Colombian Surprise: Women, War & Peace

 “The War We Are Living” follows two powerful Afro-Colombian women as they protect their community’s land rights. It airs on your local PBS station Tuesday, November 1. Check local listings.

Colombian Surprise: Women, War & Peace

Yesterday, Colombians went to the polls amid increased violence, intimidation and death. More than 40 candidates for locally elected offices were killed, up 66 percent since the last municipal election four years ago. Beyond these countable casualties, no one has tracked the scores of candidates who quit their bids for office in response to terrorist threats.

If you are American, this picture of civic strife, damaged democracy, violence, and political corruption is probably familiar to you. Barraged by aerial news footage of coca fields and reports of drug-fueled paramilitary bloodshed, we’ve grown accustomed to stories of Colombia’s rampant guerilla intimidation and murderous politics. We’re saturated by images of men in uniform, machine guns chopping and ammunition flapping.

But I can paint you a Colombian scene that won’t be so familiar. In the rural, mountainous region of Cauca, two leaders are spearheading a successful, nonviolent, community-led crusade against a decades-long campaign of violence, displacement, and discrimination. They are far from the cities and the coca fields—in an isolated, gold-rich community high in the country’s costal mountains. They are women. And they are black.

The community of La Toma is situated amid gold mines that have been worked by Colombia’s Afro-Colombian population for more than 400 years—since African slaves were brought to the country’s Pacific coastal region in the 16th century. It is here that Clemencia Carabali and Francia Marquez represent more than 1,000 families who have been increasingly targeted—through death threats and homicides, among other fear tactics—by paramilitary groups representing the interests of those who would obtain mining permits to exploit La Toma’s valuable land. Rallying thousands in peaceful protest, Carabali and Marquez are fighting for the government to withdraw 35 legally suspect mining permits that would evict them from the lands their ancestors have tended for centuries.

The PBS series Women, War & Peace—of which I am one Executive Producer—features Carabali and Marquez in its fourth episode, called The War We Are Living. In part, we highlight their story because it reveals a Colombia—and a population of Colombians—rarely featured in news reports. It shines a light on the country’s staggeringly large number of internally displaced persons—more than 4 million, the most of any country in the world. And it broadcasts a truth that decades of drug-and-violence coverage has perhaps dulled—that while the war in Colombia might have eased in the urban centers and around the areas frequented by wealthy tourists, a slow-burning rural conflict simmers on, victimizing and violating citizens across the country.

More important, however, we include Carabali and Marquez’s struggle in our series precisely because we believe that - however unfamiliar the particulars - it should not be surprising to us that powerful, respected, creative and courageous women are leading the way toward peaceful dialogue everywhere, all around the world. As in Liberia, the Balkans, and Afghanistan, among many other regions torn by conflict, women in Colombia are lobbying for international support; fact finding in the homes of both victims and perpetrators; and negotiating for political transparency and the rule of law. In La Toma, as elsewhere, they are navigating conflict resolution with less violence, more dialogue, and less vulnerability than their fathers, brothers and sons.

Please keep all this in mind when you read about this weekend’s election as a reminder of how high the stakes are in Colombia, and I hope you watch The War We Are Living with a renewed curiosity for coverage that shows another side of Colombia’s struggle for peace and security. And I hope you witness Carabali and Marquez’s incredible ongoing work for legal rights, civic stability, and peace with the same knowing sense of familiarity you might once have reserved for images of men and guns.

Abigail E. Disney, along with co-creators Pamela Hogan and Gini Reticker, is Executive Producer of the five-part PBS series Women, War & Peace. Narrated by Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Geena Davis and Alfre Woodard, Women, War & Peace is the most comprehensive global media initiative ever mounted on the roles of women in war and peace.



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