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Invisible eyewitness to History – Latin American Refugees and the struggle to start again

Andriolli Costa
Published: 10.15.2013
IHU On-Line

They enter the place in silence, almost asking for permission. There’re six of them. Colombians. With a dark skin, and quiet manners, the group walks though Pompeia church, in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, with evident joy, showing with satisfaction the newly documents signed by the Brazilian Federal Police. Today, they’re officially and legally considered refugees. And that’s exactly why we’ll preserve their identities and change their names in this report.

According to data published by the National Committee for Refugees – CONARE, Brazil is home to more than 4500 refugees from 77 different countries – most of Colombian origin. This, of course, taking into account only those who had the recognized status, not those who are still asylum seekers. The recent tragedy in Lampedusa opened Brazilian eyes to the unsustainable situation of those refugees worldwide, but sometimes we forget the very insecurity experienced by our neighbors.

Emílio, 35 years old, however, can’t forget a thing. The farmer brings in his face the terrible scars of the violence involving the southern and the southeastern side of Colombia. In one of the several attacks suffered by him after refusing to serve the Guerrilla, grenade shrapnel lacerated his nose. The man reported the situation to the police attack after attack. He was given a document from the Colombian government which confirmed the persecution and asked for constant protection for him, his wife and the three children. Help never came.

“The government expects us to use the paper to stop bullets,” disdains Ramon, 45. He, who’s been a sailor for over two decades, was also harassed by the Guerrilla, but for strategic military reasons. “They wanted us to take the drugs and weapons from Colombia to Mexico by the sea. This is how the guerrillas maintains itself “, states him. After the initial refusal, the group killed the captain of the boat where Ramon served as immediate and offered him a bag with 25 packs of $ 7,000 each. The man didn’t even think. He left the money bag behind, and when the group returned to plan the drug route, Ramon returned all the money.

“You can’t make a fool of those people, my friend. Either you’re with them or against them”. The sailor was given only one day to escape. He left his city and spread friends and family members through the Country, as far away and as quickly as possible. It was just in time. “They blew up my house and destroyed my motorbikes, which I loved the most. But this we can buy again. Security can’t be bought”.

Emilio and Ramon didn’t know each other in Colombia and neither had been together in Ecuador, where they applied for asylum in Brazil. One lived on earth, in the farm, and the other was friend with the sea. Different words, and different lives, joined by the same tragedy.

The Guerilla
The internal conflict in Colombia began to gain its current face from the second half of the twentieth century, when the peasant guerrillas, influenced by the Cuban Revolution, led to the entity known today as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army, or FARC -EP. Founded in 1964, the group received support from the Colombian Communist Party, starting almost from the beginning, to act in military and political fronts. Since the 1980s, the FARC uses drug traffic, kidnapping and “taxes” (vacuna) forcibly collected from residents, business owners and marketers in the region to finance their actions.

Emilio was one of the victims of vacuna. In 2009, he and his family lived in the countryside of Santiago de Cali, the third largest city in Colombia, with over 2 million inhabitants. Natural from Buenaventura, 145 km away, he decided to spend the holidays with family. When he returned, then came the surprise: its site had been claimed by the guerrilla. To continue living in it, he had to pay a fee which, he knew, would increase every month. “When I refused, they tried to recruit me. They said I had the physique, that I could get to a command post. They left and gave me three days to decide”, he recalls. The idea was also to recruit his two older sons: Pablo, 16, and Esteban, 14. Emilio, too, didn’t even considered the alternative. He took the children from school and left the city with his wife Maria, 38, and Adrian, the youngest, with only three years old. No one could be left behind. Otherwise, they get assassinated or enslaved by the guerrilla, taken to do forced labor until the end of life.

Since the beginning of the year, it was approved a law that aims to return between 1.5 and 2 million hectares of land to those displaced during the internal conflict in Colombia. The estimative is to compensate more than 4 million victims of guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and law enforcement officials since 1985, and that about 400 thousand families displaced since 1991 should be restored. Emilio didn’t want to wait and see. “You can’t pay anything to the dead ones”, says laconically.

“Colombia has three main problems,” explains Ramón. “The Guerrilla, the paramilitaries and the army.” For the sailor, the violence instituted by the national military forces is what refuels the other groups. “If you have a friend, relative or even a customer who joins the guerrilla or the militia, the army publicly accuses you of also being a supporter of the group”. The ones in this situation are investigated by legal forces, but also have to deal with the harassment of the opposing force. And right-wing paramilitaries may be as violent as the guerrillas themselves. Or more.

A report published this year by the NGO “Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris” says that since 2008, the violent actions carried out every year by paramilitary groups and neoparamilitares have occurred in greater numbers than those held by the FARC. Another estimate indicated by the document is that such groups would count with 11,000 active members, against 8500 of Revolutionary Forces and 2200 from the National Liberation Army – ELN – which is another guerrilla group, of Guevarist orientation. In its origin, the paramilitaries were groups made by former officers and policemen hired and funded by big business, farmers or politicians. During the Álvaro Uribe’s government (2002-2010), several demobilization actions of these groups were performed. Today, rearranged, they created neoparamilitary groups. And the same way as the FARC, they make profit from drug traffic in the region.

The shelter

For over two years, Emilio and his family became nomads within the country. It didn’t take long for them to be discovered by the guerrillas, so they were always in the go. “In the first contact, they took our documents to hinder our movement over the country,” he says. Only a lot later Emilio was informed about the refugee status and was able to flee to Ecuador. Once in Tulcán, in the borderline with Colombia, he requested by the country the recognition of the refugee status. Even with all the documents proving persecution, approval was refused.

To further complicate the story of the family, even in another country, the five were located by the persecutors. “The Guerrilla has a great system of informants. It may be a police officer, a trader, or even your own family”, he states. It was only then that the Colombians sought UNHCR, who mediated the group departure from Ecuador. Since then, there were nine months of waiting until the final coming to Brazil.

Embraced with her children, Maria remembers that in the most desperate days, she frequently thought of suicide. The guerrillas had murdered his sister, and they knew what they were capable of. Moreover, life in Ecuador was not easy. “I was getting crazy. Neither of we’re receiving here, in Brazil, we had there. Ecuadorians are very bad people”, grieves.

“In that Country, if you’re Caucasian, they treat you very well. But black people have no access to the basic rights”, says Pablo, the eldest son of the couple. Ramón, on the other hand, had no problem in his staying in the country. The sailor profession has high demand, and the man was able to enter Ecuador with a job offer. Once there, he moved to an area with a lot of black people and requested refuge. He was accepted.

Karin Wapechowski, the National Programme Coordinator of Solidarity Resettlement of the Antônio Vieira Association – ASAV in Porto Alegre, said the family impression is justified. “We’ve already heard of women who were forced to give birth on the street, in front of the Ecuadorian hospital. They weren’t given permission to enter for being Colombian”. Karin, which is one of the responsibles for the arrival of Emilio and Ramon to Rio Grande do Sul, explains that it is the prerogative of each country to accept refugees or not, without justification. “When the mediation is conducted by UNHCR, the agency presents the cases to various countries. When they’re accepted, then begins a series of interviews to confirm the status of refugee”, he explains. Ramón, for example, says his shelter request was accepted by Canada, Norway and Brazil. He chose Brazil, both for the weather and for the fear of prejudice.

Those who are accepted as refugees and become part of the resettlement program receive a monthly income for a year, which varies according on the number of family members. Only in Rio Grande do Sul, 268 people are resettled, according to Wapechowski. After four years of stay in the country, the refugee may make a new request and become just a foreigner resident in Brazil. “The difference between a migrant and a refugee is that with the refuge, the country is committed to providing legal protection and physical person”, he says. During the first year, the person must remain in the city where it was allocated, but is then free to go to any part of the country.

The future
Newcomer to a city in the interior of Rio Grande do Sul, Ramón said he felt completely at ease in Brazil. However, he’s counting the days to see the sea again. After all, that’s where he belonged for more than two decades, and where he was able to make a living. “As a sailor I received $ 3,500 per month, and always wore brand t-shirts. Today, I’m depending on donations to have what to wear”. Meanwhile, colleagues who accepted the invitation of Guerrilla are earning thousands of dollars per month. Does he regret it? “Not even a little. At least I can sleep peacefully. ”

The personal vanity is not the only reason that encourages the sailor to seek a source of personal income. “I lived in the sea. I spend months, sometimes almost a whole year away from my daughters. Money was what linked me and my family”, he recalls. Today, without the resources previously available, Ramón feels the fragility of the bond that he had built and the weight of responsibility. Without being able to fulfill the role of home provider, he reflects on a new approach. “Today they depend on me both emotionally and economically,” he adds.

Emílio and his family, on the other hand, have already decided to stay. The kids also liked the city. They say Porto Alegre looks like an European city. Luck, anyway, seems to be turning to their side. In less than eight days in Rio Grande do Sul, both Ramón and Emilio were able find a job. The municipality driver himself, who brought them to their new homes, recommended the Colombian to a friend businessman. “There is no formal system of incentive to employ refugees. What exists is a network of solidarity, totally informal and spontaneous”, states Karin. Tranquility, happiness, desire to move forward. That’s all the six Colombians hope for the future.

In the interview room, the small Adrian finds and immediately unwraps a package with a small toy truck. “Whose is it?” Asks the already embarrassed mother. “It is God’s, he can stay with it”, answered one of the sisters of the Pompeia Church. Far from the terrible family memories, the boy plays. Roll the plastic wheels the table; stacks the multicolored cattle in the dump of the truck; makes the noise of horn with his mouth. It is a day of peace. Life just goes on.

Sobre Andriolli Costa

Jornalista sul-mato-grossense em terras gaúchas. Atua principalmente nas áreas de jornalismo científico, cultural, rural e com estudos de Jornalismo.


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