On the 23rd of January of 1994, a branch of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colmbia (FARC, in Spanish) erupted into a riot in the working class neighbourhood of La Chinita, in the locality of Apartadó. It was known as La Chinita massacre as 35 people were killed; one of them, the son of Silvia Berrocal, Alcides Lozano Berrocal.
Two decades after, Silvia has become one of the driving forces for the process of public pardon that has brought the FARC back to La Chinita ; this time, on the 30th September of 2016, in order to admit the harm inflicted and to ask for forgiveness. In addition, she has actively participated in the peace negotiations between FARC and the Colombian government taking place in La Havana.
She is an expert in social and community work, and an activist with a large experience as a community manager and in the defence of the rights of the most vulnerable collectives in Apartadó. Between the years 1998 and 2000 she was municipal councillor. Currently, she is a member of the Fundación Forjando Futuros and the Corporation of survival victims from the Urabá conflict – Visionando la Paz (COMUPAZ).
Sadly, her commitment with the peace process has brought along threats against her own safety. For this reason, since last November, she is in Catalunya in the frame of the Catalan Programme for the protection of human rights defenders . The aim of this initiative is to offer protection and attention to the defenders of human rights who see their life or integrity at risk due to their work in the defence of human rights in their countries of origin, through six months-temporary reception in Catalonia and return accompaniment. Every candidate is selected among the applications submitted at the Catalan entities, which are endorsed by entities from the country of origin of the applicants. In the case of Silvia Berrocal, she received the endorsement in Catalonia of Oxfam Intermon and in Colombia of Forjando Futuros.
You travelled to Cuba in three occasions to participate in the peace negotiations. What would you highlight from this experience?
We women had a great advocacy leverage in them. We were able to watch and contribute. I’d highlight that it was an excellent negotiation between the government and the FARC. To me, it was something really positive about which Colombia should be proud.
How did you live the visit to the victims of the Chinita masacre by the FARC?
With emotion and satisfaction. I was calm, because I had worked on my emotions and forgiveness. When you relieve yourself of all resentment and hate, you are free, you can go back to living and forgive.
The first time I went to Havana, yeah, I was very nervous. It was the first time that I would meet with people from the organisation that had killed my son. Instead, when they came to visit I felt peaceful seeing how they expressed themselves and asked for forgiveness. They recognised it had been a mistake. One thinks, a mistake to kill 35 people… But everybody can make mistakes.
We had already decided for reconciliation and forgiveness, above all so other families wouldn’t suffer what we had suffered, so there would not be any more victims, more widows, more orphans. When 7000 rifles stop shooting there’s a lot of people who don’t die.
Because of this process of forgiveness, they started to question me and to say I belonged to the guerrilla, that I was supporting the FARC. Then came the threats.
You are one of the main promoters of COMUPAZ. How did this initative start?
No one supported us. Governments – local, regional and national – are not interested in the rise of any grassroots initiatives. But a group of 70 women, we have secured, since 2014, our legal belonging to this organisation. How do we work? We meet to talk in a park, really close to my place, in the working-class neighbourhood. We get together, bring some food to share, we talk, play, laugh… and we try to solve our problems, legal or of other sorts.
Which are the main threats for women in the current Colombian context?
The lack of lands and opportunity. Women don’t have lands and usually they don’t have the opportunity to study, to become professionals, to access housing. Especially peasant women, who haven’t been to school, they don’t know how to demand their rights. The Colombian constitution recognises many rights, but often they are ignored. Me, as a defendant, I help people to have their rights granted.
People who work for the Unit for Victims are not always adequately trained and they do not provide victims with the support they need and which is recognised by law. This produces a revictimisation. I am not a professional but I know where to find the information and knowledge to orientate and support people, especially women, as victims who are in a vulnerable situation.
How do you explain the violence that defenders are suffering after the peace deal?
The peace process has gone a long way but there are now paramilitary groups that want to take over the gap left by the guerrilla. They want to expel the peasants from their lands and murder the defenders so they are not able to complain.
The State, in the meanwhile, is completely blind to this. They play as if nothing were happening. In fact, the Minister of Defence has even said that Colombia is free of paramilitary and that defenders are being killed because of girl troubles or fights over the land. Then, what can you think of it? Well, that the government has responsibilities in it.
What are your expectations for your stay in Catalonia?
First, to create partnerships, political incidence and getting support for initiatives that are being conducted in Colombia. Then, I hope that, through all this backing and support, pressure on us will be reduced at our return.