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    Published in The Portland Alliance, September 2007

    On April 30, a single mother of three spoke and showed slides at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, but this was no ordinary mother and these were no ordinary slides. A Columbian hospital worker for 20 years, Yaneth Pérez is from the Arauca region in northeastern Colombia and president of the Dawn of Women for Arauca, a women’s rights and social justice association. The pictures Pérez is sharing with Americans on her month-long speaking tour of the Northwest shows close friends and co-workers who were killed, arrested without charges and jailed for years, or taken to hiding as they struggled to survive in a war-torn nation. Joining her on the tour is Scott Nicholson, a Montana activist who has been in Arauca since July 2006 documenting human rights abuses.

    Colombia is rich with natural resources like oil, coal and gold, but the land’s abundance has fueled an intense power struggle spanning four decades between the national army, paramilitary factions, and at least two leftist guerrilla groups vying for turf. Many Americans are aware of the wasteful and ineffective U.S. government effort to wipe out coca production, but fewer know Colombia is the seventh-largest supplier of U.S. oil. Occidental Petroleum operates an oilfield and pipeline in Arauca currently protected by militaries empowered with a $1.5 million per day budget, making Columbia the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

    Pérez detailed some of the human rights abuses committed against her comrades working peacefully to stop the loss of their native lands and the undercutting of Columbia’s economies by oil and agribusiness interests.

    Among the worst of the atrocities is the Massacre at Santa Domingo, the name given to an air attack on the village of Santo Domingo in Arauca province on Dec. 13, 1998. American civilians working airborne security for Occidental Petroleum dropped cluster bombs and rockets on what they claimed were guerrilla fighters from FARC, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. International agencies such as Amnesty International have widely protested that the 7 children and 11 adults murdered were non-combatants. The Santa Domingo raid caused some of the worst “collateral damage” inflicted on civilians by the armed forces in the recent history of the 37-year conflict and has since become a key piece of evidence for peaceworkers protesting U.S. involvement in Colombia.

    If that Latin American history lesson seems dry reading it is because Pérez spoke of the longstanding oppression of her people while standing in front of pictures that gave souls to the sorts of slayings progressives can get numbed to reading about so frequently. It is one thing to know that 18 innocents were killed at the Massacre of Santa Domingo, and quite another to see their family members gathered at annual memorials and erecting an elegant monument to their assassinated loved ones.

    Lest we get caught up in the mainstream media’s usual presentation of the most brutally violent, negative sides of humanity, it must be stressed that Pérez brought much more than tales of cultural and ecological devastation with her from Columbia. The Dawn of Women for Arauca first formed in November 2002 after mass arrests for labor organizing put more than 2000 people in prisons. On Nov. 2006, the international day of actions to stop violence against women, the women officially formed an association dedicated to nonviolently fostering peace and took as their motto, “For dignity, justice, and equality.” By March 8th their numbers had swelled to 300 women who attended the group’s celebration of Women’s Day and collectively they raised their glasses in a “toast to life.” As before, the emotional resonance of the moment’s beauty translates better through the pictures of candlelit rooms packed with multi-ethnic women standing in solidarity for peace.

    “The violence is all-consuming,” Pérez sighed as she began to address how the fighting has affected women specifically, “Young women especially are used as tools for men to attack each other.” Many women are widowed, and many more separated from violent partners. The responsibility of caring for children falls on women here as in the rest of the world, but the abject poverty makes the situation dire for Columbian women. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, the women have worked with labor rights groups, indigenous rights groups, and community activists to build a cooperative store, a radio station, and five high schools.

    Earlier this year the U.S. Department of State submitted its 2008 operations budget for “Plan Columbia Two” requesting 587 million dollars. Military aid is where 76% of that money is directed despite activist attempts to increase the amount allotted for social betterment projects.

    “We don’t need any more weapons in Arauca” said Pérez. “There are already more than enough guns and bombs to kill all of us. Instead of sending arms, we ask the U.S. government to provide support for schools, health clinics, housing, and small farmers so that we can take care of our families.”

    S.M.Berg is a Portland activist, feminist, and writist.

    Copyright © by genderberg.com All Right Reserved.

    Published on: 2007-11-06 (1474 reads)

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