Stories of Change: Truth, Memory and Reconciliation Commission of Colombian women in diaspora

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It was when Sofia felt that she was being followed in Bogotá that she started to feel unsafe. Her phone was tapped, she had to change her routes daily, keep her phone conversations short and even move where she lived four times. Her family and her friends knew nothing, as she felt telling them something would threatened their relationship.

Sofia had been working for an NGO that worked with victims of paramilitary violence in Santa Marta (on the Pacific coast), hearing their stories and offering psychosocial support and diagnosis. Although she wasn’t sure, Sofia is convinced that she was followed because through her work, she was publishing the voices of female victims of violence that had largely been ignored in Colombia. By December 2013, Sofia felt in a position where she could no longer remain in her home country, and move to London as a result of violent paramilitary threats.

The 50-year conflict in Colombia has had grave consequences on the country and the civilian population. Alongside casualties and displacement within Colombia, 10 million people have migrated during the conflict, some 10% of the country’s population. Sofia’s story is one of thousands of people who have had no choice but to flee their homeland.

This migration has equipped the Colombian diaspora around the world with a unique set of skills, perspective on the conflict, and worldview. These skills can become fundamental assets in the journey of building a more democratic, peaceful and inclusive peace within the country, perhaps even more so following the rejection of the first peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC by the population in October.

Despite this, the skills and expertise of the diaspora remain largely untapped and unacknowledged. At a time when the country is trying to actively address and reconcile its own violent past, the voices of thousands of Colombians who fled the country because of the violence cannot be ignored. That is why the work of the Truth, Memory and Reconciliation Commission (TMRC) has, and will continue to play a vital role in capturing the voices of the Colombian diaspora and healing past trauma.

The TMRC sees women in particular as key agents of change – they experience both conflict and migration differently to men. The project aims to address four fundamental needs;

  • To heal trauma caused by the conflict and migration process
  • To ensure that the voices of the diaspora community informs reconciliation and memory initiatives in Colombia
  • To improve the integration of the diaspora in host countries
  • To develop a mechanism that addresses the exclusion of women’s voices and experiences in the peace process.

Given the past trauma many of the women have suffered as result of the Colombian conflict, alongside the migration process itself, the Commission attempts to create a safe space in which women feel free to talk and share their experiences. It’s a place where women are able to regain their self-esteem that many have lost through trauma and the journey of being a migrant in the UK. TMRC has become a vital tool.

Sofia was invited to take part in the Commission, and began attending sessions when she had to take time away from university. After attending a few sessions, and becoming more comfortable with the other women there, Sofia made the difficult step of opening up about her own story. When speaking to Sofia, she talks about how alone she felt when she first arrived in London, however after a few months of participation with the commission, she says she felt supported, empowered and part of a community. Through hearing other women’s stories, it helped her understand her own experiences, her own power, tools and coping skills to survive. It has helped her heal and recover from her personal trauma, whilst helping her to reconnect with Colombian culture.

As Colombia again looks to reach a peace deal to end the conflict, the TMRC will pay a bigger role in promoting the voices, experiences and personal stories like that of Sofia and the other women in diaspora.

Read more about the work of the Commission here