Viviana Pérez is Regional Advisor on Peace and Security for UN Women. She says the peacebuilding process in Colombia depends on women like Clemencia.
Alma Viviana Pérez In many places in Latin America and the Caribbean in particular, many women, human rights defenders as Clemencia Carabalí, live and work in territories afflicted with high rates of conflict-related violence. ProDefensoras is a program devoted to strengthen the protection of women leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia. As many brave peacebuilders around the world, they are real champions of the women peace and security agenda.
Laura Ubaté Denouncing the armed groups the way Clemencia does is an extremely risky move. Extrajudicial killings have actually increased in Cauca in the last year. Political strategist and human rights expert Laura Gil explains that these murders are meant to send a message.
Laura Gil Many of these killings are being perpetrated to instill fear in the community. Fear. Whether they kill a leader on land restitution, or whether they kill a leader on crop substitution. The message is: “Don’t get involved. Stay away.” We are beginning to see people killed in the streets, and the corpses left there. This is something that we Colombians had thought that we would never see again. We are going backwards in Colombia. We are working towards our past, our past of blood, of massacres, of war.
Laura Ubaté One of the best ways for these activists to stay safe is by making themselves visible. Being out in the open is an act of defiance. Laura Gil explains.
Laura Gil The one thing that protects human rights defenders is to make them visible. The more we make them visible, the more costly it is to attack them.
Laura Ubaté Human rights defenders under threat in Colombia are often on the run, hiding from house to house. During the pandemic, being at home 24 hours a day can be a death sentence. If they stay home, attackers can track them and know exactly where to find them, so they are an easy target. That’s why Clemencia insists that these women make themselves and their projects visible.
One of those projects is the community center. Another one is the harvesting rotation, where they take turns and tend to their crops, out in the open.
[AUDIO: CLEMENCIA CARABALÍ RODALLEGA AT ASOM MEETING] “How many of you have gardens?… Shared ones? One, two. Three, four… five!”
Laura Ubaté This is a practice that goes back to the founding of ASOM in 1997. Initially, Clemencia started working with other women who panned gold from the rivers and harvested the family plots. They formed a cooperative that, over the years, became a safe space because it kept these women active, in touch, informed, and coordinated. When one of them received a threat, she could tell the others.
Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega I identified women who would get together to wash clothes, to pan for gold, to just hang out, or go to the farm for a very ancestral activity that we call “changing hands”. That’s when we all go and clean my plot of land for example, for two to three days. Then, we all go to clean another sister’s plot and we rotate through all the plots until they’re all clean or fertilized, or until the harvest is over.
And so it just happens that I identified this practice that is very common among us, in the Black communities, and I started talking to other women, I started to bring them together.
Laura Ubaté Clemencia’s work for women in La Balsa spans decades, and it became much more difficult when the first armed groups started arriving in Cauca in 2001.
Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega When the paramilitary groups came to the region, it caused such chaos, that we and our team couldn’t return to our communities. Many of our productive activities, such as farming, were lost.
Laura Ubaté One afternoon, a group of armed men rolled into La Balsa. They rounded up all the townspeople in the park, including Clemencia. They wanted to know who was with the guerrilla fighters.
Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega My husband and I got closer to the park, and a commander started talking. He said, well, he called us all “guerrilleros.” He said they had come to take care of us, to take care of the good people.
Laura Ubaté Clemencia was upset at first. Then she got angry. These people weren’t there to protect anyone, she thought. They just wanted power and control. That’s when Clemencia did something that few women, and especially few Afro-Colombian women, had done before.
Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega There was a moment when, to be honest, I couldn’t take it anymore. I asked for permission to speak to tell them that we didn’t need them to take care of us. That what we had seen until now was that they had come to disturb our peace. That they had come to murder innocent people, because we knew many of the people that they had killed and we knew they had nothing to do with the guerrilla and that in our community, there were no guerrilla fighters.
People were scared because I think that at some point they thought for a second they were going to shoot me. And it’s true, when I finished talking, I realized what I had done. I hadn’t noticed before, but then I realized I was shaking out of fear.
I went home.
Laura Ubaté Nothing happened to Clemencia that day. She successfully stood up to the armed men. Success, however, can be dangerous. As the impact of Clemencia’s work grew, the paramilitaries started to notice. At first, they only threatened her. But then they started threatening her husband. And finally, her children. It became so dangerous that she was forced to leave the community, first for a few months in 2002. Then in 2004, she had to flee for six years.
Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega They were telling me I had to leave our land because I was getting in the way of progress. They threatened me, they even came to my house late at night. It was a tough period in our lives, because first, when you leave, you’re away from your family, from your circle of friends, from the people who in a way make you feel safe and protected. Those you’ve always shared your life with, the people you know.
Laura Ubaté While Clemencia was away, the conflict raged. Clemencia returned in 2010, but now she can only move around in a bulletproof car.
The 2016 Peace Agreement between the government and the FARC was supposed to put an end to these practices. But Clemencia told me how her work is actually getting more and more difficult.
Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega These days have been particularly difficult. We had hoped that with the signing of the Peace Agreement, we could finally turn the page and move on from violence.
Laura Ubaté The new Colombian government, elected in 2018, has been slow in implementing the peace accords. Armed groups and drug traffickers have taken advantage of this void, and they are attacking human rights defenders who work independently towards peace. Again, local political strategist and human rights expert, Laura Gil.
Laura Gil The Peace Agreement meant the demobilization of 13,000 guerrillas. They occupied a number of territories and those were left in a vacuum. The Peace Agreement, the peace negotiators were not naive about this. They knew that as soon as the guerrillas were demobilized, illegal armed groups connected to illicit economies will take advantage and move in.
Laura Ubaté The guerrillas left Clemencia’s village around 2006, but since then, new armed groups have tried to take over. They are trying to take control of natural resources. Clemencia complained to the government that they were polluting groundwater when panning for gold from the river.
Clemencia Carabalí Rodallega When someone is interested in extracting a certain quantity of gold from a specific area, they don’t care about families living there, they don’t care that they have to drink that contaminated water. What they care about is gold. That is what is violating our rights. And it’s against those actions that we raise our voices, and that’s when we end up, according to them, being enemies for their purposes and that’s when the persecution starts.
Laura Ubaté In their most recent meeting, the ASOM Women debated their next initiative: a case they will bring to a new transitional court created by the Peace Accords. They decided they will recount all the human rights abuses they have suffered over the years.
[AUDIO: CLEMENCIA CARABALÍ RODALLEGA AT ASOM MEETING] “In the end, with all of that, what do we want? That there be justice, that there be reparations, that there be truth, yes, but also that as ASOM we be compensated. And what does that imply? That’s also something we have to think about – what do we want as reparations?”
“We have to work on that in the future. That’s why it’s so important that we present our work to the transitional court, that we participate in the hearings, yes? We always have to be aware of what we’re doing.”
Laura Ubaté These women are currently deciding on what reparations they deserve after so many years of intimidation and violence. As Clemencia always tells them, it’s their right.
Melanne Verveer Despite Colombia’s historic Peace Agreement, women in rural areas still face high levels of insecurity. Drug trafficking and illegal mining often lead to targeted killings and extortion. As of 2020, the country ranks 107 out of the 167 countries on the women, peace, and security index that the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security publishes. The work of peacebuilders and human rights defenders like Clemencia and the women of ASOM continues.
This story was produced by Laura Ubaté in collaboration with UN Women. Special thanks to producer Lina Gaitán for her help gathering tape in Colombia. And to Leila Day of The Stoop podcast for voicing Clemencia’s testimony in English. If you want to hear Leila’s work discussing what it means to be Black in America today, you can go to thestoop.org.
We have also partnered with La Linea del Medio on the ground in Bogotá – they will be releasing a version of this story in Spanish. We will post a link to that story on our website, where you can find all of our episodes — seekingpeacepodcast.com.
Tune in next time to hear from Ziauddin Yousafzai, the Pakistani education activist, best known as the father of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.
Ziauddin Yousafzai I’m so proud of her that at such a young age now she is leading a global nonprofit organization for girls education and her dream is to see every girl, every girl in every corner of the world in school.
Melanne Verveer That’s next time, on Seeking Peace.
The second season of Seeking Peace is a production of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and Adonde Media, in collaboration with UN Women and Our Secure Future. The views expressed in this podcast are those of the interviewees and the participants and do not necessarily represent the views of UN Women, the United Nations, or any of its affiliated organizations.
I’m your host, Melanne Verveer. Thank you for listening.