Wednesday, January 9, 2013

COLOMBIA WATCH- Carmen Mayusa left me speechlessCarmen Mayusa is one of very few people who has left me speechless. As I sat with her in a sunlit conference room in Brighton, she told me about her brother’s death: ‘We were supposed to go to a New Year’s Eve party, but I couldn’t go because he was assassinated that day.’ The story represents a double loss for Carmen: the loss of her brother’s life in his assassination, and the loss of her own freedom. Unlike the tourists who now flock to her home country, Carmen doesn’t visit beaches, or while away the hours in bars. She can’t even board a bus without putting her own life in danger. Despite being free, Carmen is a prisoner every day of her life.At this point you’re probably wondering who Carmen Mayusa is. So let me go back to the beginning. Carmen Mayusa is a trade unionist. She’s not a criminal or a gangster. But she happens to have been born in Colombia, the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist. In the past 22 years, approximately 3000 trade unionists have been killed by right-wing militia in Colombia – 12 in this year alone. In 97% of these cases, no one is convicted of the killings. Trade unionists, like Carmen, must accept that those closest to them might one day disappear forever, and no one will ever be held responsible. Usually the greatest crime committed by Colombian trade unionists is to criticise government policy. For that, they are denounced as terrorists, arrested in their homes and imprisoned without trial, in what POA General Secretary Steve Gillan calls, ‘the most terrible conditions I have ever seen.’ Carmen Mayusa herself was detained for two years without trial, before eventually being released in 2008.What Carmen Mayusa has lived through is so far outside of my understanding of reality that it’s difficult to describe her. I was struck by the natural poetry to her vernacular, which infuses her words with a sort of heroic romance. And yet at the same time, she never lets you get carried away with the image of her as a brave heroine. During our meeting, she talked defiantly about her struggle, but she was also honest about her despair. She wept as she told me, ‘I’m scared.’ She grieved openly about the death of her family members who were murdered by militia. She became angry about the unfairness of her situation; not always the determined anger we associate with heroes, but the raw, bitter anger of someone who feels gravely wronged. When I was introduced to Carmen, I wanted to meet a superhero; but instead I met a human being.Carmen is human and therefore deserves rights. She deserves to be able to leave her house without fearing for her life. She deserves the family that has been taken away from her. She deserves to be on the front page of every single newspaper across the world until something is done to stop these atrocities. She deserves the support of the international community. At the moment she is barely getting its attention.In Carmen I saw that when the authorities take away someone’s freedom, they don’t oppress them: they put them in the position of having nothing to lose. For all her despair, grief and rage, Carmen Meyusa will continue to fight in Colombia. Her sense now is that to give up would render her grief meaningless, and would betray the struggles of her family. I asked her if she had ever thought of stopping. Her reply? ‘I will never stop. My family died in this fight. I will never turn my back on the banners they have lifted.’

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