Lilia Peña Silva is a woman with kind eyes who smiles often. She emanates a positive and welcoming energy as she invites us to her home. At the moment she is allowing herself to breathe more easily after a particularly difficult month in May. Lilia talks to us about her work and her life as a human rights defender. She is a survivor of the horrors of the Colombian armed conflict. She was forcibly displaced from San José del Guaviare after her family was persecuted and her husband was killed in 1998. Conflict-related violence followed her to Santander, where in 2002 her brother was also killed, after experiencing constant harassment. Lilia has also been persecuted throughout her life. She is one of those fighters that are so rare. Because of the injustices she has faced, she has dedicated her life to supporting victims of the armed conflict with all her energy and generosity. In 2004, with a team of ten people and six organisations she founded the Association of Victims of State Crimes in the Magdalena Medio Region (Asociación Regional de Víctimas de Crímenes del Estado del Magdalena Medio – ASORVIMM).
PBI accompanies ASORVIMM from time to time in Barrancabermeja where they have their office, working for victims and also with trade unions, small-scale farmers, students and grassroots organisations. The organisation is part of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado – MOVICE), and offers legal support, workshops on victims’ rights, psychosocial workshops and support for the construction of historical memory. ASORVIMM works in the north of the Antioquia department, throughout the Magdalena Medio region and in Guamocó.
The latest attack against Lilia took place when six armed, hooded men entered her home violently, to commit what appeared to be a robbery. It was a traumatic experience, as the assailants pointed their guns at Lilia’s head and at her 9 year-old granddaughter. They also harassed her 90 year-old father. The defenders’ whole family were terrified. The assailants stole a computer, telephones and USB sticks which Lilia uses for her work and they also took financial information related to her work.
According to members of ASORVIMM, one of the attackers was arrested several hours afterwards, along with the taxi driver who drove the men to Lilia’s home. The incident was also reported to the Prosecutor’s Office. More than one month later, there is still little information about what really happened and why. According to the organisation, the 8th Prosecutor’s Office in Barrancabermeja has not been in touch with them, and at least six of the perpetrators have yet to be identified.
Lilia and her family have been badly affected by the intrusion of this violence into their daily lives. They hope that progress will be made in the case as quickly as possible so that life can return to normal, given that Lilia has had to suspend her activities as a human rights defender for the moment, and has had to focus on caring for her father.
The persecution of peacebuilding and human rights defence work
Lilia knows this kind of violence well. She has experienced it before and continues to face it, in her work with victims in Barrancabermeja, Monterrey and Santa Rosa del Sur. Her commitment to achieving respect for victims’ rights has not wavered. This tireless defender talks to us about the communities she supports, and describes how she has always wanted to work alongside them.
We are impressed by Lilia’s strength as she continues to protect the victims of the conflict with her team from ASORVIMM. When we ask her where she gets her strength, she answers with a shy smile, and says that it comes from her sons and daughters. She explains that being a woman human rights defender is an added challenge. The attacks she experiences are related to her work but they also affect her personal life and her family, “male defenders are freer and can relocate more easily if the threats get too serious”. Lilia tells us that she and her female colleagues cannot imagine leaving their region because they have closer ties to the area where they live. They are the true heads of their families as well as being defenders, and they are victims of attacks aimed at forcing them to give up their work.
The next step
Although the harassment and persecutions continue, Lilia is looking towards the future. When we finish the interview, we are speechless, at a loss for words in the face of all she has had to live through, including what happened on 9 May this year. We continue to admire her in silence; it is not every day that we meet someone who is courage incarnate. She gives us a shy semi-smile when we share our admiration. And that’s when she says, “it’s customary to be awesome round these parts”.
When we are finally about to leave, even though we would like to stay longer with this extraordinary woman, we see her 4 year-old granddaughter in the street, opposite the house, having her first experience of riding her bike. We watch transfixed, as she propels herself forwards for the first time.
Agathe Chapelain, Maelys Orellana and Yvonne Furrer
ASORVIMM: Grave amenaza contra Lilia Peña fundadora de ASORVIMM, 10 May 2018 ; Prensa Rural: En Barrancabermeja hombres armados amenazaron y agredieron a Lilia Peña, defensora de derechos humanos,11 May 2018