Children now play football on the field where the lives of the people of El Salado changed completely.
In February 2000, about 450 paramilitary fighters stormed this small Colombian town. They forced people from their homes into the field, and began to play drums and drink alcohol stolen from local shops. They then went on to torture and kill. Yirley Velasco was one of those gang-raped. She was 14 at the time.
Afterwards, Velasco, her family and other survivors fled to nearby cities and towns, where they often lived in deep poverty and faced stigma for having been forcibly displaced. Two decades on, only an estimated 1,200 of the 4,000 people in the community have returned.
Today there are no signs of the bloodshed on the football field and the children kick their ball over a faded peace sign painted on ground. “When I pass by here, all the feelings come rushing back to me. I saw a lot of people get killed. It’s not easy to forget that. And there is still pain. There is still sadness,” says Velasco.
Velasco and 12 other survivors created a network, Mujeres Sembrando Vida (Women Sowing Life), to support victims of sexual and domestic violence in the northern Colombian region of Montes de María, an area still plagued by conflict.
Sexual violence is a common tactic used by paramilitaries, guerrillas and state military forces to sow fear and assert power.
“Sexual violence against women and girls is a kind of discrimination that comes from long-existing structures,” says Linda Cabrera, director of Sisma Mujer, an organisation that defends victims of gender-based violence in Colombia. “What it has created is different kinds of traumas.”
In El Salado there is no official registry of the rapes committed by paramilitaries. Velasco said the topic was missing in conversations about reparations.
“When they began to discuss El Salado, I heard them talk about thousands of things [the community needed] – a health centre, a road, a church – but when they finished I said to myself: ‘What about the women?’” Velasco says.
“Because I lived it. I’ve felt the pain, I know the helplessness that comes from being ignored.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, domestic abuse cases surged with protracted lockdowns across the world. It was particularly rampant in Latin American countries, with previously high rates of domestic and sexual violence. Although quarantines are no longer in force, gender-based violence has continued at alarming levels.
Velasco and her team guide victims to report cases and ensure these are handled appropriately, and try to address the sense of impunity that goes hand-in-hand with such crimes in Colombia.
“We do what the state entities fail to do,” she says.
Members of Mujeres Sembrando Vida are part of multiple regional and national support groups. WhatsApp networks have been crucial to contacting victims in rural areas.
Velasco and her team also run in-person workshops in rural communities, teaching women about gender equality, and have set up a collective savings account to help women in emergencies.
“Ninety per cent of women depend on what their husbands give them. That’s what the violence is born from. With this savings account, if a woman has an emergency, there is money,” she says.
So far the team have helped about 280 women in El Salado and nearby communities. They have helped women leave abusive situations, get medical help and created projects to enable financial independence.
For survivors of sexual violence such as Diana Chamorro, 56, such support has been transformative.
In 1998, Chamorro was walking to her brother’s house not far from her home when a group of men attacked and raped her. The men were in military camouflage, but she never saw their faces. She says she told no one about the rape.
“I told absolutely no one,” she says. “What do I say if I don’t know who it was? That was part of it. The other part was the shame.”
It was only after meeting Velasco four years ago that Chamorro began to address the trauma she had felt for decades with a psychologist. Since then she has helped others.
“I felt protected, like I have someone to count on, that I’m not alone like a lot of women who have suffered more than I have,” says Chamorro. “I want to make sure that these women can join us.”
But the work of Mujeres Sembrando Vida has become increasingly difficult amid a resurgence of violence in Colombia. The Montes de María region is contested territory used by armed groups for drug trafficking.
People say they felt some relief after the government struck a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) in 2016, which offered respite to the fighting. But the peace process has fallen apart as different groups vie for territory, says Elizabeth Dickinson, a Colombia analyst for International Crisis Group.
The militia, Clan del Golfo, or Gulf Clan, and a handful of smaller gangs control the Montes de María.
“Instead of one dominant group, you have three dominant groups [in Montes de María],” Dickinson says. “Then everyone wants a piece of the pie, and the ones who suffer are the civilian population.”
Activists like Velasco are constantly under threat. In Colombia, at least 1,205 social leaders have been murdered since the peace accords were signed in 2016, according to Bogotá-based thinktank Indepaz.
Velasco says she has received about 500 death threats via message, 100 by phone and five written threats on her door. The threats often make reference to rape, she says.
Sitting in her backyard under a security camera that the authorities have installed, she reads aloud a recent text. “Yirley Velasco, we are going to kill you, we have a lot of people all around you … We’re going to kill your mother and entire family if you stay here. We’ll give you two days for you to leave … we’re the Clan del Golfo.”
When she drives she is accompanied by two state-assigned bodyguards in a truck with bullet-proof windows.
Despite the risks, Velasco and Chamorro aim to expand their work. “We want to bring [new women] with us to help clear their minds so they can live in better conditions, tell their stories, and so their wounds can heal.”
‘We just sleep and hope we don’t perish’: 2m in Tigray in urgent need of food – UN | Hunger
At least 2 million people in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray are suffering from an extreme lack of food, with the 15-month conflict between rebel and government forces pushing families to the brink, the UN’s emergency food agency has found.
In the first comprehensive assessment the World Food Programme (WFP) has carried out in Tigray since the start of the war, 37% of the population were found to be severely food insecure, meaning they had at times run out of food and gone a day or more without eating.
Families were found to be “exhausting all means to feed themselves”, with 13% of Tigrayan children under five and almost two-thirds of pregnant and breastfeeding women suffering from malnutrition.
“Before the conflict we were eating three times a day but now even once a day is difficult. I was borrowing food from my family but now they have run out. We just sleep and hope we do not perish,” Kiros, a single mother of six children living on the outskirts of the region’s capital, Mekelle, told researchers.
The assessment, which was based on face-to-face interviews with 980 households in accessible parts of Tigray, was carried out from mid-November until mid-December.
However, researchers were unable to travel to areas where fighting is impeding humanitarian access. Moreover, since the assessment was carried out, the needs of the region are thought to have become even more acute as no aid convoy has reached Tigray for about six weeks.
“This bleak assessment reconfirms that what the people of northern Ethiopia need is scaled up humanitarian assistance, and they need it now,” said Michael Dunford, WFP’s regional director for eastern Africa.
“WFP is doing all it can to ensure our convoys with food and medicines make it through the frontlines. But if hostilities persist, we need all the parties to the conflict to agree to a humanitarian pause and formally agreed transport corridors, so that supplies can reach the millions besieged by hunger.”
Across northern Ethiopia, where fighting has raged in the regions of Afar and Amhara as well as Tigray, WFP estimates that 9 million people are in need of humanitarian food assistance, the highest number yet.
In Amhara, hunger has more than doubled in five months, it says. In Afar, where fighting has intensified in recent days between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and forces loyal to the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, recent health screening data showed malnutrition rates for children under five were at 28%, far above the standard emergency threshold of 15%.
Since the conflict erupted in November 2020, it has been difficult for the UN and other humanitarian organisations to gauge the level of need in Tigray due to a lack of on-the-ground access and telecommunications. The UN has accused the federal government of preventing food and essential medical supplies from coming into the region in a de-facto blockade. The government denies this.
On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had made its first delivery of medical supplies to Mekelle since last September. The drugs are understood to have included enough insulin supplies to last about a month, after medics at the Ayder referral hospital raised the alarm over severe shortages.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization, recently accused Abiy’s government of imposing a “hell” on Tigray by denying entry to medical supplies.
“It is a huge relief that this first shipment is reaching hospitals,” said Apollo Barasa, health coordinator at the ICRC delegation in Ethiopia. “This assistance is a lifeline for thousands of people, and I can’t emphasise enough how crucial it is that these deliveries continue.”
Asylum applications on rise in EU
The EU Agency for Asylum on Friday said the number of asylum applications in November 2021 was the second-highest in five years, narrowly below the level in September. About 71,400 applications for international protection were lodged in the “EU+” (EU, plus Norway and Switzerland) in November 2021, up by nine percent from October. “This was the second-highest level since 2016,” it said.
Protests flare across Poland after death of young mother denied an abortion | Abortion
Protests are under way across Poland after the death of a 37-year-old woman this week who was refused an abortion, a year since the country introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.
On the streets of Warsaw on Tuesday night, protesters laid wreaths and lanterns in memory of Agnieszka T, who died earlier that day. She was pregnant with twins when one of the foetus’ heartbeat stopped and doctors refused to carry out an abortion. In a statement, her family accused the government of having “blood on its hands”. Further protests are planned in Częstochowa, the city in southern Poland where the mother-of-three was from.
“We continue to protest so that no one else will die,” Marta Lempart, organiser of the protests, told Polish media. “The Polish abortion ban kills. Another person has died because the necessary medical procedure was not carried out on time.” All-Poland Women’s Strike has called on people across the country to picket the offices of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and organise road blockades in the coming days.
Agnieszka was first admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa with abdominal pain on 21 December. She is said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she arrived and was in “a good physical and mental shape”, according to her family, who said her condition then deteriorated.
On 21 December the heartbeat of one of the twins stopped and, according to Agnieszka’s family, the doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation. They waited several days until the second foetus also died. A further two days passed before the pregnancy was terminated on 31 December, according to the family.
A priest was then summoned by hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, the family said.
The family say that the doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy earlier, citing Poland’s abortion legislation. “Her husband begged the doctors to save his wife, even at the cost of the pregnancy,” Agnieszka’s twin sister, Wioletta Paciepnik, said on Tuesday.
After the termination, Agnieszka was moved from the gynaecological ward and her health continued to deteriorate. Her family suspect that she died of sepsis but the cause of death was not identified in a statement released by the hospital.
Shortly after her death, a statement by her family accusing the hospital of neglect was published on Facebook, alongside a distressing video of Agnieszka’s last days.
Agnieszka’s death marks the first anniversary of the 2021 ruling that declared abortion due to foetal abnormalities illegal. Abortion can now only be carried out in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life and health are in danger.
Her death comes after that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was refused an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found that “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined. Soon after, an anonymous man from Świdnica in south-west Poland came forward to share that his wife, Ania, died in similar circumstances in June last year.
While “selective abortion” is possible in the case of a twin pregnancy, it is unclear whether aborting an unviable foetus to save its healthy twin is permitted by the new abortion legislation. The Polish court has not referenced the questions raised by this situation, presented by opposition senators last year, in the new legislation.
“We want to honour the memory of my beloved sister and save other women in Poland from a similar fate,” Paciepnik said in a video appeal. The case is now being investigated by the regional prosecutors in Katowice, who also investigated the case of Izabela.
The family are represented by Kamila Ferenc, from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, who confirmed that an autopsy of Agnieszka’s body has been ordered by the court.
According to a statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. The hospital did not respond to the Guardian for a request for comment.
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