Trauma and Resilience: Covering the Colombian Civil War
Jenny Manrique Cortés is a Colombian journalist currently based in the US. She is an Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow, a position sponsored by MIT and the International Women and Media Foundation. She gave this speech in Cambridge, MA on March 27, 2009, as part of a keynote panel called "Women Reporting from the Global Frontlines," at the Women, Action & the Media (WAM!) Conference sponsored by the Center for New Words. To learn more about the conference, visit www.centerfornewwords.org.
For a woman journalist working and living in Colombia there are two separate but related challenges: to exist as a member of the society and at the same time to have the necessary distance to be able to stand back, examine the situation, and then write about it.
I am a regional journalist. In Colombia, I worked in a province, covering small communities. In the provinces, we deal with the most difficult topic in Colombia, the armed conflict -- the oldest in the western hemisphere. In those small corners, where the war is still bleeding us, violence causes huge injuries not only to the society, but to one of its most valued goods: information. In the provinces, I could not act like a special correspondent who covers a story and returns to the headquarters in the capital, or whose assignment ends when the troops are leaving and it seems that the last bomb has exploded. Instead, this is a daily work. There were daily deaths. Sometimes those corpses had the names of my friends, my sources, my colleagues.
The smaller the community, the closer to the problems you are, and the easier it is to be targeted. Reporters are in the gun sights of all militias.
Fighting for a Piece of the Cake
Doing journalism on the civil war in Colombia is always a challenge, when you consider that each party has powerful reasons to lie. All the armed actors, organized as guerrillas, paramilitaries, big and small drug cartels, and common crime structures, are trying to get as much as they can of the big cake that fuels the war: the drug trafficking. Our conflict is not ethnic. Our conflict is not religious. Our conflict is an internal armed conflict that is going to last until the drug trafficking stops being such a high-profit business. Unfortunately, the biggest client of this business is the United States.
My last work in Colombia was "embedded." I was working embedded with several communities who suddenly had to rush and leave everything, even their beds. I was located in a midsized city in the Northeast of the country, called Bucaramanga, and from there I traveled to very remote villages, taping the voices of witnesses and victims throughout the rich and sadly violent Magdalena Medio region. I did not speak with presidents, or ministers, or people in power. On the contrary, I interviewed people abused by that power: human rights defenders; displaced women, children, and men; relatives of the disappeared or kidnapped; indigenous people; Afro-Colombians. I interviewed people who had little other means of being heard.
While these villagers are very fragile sources who require protection and anonymity, they also are the ones who always know who committed a crime; whether or not there was combat; whether the corpses presented on television by troops are combatants or executed civilians.
ELN and FARC guerrillas, old and new paramilitaries, all came to have faces when I arrived to work at Vanguardia Liberal Newspaper. I was hired to be in charge of a weekly publication in which I wrote stories related to war. In this location, I could report in a closer way than I had been able to do in the capital, where I had relied on government sources. The headquarters of a safe national newspaper was a great school, but until I went to be embedded with the communities that were suffering the reality of the reports barely explained in the news releases I received in my office, I lacked a sense of perspective and reality.
A Woman on the Frontlines
I have interviewed perpetrators, I have slept in camps, I have flown in helicopters with soldiers, and I have been in the middle of battles. Also, too many times, I have been in the sad aftermath where the forensics doctors are picking up bodies and the press conference is over. I never carried weapons, but was many times surrounded by them. Fortunately I was never wounded, but there were many assignments for which I was not allowed to leave the newsroom without a bulletproof jacket.
I was questioned several times by officers who were trying to understand what a woman was doing in men's territory. I have been denied access to information due to "national security reasons," and then I have found my male colleagues publishing it.
Nowadays there are several women journalists covering what in Colombia we used to call public order, though we now all know it is a big disorder -- a disorder caused by armies, which, no surprise, consider women war trophies. Some of my colleagues were treated as such trophies themselves. One of them was raped by paramilitaries; others had to flee, hiding their families in different cities, while they sought for a place to refugee. In spite of the danger, many of us decided not to continue reporting with bodyguards. We knew that in a hostile environment, a weapon is not the best companion to gain the trust of sources. Many of my women colleagues continue there, showing courage that I still admire, and writing about their peers´ suffering with a strong commitment.
It is true that many women participating inside the armies consider themselves respected, well-treated, and even living in an egalitarian environment, as some of the revolutionary fighters claim. But what is unquestionable is that women are the first victims of this war and in the cruelest ways.
It is not easy for a woman journalist to write about that. I am not a mother yet, but I was deeply affected when covering stories about women struggling to find at least the bodies of their brutally assassinated sons. I went with some of them to find simply an arm, a head, or an unrecognizable body burnt with acid before receiving two shots in the head. I am not a girl anymore, but I cannot stand watching a girl pick up the pieces of toys destroyed by soldiers who were looking for drugs in her pink bedroom, and who finally detained her brothers, leaving her orphaned again.
The Price of Speaking Out
I received death threats in 2006 because I was deeply devoted to an investigation into the way paramilitaries were taking control of the region, imposing absurd rules on the local population such as the hours to take a shower and the way to dress. Instead of being demobilized after a peace process with the current government, they were still recruiting young men under a new umbrella organization. They were still recruiting young girls to use as sexual slaves.
I am lucky that journalistic organizations helped me to leave and I am talking today with you. I am lucky that I received psychological aid and learned about the relationship between journalism and trauma. But I still do not know what hurts me the most: being silenced by someone who did not have the right to do it, or ceasing to be a channel for people to tell their stories.
Telling the truth is frequently unpopular, but it is an important way to help communities survive and grow, and heal the wounds opened by war. Truth-telling is unpopular when we have a president, Alvaro Uribe, who on several occasions has said publicly that terrorism is hiding behind anyone in the opposition. Journalists, columnists, politicians, human rights defenders have all been forced into exile for making public accusations in name of the legitimacy of Colombian institutions. Self-censorship is frequently used in a totally polarized country, where the public good of information has been deeply affected.
I have returned to Colombia a couple of times, quietly reported about issues such as kidnapping, and then I left. I do not consider myself still a target, because there is always somebody else on whom to put the pressure. But I know that it will be not easy to write again with the same freedom I had at the beginning of my career.
Nevertheless, I am optimistic. In the middle of this scenario
there is still a permanent struggle by Colombia's minorities
to keep the hope alive and rescue the homeland where they want
to live in a peaceful future. I came to realize that there is
a little thing that we journalists can do and that is to show
their resilience. In tragedies we need to draw attention to perpetrators
but also show how survivors are trying to recover and rebuild
in a constructive way, and how they support each other. Courageous
mothers are still looking for their disappeared sons, women are
protecting children from the armed groups' recruitment,
community leaders who are faced with threats and dangers are not
shutting up. I always find their stories absolutely inspiring
and they restore in me the hope that I may live and report in