We thought the government was responding negatively to the situation of displaced people, so we were obliged to organize ourselves. In AFRODES we do for ourselves what the state is supposed to do for us. We teach people how to get to Quibdó, how to contact the appropriate institutions, how to reclaim their rights as displaced people and as Afro-Colombians, and we also work for the return of their lands.
Alba Maria Cuestas Arias is originally from Riosucio, Colombia, in the Chocó region. Nearly ten years ago she was forcefully displaced from her home and moved to the regional capital of Quibdó.
"The theme of our organization is displaced people. We were organized because we thought the government was failing to respond to the situation of displaced people, so we were obliged to organize ourselves. We are part of AFRODES Bogotá. So what do we do as an organization? We do for ourselves what the state is supposed to do for us. We teach people how to get to Quibdó, how to contact the appropriate institutions, how to reclaim their rights as displaced people and as Afro-Colombians, and we also work for the return of their lands. We do not work for any monetary compensation, but for the love of our people, and we try to work for people wandering around as displaced people. One of our goals is to look out for people who have suffered from war. We are fighting to get the Colombian government to look out for displaced people and to respect the rights they are supposed to have. But when the government talks about displacement in Chocó, they simply say that either it doesn’t exist or that if it ever existed, it has now been dealt with. We have been displaced by the war. We used to live happily and tranquilly. We coexisted with nature, with the water, with the land. This war and displacement has caused us to suffer and to live in a manner that no human being deserves to live in.
"First, what we have done is take a survey to understand the characteristics of the displaced population in Quibdó. Second we are working with the UN Office on Refugees, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office, the church in Quibdó, and AFRODES Bogotá, in order to reestablish ourselves and to promote our 'guiding principles,' which are essentially to work on health, nutrition, and education. We know all these things are supposed to be obligations of the Colombian state, but what we are asking for in this trip is for the US to invest money in social programs for the communities most in need, not to invest in more war, to buy weapons, to buy uniforms. We want money to go directly to community organizations, directly to Afro-Colombian work.
"As I’m sure you know, most of the members of our organization are women. We are organizing as women, not against men, but side by side for human rights. Women are hit especially hard by displacement, even more so than men. For many of us who are displaced, we have to take on the role of mother and father. We need to take care of our children so that they don’t become gang members and go down the wrong path. Displacement is a very cruel process. Many of you might ask, 'Why did these people leave? Why were they displaced?' Essentially what’s happened is that towns are destroyed, lives are destroyed, and our social fabric is destroyed. People are forced to leave that which they have been constructing for years and years. My organization and many others like it work very closely with AFRODES Bogotá to reestablish our lives, so we are not on our own, but are closely knit and well organized to be strong and demand the rights that belong to us."