See you in freedom

“If you´re sitting down, get up because I´m being freed!”  This is how the economist and human rights defender David Ravelo announced to his wife over th phone that he would be released on parole after nearly seven years in prison.[1]His announcement was in stark contrast to what he said when he was incarcerated: “if you´re standing up, sit down because I´ve been detained.”

Many years have passed between the two calls, both the message and the messenger have changed in both form and substance.  And it is no wonder, because his case will be revised by a Transitional Justice Tribunal after being sentenced to 18 years in prison, accused of aggravated homicide based on the testimonies of demobilised paramilitaries; the same ones that David Ravelo reported for cases of human rights violations in Barrancabermeja, the same ones that sent him death threats on numerous occasions.  Therefore, after having phoned his wife he made endless other phone calls, including one to PBI to tell them the good news in person.

“What?!” The PBI Barrancabermeja team, who has accompanied David even before he was sentenced, jumped for joy and excitement, and exhilaration flooded the office.  We had been waiting for this news for a few days but it was still hugely satisfying.  He, on the other hand, seemed much calmer and more serene on the other end of the line.  And not because “prison teaches you patience,” as he says, but because he hasn´t stopped feeling frustrated that “I have spent more years incarcerated than I should have done on an unfair sentence with no grounds,” he appeals.

The seriousness that explaining his cases summons within him disappears when his niece María, who we visited him with today, plays him voice mails that his family and friends haven´t stopped sending from far and wide.  He carefully approaches the telephone that he doesn´t touch to reply to each Whatspp message, one by one.  He laughs because he says that he´ll have to learn how to use “this thing” that now connects him with people that he has never had close to him, crossing through the prison walls and uniting him with the outside world: the one that he has been deprived from for so long.

“How do you imagine what´s waiting for you?” I ask with intrigue given the disconnect I feel with prison and the idea of being retained in one for so many years.   But David doesn´t seem too fazed and answers with a simple “I don´t know, good things!,” whilst he dries his sweat from his forehead under the roof that has always seemed so suffocating to me as you enter.  “We´re more excited that he is!,” María says, laughing, referring to all the people who wait for him outside.

He prefers not to think too much about the future and he grounds himself in the present through his books.  He lovingly keeps a notebook annotated in his own handwriting with lists of quotations from authors that have inspired him throughout this time.  He looks for the most appropriate to quote depending on what we are talking about – justice, guarantees, rights, peace, politics… – and just like that the conversation develops a poetic rhythm.

PBI volunteer Delphine with David´s son, David Ravelo junior, in 2014.

“Art is a tool of resistance and I have grounded myself in poetry, stories and literature….”  Not only as an avid reader but also a writer, dedicating much of his work to his loved ones but also to victims, to injustice, to solitude, to hope and to false testimonies.  He knows that there was never any true evidence to put him where he is and that to be accused is very different from being guilty, for this reason he continues to be optimistic despite the difficulties and always hopeful that truth, his truth, will be recognised.[2]

The small desk in the small room where we always meet and where all his books are kept, is almost empty.  David is on the move and has packed up his few possessions so that María can take them home.  Here he leaves fondness, recognition, support… “ the people have been very supportive to me, not only in this patio but in the whole prison,” he explains.  David acknowledges that he will keep fighting to improve prison conditions for the incarcerated population, this isn´t the moment to abandon all the human rights work that he has carried out from behind bars, in support of his companions and their families, although he hopes someone will continue his legacy and take over from him soon.

Today the third patio in the prison of Barrancabermeja is more stirred up than usual.  Prisoners come and go receiving messages and packages, the policeman on duty enters into friendly conversation with us, a television shows a football match on high volume and Don Pablito, one of David´s companions that always greets us as soon as we arrive and looks after us bringing us fresh coffee, is grinning today more than usual.  Our accompaniment is also different as it is the last one that we will undertake with David in prison.  Next Tuesday we will be waiting for him outside, under the hot sun of Barrancabermeja, together with many people that have said they want to be there as he leaves.  Next week the long-awaited dream of so many people from far and wide who have worked for truth and freedom for this tireless human rights defender, will finally come true.

Yes, from Tuesday 20th June, finally we will see you in freedom David.

Silvia Arjona


[1]     PBI Colombia: Reinaldo Villalba: “El caso de David Ravelo se presenta a la JEP en calidad de inocente”. 15th June 2017
[2]     David Ravelo´s case will be submitted to the 1820 law of 30th December 2016, that is part of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in Colombia, which contains provisions for social leaders and State agents as well as members of the FARC.  The case will be revised by the Revision Section of the Peace Tribunal once it is set up

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