Lola and her parents came by sea on a canoe to get to Buenaventura and the journey lasted eight days. It was 1956 and Lola was just eight years old. Her parents built a wooden house on stilts resting on the bottom of the sea, where Lola was to live her whole life. When the tide rose, the house became an island surrounded by sea; when the tide went out, Lola and her friends would climb down to play hide and seek under the houses. Lola’s father cut wood and built a bridge to connect their house with the others and with the land. Lola had a peaceful and happy childhood, despite the absence of drinking water and electricity. When she grew up she started a business: she would go with her motorboat to buy coconut, fish, oranges or gasoline that she sold from the first floor of her house. She had two children and because business was going well she adopted nine others; they had a “sweet” life on the second floor of her house.
Meanwhile, the neighbourhood grew. When one day, in 1990, a girl fell off the bridge and drowned, Lola and her neighbours decided to roll up their sleeves and started building a street. They did not want a tragedy like to this to happen ever again. During five years they filled the street with rubbish which brought flies, mosquitos, and illnesses, and under the midday heat the bad smell would fill the air, becoming unbearable. Despite all the discomfort, at night people would play the marimba and have a good time. When they finished there was a huge celebration- at last the families could sit in front of their humble homes, the women swapping recipes, gossiping and playing cards. Despite their poverty they lived happily. There was something beautiful there, trust and respect.
Doña Lola started hearing about the armed groups in 2000. Every day new stories would reach them of the guerrillas and paramilitaries inflicting terror. In 2001, many people came to her neighbourhood looking for a new home, fleeing from the Naya River where the paramilitaries had massacred and displaced the Afro-Colombian communities. Nostalgia for their memories of their previous lives gave name to the neighbourhood of the Bridge of the Nayeros.
In 2004, the Calima Block of the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) demobilised; gradually, in the neighbourhoods of Buenaventura, the paramilitaries’ successor armed groups began to appear. The Urabeños and La Empresa began to fight for control of Buenaventura, and a long era of violence began for the city. One of Doña Lola’s sons was disappeared. “I lost my mind. He was my son, my friend, my confidant. He washed our clothes, did the dishes, cooked for me on Sundays”, she remembers as she falls into a sad silence.
Bullets for breakfast, lunch and dinner
La Chava will never forget 1 November 2011, when around 15 armed men from La Empresa came and occupied the street of Puente Nayero. Since that day, she lived in fear: there were frequent gun battles, “bullets for breakfast, lunch and dinner, even for snacks…There were four, five, six or seven shoot outs a day”. She was afraid for her three sons because she knew that they recruited boys and young people.
“They killed a boy, they wrapped him in plastic and put him underneath a house”, was the first act of violence they committed in the street. They turned one of the houses into a ‘chopping house’ and would go there at night arm in arm with people as if they were friends, kill them by machete and throw their bodies into the sea. She remembers the screams of the victims, their begging, the sound of the chainsaw. The sea and the mangroves turned into cemeteries of mutilated bodies. There was a collective sense of powerlessness, nobody dared say anything, the women tried to carry on normal lives, locked in their homes. La Chava suffered from anxiety, she didn’t eat and didn’t sleep. The women were forced to cook for the invaders, to wash their clothes. Sometimes they would force the women to hide guns in their houses and the children to carry them in pots or their schoolbags.
Marly was just 22 when the armed men came. When one of them wanted to go out with her she did not know what to do, she felt fear and anguish. She locked herself in her house, hiding behind a curtain to look out of the window, watching the armed men sitting on the sidewalk near her house. She was terrified. “If you didn’t accept them, they would just, somewhere, take you by force”. Speaking out was not an option either because of the possible reprisals. “If I speak out, they wil kill my family.” That was her greatest fear.
They were locked in their small and suffocating houses for nearly two years. But when they killed Marisol, a much loved seafood seller in the neighbourhood, indignation overcame fear.
They sought out the help of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) and planned a daring strategy. It was Palm Sunday (13 April 2013), and while the Bishop of Buenaventura was holding mass in the street, members of CIJP came too. That is how the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space was created, a community initiative to continue living on their land, despite the onslaught of the dynamics of armed conflict and violence. It was the first experience of a Humanitarian Space in a city.
In the entrance they built a large wooden door that they closed at night. Most of the armed men left, some came back, but the neighbours made it difficult for them so that they wouldn’t return. Then finally, they left the neighbourhood for good. A few days after the Humanitarian Space was created, CIJP asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for precautionary measures to protect the residents. Today, the police watches the street 24 hours a day, as a result of those measures.
Today the women feel protected within the Humanitarian Space, but Buenaventura continues to be one of the most violent cities in Colombia. “We are more at ease in the streets, the men go and fish, they go outside, but they continue to be afraid”, says Marta, whose husband is a fisherman. “When they’re fishing they feel afraid, some of them have had their engines, their tools or their catch stolen”.
Since Palm Sunday, La Chava, Marta and Marly have become leaders of the street. It is something positive that came from that nightmare. They have created a women’s group and there are now 28 of them who meet regularly, celebrate birthdays, sweep the street from the edge of the sea to the entrance door, and organise bingo. The group is called ‘Peace and Love’ because “We don’t want any more violence, we want to feed this space with good things, and live happily with our neighbours and friends”, Marta explains.
The women must follow a difficult path to change their situation and overcome all the obstacles in order to survive in the midst of poverty. The street is transformed when the water comes, every three or four days, they never know what day or what time. At four in the morning, and after two days’ waiting, finally the water comes to Puente Nayero. The women appear with their empty barrels, at the three or four water collection points that exist, and while they wait patiently they talk and laugh. Some of the water pipes run under the houses, and the women have to get in the mud and the rubbish to fill the barrels. Marta has just filled hers and after a deep breath, gathers her strength, grits her teeth and lifts up a 22 litre water barrel in each hand, and marches home.
From the edge of Puente Nayero the women watch the sea. A small distance away is the port where around 12 million tonnes of cargo are offloaded every year. Buenaventura has become one of Colombia’s main ports, a port that is apparently seeking to progress, but meanwhile, 80% of the population live in poverty, like Marta, Lola, Marly and La Chava.
 Text based on interviews with four women in the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space, January 2016
 El Tiempo: Desigualdad, amenazas y conflicto afectan al Valle, 16 May 2013