Bertina survived the massacre – now she’s a peacebuilder
The civil war in Colombia has taken tens of thousands of lives and forced millions to flee. A few years ago, Bertina Collazos was homeless. Today, she’s involved in building the future peace in the country.
Bertina Collazos survived the massacre in the small village of Naya. She heard how her neighbours were murdered with chainsaws. Today, she’s involved in Diakonia’s partner organization Ruta Pacífica.
Testified in peace negotiations
A couple of years ago, she travelled to the Cuban capital of Havanna to take part in the peace negotiations between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government. She was to testify about her experiences and represent the country’s women.
Buried husband in secret
“I had to bury my husband in secret. Not even my neighbours knew that he’d been murdered. We found his body in a ditch a few kilometres from our home village some days after the paramilitaries had abducted him,” says Bertina.
Before they did this, they said to Bertina that she had to keep quiet. If she told anyone what had happened, they would kill her and her children.
“So we buried him in secret,” she says.
Both guerrillas and paramilitaries
Bertina Collazos belongs to Colombia’s indigenous population. She married at 20 and soon had three children. The family lived in a small house up in the mountains and lived off the land. Around a hundred people lived in the village of Naya, growing maize, cassava, coffee and beans.
The cattle roamed freely among the simple wooden houses. But guerrilla soldiers and paramilitaries also roamed the forests.
“They abducted and murdered people all the time. It was almost a daily occurrence. We received a quota for how much we were allowed to shop for each month, and if we exceeded that quota, we were accused of harbouring guerrilla soldiers, which was punishable by death,” says Bertina.
The armed conflict hit Naya hard. Many people sought a more bearable life in the big cities.
“It was a tough life. I could never have imagined that it could get even tougher,” she says.
But it did. In 2001, Bertina was thrown headlong into a nightmare. Her village was massacred.
Murdered with a chainsaw
“Early in the morning, they’d surrounded our home. They kicked in the doors and shouted that they were looking for guerrilla soldiers, but there were no soldiers, just us – my children, my husband and I. They went into the houses, dragged the men out and shot them. In one family, they murdered three people with a chainsaw. I could hear the men screaming, begging to be spared.”
The paramilitaries stayed until late that afternoon, and when they left, they forced Bertina’s husband to go with them. He had to carry the baggage, which consisted of weapons, ammunition and stolen goods. He never came back. A few days later, he was found murdered in a ditch.
“After we’d buried my husband, the guerrillas came to our village. They told us that they would avenge his death. I must have been insane with grief and anger because I shouted that what had happened was their fault, that I didn’t want anything to do with them and that they should be ashamed of themselves. I remembered that they cocked their weapons and threatened to kill us, but I just replied, “If you’re going to murder us, you’d better get started. You can leave me until last.”
Forced to flee
After the murder of her husband and the threat from the guerrillas and paramilitaries, Bertina was forced to leave her home.
“When we fled, we had nothing. I had nothing – no clothes for my children, no food. I was forced to leave the little ones on their own so I could beg or take the work I could find – picking leaves on coca plantations, for example. It was a dangerous job because the military bombed the plantations and imprisoned a lot of people who worked there in the fields. Every night, I prayed to God to give me a better job,” says Bertina.
One day, a man came up to her. He had fled with his family and was unable to farm his land.
“I didn’t know much about farming. But it went well. We harvested three times that year.”
Came into contact with organization
After having lost everything, Bertina began to slowly but surely carve out a life for herself. She soon came into contact with the women’s organization Ruta Pacifica, where she learned about human rights and met other women.
“Just getting an encouraging pat on the shoulder or a hug meant a great deal,” says Bertina.
Went to Havanna
So, in the autumn of 2014, Bertina along with 70 other women went to Havanna to tell her story and represent other women in the region.
“When I once again came face to face with several of the perpetrators, I was scared at first, but the words of my companions gave me strength. Together, we formed a circle around the negotiation table, and everyone was given the chance to tell their story. Stories of rape, murder, kidnapping and physical abuse. We also talked about how hard we had worked to get back on our feet.”
Today, she’s part of Ruta Pacífica and helps to organize forums in which women from all over Colombia can get their voices heard, network and jointly claim their rights.
“We’ve become stronger”
“In the midst of all the suffering, we’ve learned a great deal and we’ve become stronger. Today, I’m no longer the quiet housewife I once was, and I’m not afraid of anything. I’m one of seven women leaders in my village, and slowly but surely, we’re rebuilding what we once had and making it even better. I’ve learned all this thanks to my experiences and work with Ruta Pacifica. What we want now is acknowledgement – of both the truth and our suffering,” says Bertina Collazos.