Doña Brigida’s fifty years of perseverance

Maria Brigida stands on her tiptoes to try and reach the rolls of canvas kept on the top shelf in her house.  The one she wants drops to the floor. With shaking hands and visibly nervous, Brigida bends down to pick it up.  “This isn’t the right time to show this, because we’re celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Peace Community’s creation.  It is a day of hope” she tell us and we feel a little guilty for asking her to show us one of her most famous pictures. She unrolls it in her modest courtyard which is full of colourful wildflowers, because the light is much better there.

The sight of so much violence on a piece of canvas a metre wide makes us feel nauseous.  It shows men in uniform with assault rifles taking bleeding men, women and children. Brigida sighs and says: “it was very difficult to paint it”.  The painting depicts the infamous massacre of La Resbalosa and Mulatos, when soldiers and paramilitaries – some of whom have been convicted by the courts – murdered and dismembered eight people in 2005.

Brigida is a small and smiling sixty-eight-year-old woman who always wears her silver hair in two braids. She came to Uraba exactly half a century ago, in 1967, when these lands were covered in jungle and shrouded in mystery.  She made her home is San Jose de Apartado and lived alongside the animals in the middle of this impressive habitat, which would have been true paradise if the war hadn’t exploded so soon. In the seventies, she began working with the banana companies which were expanding  all over Uraba, but when she realised how the workers were being exploited – she tells us how they worked for 20 hours each day but only got paid for ten – she joined the union and helped the workers to assert their rights. As is to be expected, the banana company fired her.

The war came to her adoptive land in the seventies, first the FARC guerrillas, then the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and in the nineties the paramilitaries took the armed conflict to a whole new level of brutality. Brigida has survived immense tragedy, mourned the death of 300 leaders from her community, lost a brother and a daughter, and been marked by massacre after massacre.

In 2005, there wasn’t only the massacre of La Resbalosa and Mulatos, Brigida tells us as we look at her beautiful and brutal painting. A day after Christmas, her fifteen-year-old daughter Elisenia was killed, having spent her last 25 December dancing with friends and relatives in another hamlet, La Cristalina.  The Army had got there at dawn and shot the people as they slept. Elisenia died with five of her friends. General Luis Alfonso Zapata later informed the press that six FARC guerrillas had died. [1]  Brigida remembers how she knew what had happened even before a woman came to her door, palms sweating and nerves shot, searching for the words to soften the terrible truth, but Brigida spoke first: “I know what you’re going to tell me. They killed my daughter didn’t they?”

Brigida has been painting since she was a girl, perhaps that is why she always has such a genuine smile when we go and visit her. Her 600 paintings are a historic testimony of what happened, a homage to the pain of war and the hope that was born when they created the Peace Community.  “We cannot forget history and the memories of our loved ones who died because if we do, they will destroy us”, she tells us.

Photo: Charlotte Kesl

She also makes bracelets, earrings, necklaces, she weaves bags and shows the crafts to anyone who is interested. She adores plants and knows the natural remedies for every illness. She cooks papaya sweets with coconut, a typical treat from the coast that she was taught to make by people who had come to work in the banana plantations. Doña Brigida is a leader of the Peace Community; she was a member of the Internal Council for years and travelled to other countries to tell the story of San Jose de Apartado.

Nathalie Bienfait and Bianca Bauer


Footnote:

[1] Padre Javier Giraldo: Cronología de agresiones contra la Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó y población de la zona, con posterioridad al 7 de agosto de 2002, 28 January 2008

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