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‘I just need my son’: the people who disappeared amid Colombia’s protests | Colombia

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Before 17-year-old Duvan Barros left his home in a downtrodden neighbourhood in Bogotá to attend an anti-poverty demonstration, he asked his mother, Dolores Barros, to make him a fruit juice. She said no, but there would be one waiting when he got back.

That was 5 June, and Barros hasn’t seen him since.

“He went to the protests to support the cause, to fight for his rights, and that’s the last I know,” she said, in her rented home in the downtrodden El Amparo neighbourhood of western Bogotá. “I just need my son.”

Since protesters first took to the streets of Colombia’s cities in late April, calling on the government to address entrenched inequality, hundreds of people have been reported missing. Some have eventually reappeared after being held for days in extrajudicial police custody.

But others have not been seen again: 77 people have vanished since the start of the unrest. Some were protesters, others appear to have had no links to the demonstrations.

The disappearances have evoked memories of some of the darkest days of the country’s civil war, during which thousands of people were forcibly disappeared by the military, rightwing paramilitaries and leftwing guerillas.

Newscasts still show the smoke-filled streets and skirmishes on the fringes of cities across the country. Frontline masked protesters block roads and launch rocks at armoured riot police, who respond with teargas and billy clubs. At least 44 protesters have been killed by police, according to local rights groups, and Barros worries her son could now be added to that number.

In recent communiques, the offices of Colombia’s attorney general and human rights ombudsman have both labelled the disappeared as “non-located people”. The euphemistic language reflects a disturbing nonchalance of the issue, say human rights activists.

“It’s a political strategy to divert attention away from the seriousness of the crimes – and from the involvement of state agents,” said Adriana Arboleda, the spokesperson for Movice, a Colombian organization that supports victims of state crimes.

A demonstrator is arrested by Colombia’s riot police in late June.
A demonstrator is arrested by Colombia’s riot police in late June. Photograph: Daniel Romero/LongVisual/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Duvan was last seen by some of his friends at Portal de las Américas, a bus terminal in the Colombian capital that has since been dubbed Portal Resistencia by protesters who have battled with police almost nightly since the demonstrations began. He was wearing a yellowT-shirt, black trousers, a black cap and black shoes.

“I need him here, I don’t know if he’s eaten or if he’s cold,” Barros said, fighting back tears. “You can imagine my desperation.”

Each day, Barros checks in with police, hospitals, and morgues for signs of her son, but has found authorities unresponsive. “People die every day in Bogotá,” one police officer told her. “Maybe he went to another town,” suggested another.

“I’m certain that if I had money, they would be looking everywhere for him,” Barros said. “But we’re in Colombia.”

Many families are fearful of reporting loved ones missing, worried that doing so could affect their chances of coming home alive. “Many protesters have also been portrayed as vandals, so people worry that their loved ones could be investigated if they report them missing,” Arboleda said.

Meanwhile, authorities continue to find corpses. Last month, the severed head of Santiago Ochoa, 23, was found in a black bin liner left in a rural garden in Tuluá, a town in Colombia’s conflict-ridden Valle de Cauca province. He had been reported missing two days earlier.

Days later, forensic scientists searching for Ochoa’s body pulled the remains of Hernán David Ramírez, 25, from a nearby river. He had been missing since 10 June.

In several Colombian cities – including Cali, Pereira and Pasto – police officers have detained protesters in extrajudicial sites, using football grounds and shopping centres to hold people without formally charging them.

Riot police stand around a demonstrator sitting on the ground in late June.
Riot police stand around a demonstrator sitting on the ground in late June. Photograph: Sebastian Maya/LongVisual/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Such tactics have prompted comparisons with bitter memories from elsewhere in Latin America. During the cold war, tens of thousands of people were kidnapped and murdered by the military in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Guatemala. In Mexico, about 85,000 people have disappeared since 2006, when its government began ramping up offensives on drug traffickers.

During Colombia’s 50-year conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), more than 100,000 people were forcibly disappeared, with atrocities committed by state-aligned paramilitary groups, leftist rebels and Colombia’s conventional forces.

On Tuesday, a court charged a general and nine officers with forcibly disappearing 24 people and murdering at least 120 civilians, who were later passed off as guerrillas to inflate combat kills and receive bonuses.

A 2016 peace deal with the Farc formally ended that conflict, in which 260,000 people died and 7 million were displaced. But the shadow of that violence still looms over Colombians like the Barros family.

Dolores Barros holds a missing sign showing her son, Duvan Barros.
Dolores Barros holds a missing sign showing her son, Duvan Barros. Photograph: Joe Parkin Daniels/The Guardian

In 2006, when Duvan was a toddler, the pair left their home on the Caribbean coast after militiamen killed Barros’s brother. She suspected the men belonged to a paramilitary group, but when she started asking questions, death threats began – and she fled to the capital.

“I brought my son here to safety, I raised him on my own,” Barros said, as heavy rain pummeled the plastic roof. “He only has me, and now he’s all alone.”

Family members of those disappeared during the conflict see history repeating itself.

“Forced disappearances aren’t consigned to history, they’re continuing today, affecting victims and society alike,” said Elizabeth Santander, a London-based Colombian activist whose husband, Marino Escobar Aroca, was disappeared by Colombia’s intelligence agency in 1987.

Escobar’s remains were never found, though Santander still lobbies the Colombian government and international community to keep searching for all those forcibly disappeared – including those lost during the protests. “The disappeared disappear the day we stop looking for them.”

Barros continues the tireless search for her son, putting up posters around Portal de las Américas and meeting with rights groups like Movice who are supporting her case.

Barros works the night shift at a nearby textile factory, which she says is ideal as she can dedicate her days to the search effort, and she hardly sleeps anyway.

“There are so many people missing but the families are scared to speak out,” Barros said, as she put on her coat and headed to the site where Duvan was last seen. “I’ll go wherever I have to until I get answers.”

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Climate crisis leaving ‘millions at risk of trafficking and slavery’ | Global development

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Millions of people forced to leave their homes because of severe drought and powerful cyclones are at risk of modern slavery and human trafficking over the coming decades, a new report warns.

The climate crisis and the increasing frequency of extreme weather disasters including floods, droughts and megafires are having a devastating effect on the livelihoods of people already living in poverty and making them more vulnerable to slavery, according to the report, published today.

Researchers from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and Anti-Slavery International found that drought in northern Ghana had led young men and women to migrate to major cities. Many women begin working as porters and are at risk of trafficking, sexual exploitation and debt bondage – a form of modern slavery in which workers are trapped in work and exploited to pay off a huge debt.

Boys at lathes turning aluminium pots
Children working in an aluminium pot factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Up to 85 million children work in hazardous jobs around the world. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty

One woman, who migrated to Accra from northern Ghana, used to farm until the land was ruined by flooding and she was forced to move. For seven years she has worked as a porter (kayayie), carrying items on her head.

She said: “Working as a kayayie has not been easy for me. When I came here, I did not know anything about the work. I was told that the woman providing our pans will also feed us and give us accommodation. However, all my earnings go to her and only sometimes will she give me a small part of the money I’ve earned.”

She dropped a customer’s items once and had to pay for the damage, which she could not afford. The woman in charge paid up on condition that she repay her. She added: “I have been working endlessly and have not been able to repay.”

A woman from Bangladesh
A woman from the Sundarbans in Bangladesh, who moved to Kolkata after a cyclone to support her family. Now she cannot return to home without her employer’s permission. Photograph: Somnath Hazra

In the Sundarbans, on the border between India and Bangladesh, severe cyclones have caused flooding in the delta, reducing the land available for farming. With countries in the region tightening immigration restrictions, researchers found that smugglers and traffickers operating in the disaster-prone region were targeting widows and men desperate to cross the border to India to find employment and income. Trafficking victims were often forced into hard labour and prostitution, with some working in sweatshops along the border.

Fran Witt, a climate change and modern slavery adviser at Anti-Slavery International, said: “Our research shows the domino effect of climate change on millions of people’s lives. Extreme weather events contribute to environmental destruction, forcing people to leave their homes and leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation and slavery.”

The World Bank estimates that, by 2050, the impact of the climate crisis, such as poor crop yields, a lack of water and rising sea levels, will force more than 216 million people across six regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and Latin America, from their homes.

The report is a stark warning to world leaders in advance of the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November and calls on them to make sure efforts to address the climate emergency also tackle modern slavery. The report says labour and migrant rights abuses are disregardedin the interests of rapid economic growth and development.

Ritu Bharadwaj, a researcher for the IIED, said: “The world cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking that’s being fuelled by climate change. Addressing these issues needs to be part and parcel of global plans to tackle climate change.”

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Putin faces test of popularity in Russian election

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Russians head to the polls on Friday for parliamentary elections in a test of authority for president Vladimir Putin, whose United Russia party is polling at a near-historic low of just 30 percent. There are few legitimate international observers, after the ODIHR, a Warsaw-based European monitoring body, declined to go because authorities refused to give them proper access. But some pro-Russian MEPs, such as France’s Thierry Mariani, are going anyway.

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‘It helped me get away from crime’: Cape Town’s College of Magic – a photo essay | Global development

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To fans of JK Rowling’s books, the story may sound somewhat familiar: a young boy living in difficult circumstances is enrolled in a mysterious school far from home, where his life is changed for ever by the transformative power of magic.

Anele Dyasi’s story is no fairytale, though, and the school in question is not Hogwarts, but the College of Magic in Cape Town, a unique institution that has been training some of the continent’s most skilled illusionists since the 1980s.

Confetti falls on performers from College of Magic at the end of a show at the Artscape theatre centre, Cape Town.
Jugglers from the College of Magic.
Emilie van den Hooyen, a performer and student at the College of Magic, has her face painted before a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.
Ayabonga Tshofui, a College of Magic student, has his face painted before a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.

Dyasi, who grew up in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha, where violent crime is rife and opportunities are few and far between, was 10 when the college began to train him in the ways of magic and sleight of hand. Within four years he was representing South Africa at magic competitions as far afield as Las Vegas and Beijing and had become a role model for a new generation of budding magicians.

Anele Dyasi.

“I think of it more as a college of life,” says Dyasi, now 23, and a teacher at the college. “It helped me get away from the crime and gangsterism.”

Dyasi says the most important things he learned in his six years as a student at the college had less to do with magic and more to do with self-confidence and effective communication: skills that he feels have left him in a good position to face life’s challenges.

Deyna Viret, a College of Magic student, practises a juggling routine in her dressing room ahead of a show at the Artscape theatre centre.
Illusionist Khanya Rubushe, a College of Magic student, before a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.

On this particular Saturday, clad in a flamboyant polka-dot blazer over a plain white T-shirt, he is teaching closeup card magic to a class of fifth-year students who scrutinise every move of his fingers as they try to figure out the trick. Outside the window, younger students are juggling with batons and doing circuits around the car park on unicycles.

Students practise outside the college

Less research has been done on the educational benefits of learning magic than other performing arts such as music, dance or circus. But the studies that do exist have linked it to physical and psychological benefits such as improved focus, a greater ability to solve problems and think laterally, better interpersonal skills, increased self-worth and an enhanced aptitude for teamwork.

David Gore, founder and director of the College of Magic.

“When we started out we never thought of all the spin-off benefits,” says David Gore, founder and director of the college. “We didn’t realise just how powerful magic was as a tool.”

The college’s students frequently give public performances at local venues, and Gore says he has observed how, within a matter of months, first-year students who arrived at the college shy and recalcitrant routinely end up being confident enough to perform on stage in front of hundreds of strangers.

Anele Dyasi enters the college dove coop

  • Above: Anele Dyasi enters the college’s dove coop. Right: students help each other prepare for a performance
    Below: a box of diabolos, batons and other juggling props, and face paints

College of Magic students Emilie van den Hooyen and Maelle Oudejans help each other get ready for a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.
Equipment used in magical and circus tricks lies in a box at the College of Magic.
Face paints on a table backstage during a performance.

Gore was just 19 when he and a colleague marched into the offices of a local newspaper wearing top hats and tailcoats and announced that they were starting a school for magicians. The newspaper published a story and before long 34 children had signed up. In the 40 years since, several thousand more students have come and gone through the hallways of the ramshackle Victorian mansion that houses the college.

A student juggles outside the college.
Students leave a classroom with walls covered with posters of illusionists.
Magic students walk downstairs after class.
Puppets, photographs and posters on the walls of the college

Built in the late 1800s, the building has a distinctively Hogwarts-esque feel, replete with crooked staircases, secret doorways hidden behind bookshelves, and a special enclosure for the rabbits and doves occasionally used in performances.

“It’s a lot more fun than my other school,” says Duma Mgqoki, a fourth-year student and aspiring magician, who says he enjoys wowing the other children in his neighbourhood with the tricks he learns at the college.

Duma Mgqoki practices a card trick.

While many of the college’s alumni have careers in magic and its associated arts, performing at children’s parties or corporate functions, or becoming TV entertainers, others say the college helped prepare them for a range of non-magical careers.

“Growing up, I went through a lot of trauma and depression. But here I felt free,” says Anela Gazi, a recent graduate of the college from Mfuleni township, who is starting her own shoe-cleaning company.

“This place prepared me for everything. It made me grow. It made me strong. I didn’t even know I could become the person I am now,” she says.

Anela Gazi.

  • ‘This place prepared me for everything. It made me grow. It made me strong,’ says Anela Gazi, a recent graduate

At the college, students from some of the city’s most underprivileged townships are learning alongside others from the wealthiest suburbs.

Twenty-seven years after the end of apartheid, Cape Town remains one of the world’s most divided cities, and many schools, indeed whole neighbourhoods, offer little in the way of ethnic diversity.

Students attend class.

“We believed what we were offering should be available to everyone, and we did that from day one,” says Gore, who flouted the laws of the apartheid regime in the 1980s by insisting on teaching multiracial classes.

The college operates as a nonprofit organisation, and helps to find sponsors to cover the fees of those who could not otherwise afford the courses. It also arranges transport to enable those from more distant areas to attend.

Performers from the College of Magic at the Artscape theatre centre, Cape Town.

“This is the rainbow nation,” says Dyasi after his class, pointing up at the building behind him. “We don’t judge each other here. Everyone is here to achieve the same thing: to become better magicians. It brings out the best in everyone.”

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