Living permanently at risk

This month, PBI is having a cup of coffee with social communicator and forensic anthropologist Berenice Celeita, who has been a human rights defender for 30 years.  She studied with lawyer and sociologist Eduardo Mendoza Umaña who was assassinated in 1998.  In response to the grave human rights situation in Colombia, Berenice founded the organisation Nomadesc in 1999.  The word Nomadesc combines the word “nomad” which reflects the reality of the displaced population and “desc”, the acronym for economic social and cultural rights in Spanish. Berenice talks about the challenges for women human rights defenders, the Peoples’ Congress and her own risks that she faces each day.

PBI: How did you start working as a human rights defender?

Berenice Celeita: Well, it’s a long story, because I started in 1985 when I had just begun studying at the Externado de Colombia university, and the Palace of Justice case happened.  The professor who taught us Political Institutions was Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, a pioneer of defending human rights in Colombia, and with him we learned about the reality of Colombia and what happened in the Palace of Justice, and what was happening all around the country, and that is how, little by little, we built an Investigation Team with him, going to the regions, studying what was happening, doing in-depth investigation work which we call ??? Human Rights Analysis in Colombia.

PBI: And tell us about Nomadesc – how was it created?

BC: Well, Nomadesc was created in 1999, which was a very difficult year for human rights violations in Colombia. The first thing we did was to give it a name that has an important philosophical meaning in the Colombian reality. It is: a nomad, a being that lives in transit, going from one place to another, like what happened to all of our communities who were violently displaced from their lands and robbed of everything that belonged to them.  And they have been dispossessed for fighting for economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.  So it is a composite of those two words: nomad and “desc” for economic, social and cultural rights.

PBI: We would also like it if you could share with us an example from Nomadesc’s work, where you have struggled against human rights violations by business interests.

BC: Well there are a lot of examples, but I think one of the most important and transcendental for Nomadesc was specifically to evidence how economic, social, cultural and environmental rights are being violated in many parts of the country and in particular for two reasons, because for many decades the privatisation of public companies has been pursued and in Nomadesc’s case I had the honour of seeing SINTRAEMCALI’s struggle, it is the public companies employees’ trade union in Cali, and we worked together with the communities for several years at the end of the 1990s and beginning of 2000s.  Firstly, to evidence the structural causes behind why the company’s privatisation was sought and which were linked to violations of civil and political, and economic, social, cultural and environmental rights in relation to the company. The struggle lasted many years and to this day the company remains public, when it could have been privatised by the workers and the State. Obviously there were many years of arbitrary detentions, attempts to forcibly disappear people, the year Operation Dragon was created was 2004, when a plan was put in place to exterminate human rights defenders, trade unionists and political opponents.  So I think that this case was important because it is how it was Nomadesc opened up its accompaniment of communities, in this case Colombian workers through the SINTRAEMCALI union.

PBI: You are a woman defender, and that’s not simple, so perhaps you could share with us one of the challenges that you face in your day to day work.

BC:  Yes, it is complex, being a man or woman human rights defender in Colombia, in a way, means to live under permanent risk, and live under permanent risk because human rights defenders have worked, historically, for truth, for justice, for guarantees of non-repetition of crimes against humanity committed by very powerful individuals or against those interests that put lives at risk, and if you are a woman, even more so, because we are in a country that has historically upheld a patriarchal culture, and where it is difficult for women to be listened to.  To get people to listen to you, to be seen by by the authorities, has been a process in these years of struggle that has not been easy and that has been achieved thanks to a lot of effort, and with a lot of dedication, especially in terms of investigation. But more than anything, because I believe that the logic of standing shoulder to shoulder building with these communities, getting to know their reality, and learning so much about people have historically resisted in this country is empowering, or it empowers us women human rights defenders to carry on.  There have been many cases where the authorities sent you away to shut you up, where they tried to stop the right to free speech, of the right to defend the rights of communities, and we have had to react in a decisive way, and obviously, accompanied by the communities.

PBI: Nomadesc is part of the Peoples’ Congress, so can you explain a little about this movement and what its political objectives are during 2015?

BC:  Yes, the People’s Congress is part of the social and political movement in Colombia, and emerged from an initiative between 2004 and 2008 called the Minga of Social and Community Resistance, which is an exercise in resisting whose genesis was in the indigenous communities, but later was joined by many other communities affected by violations of their land rights, I am speaking of: family farmer communities, Black communities, students, workers and social sectors

that set ourselves the task of walking around the country – the indigenous communities say it very clearly: “We cannot do this alone” – and this is how the Peoples’ Congress was born, and the Peoples’ Congress calls out to many other sectors of Colombian society for us to sit down together, and united we can share how we are affected by this long-standing social and armed conflict, but also search for solutions.

PBI: Berenice, throughout these 30 years of struggle, of work, you have been the victim of multiple attacks, threats and acts of persecution. How does this affect your day to day, how do you manage to carry on your work and struggle knowing that your life is at risk?

BC:  Uf! That’s a very complex question and above all because one asks oneself, why continue to defend human rights when you have to distance yourself from your family, for example in my case, man times I have had to deny myself from being with my family because the situation is grave and because what you first try to do is protect those you love so much, no, and deny yourself, for example, from having a place that you can always come home to, to be in one place or another because you need to protect yourself, well, it destabilises you sometimes, but there is also an inner force, and this inner force is… as you say I have dedicated : 30 years to defending human rights. I want to see a different country, and in those difficult moments or because I get another threat or because a new risk comes to me, I can’t give up the dreams that could be true, and the truth is that defending human rights has given us so much, and has brought us into contact with very beautiful people who also believe in us, and that is what it is like living the war day to day in Colombia, and this is the reason for which, from deep within, almost from our guts we get the strength to carry on, so that in spite of the threat, in spite of the difficult situation, in spite of having seen the barbarity face on, we say : we must continue and we must forge ahead and also because I think that I have the fortune of having a very beautiful family that has always supported me in the initiatives we have worked on as human rights defenders.

PBI: Thank you for accompanying us today, for sharing with us at PBI once again, and we wish you all the best for the work you’ll be doing in the coming future.

BC: On behalf of Nomadesc and the communities that we accompany, we give Peace Brigades infinite thanks for being here, to the young people and older people who have passed through Peace Brigades International, because I would really like to say thank you for coming to Colombia and leaving a footprint and the trace of a Colombia that is different and is possible.

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