The Governor: A Story of Tragedy and Redemption

Who said feminism was solely the territory of intellectuals? The story of Lisinia Collazos – indigenous leader and militant of a peaceful feminist movement in southwest Colombia – embodies the deep changes endured by women in times of war.

By: Marta Ruiz. Timbío.
Published: November 14, 2013, Revista Arcadia
Translation by Micheál Ó Tuathail, Pueblos en Camino

Kitekkiwe means “flourishing earth” in the language of the Nasa of southwest Colombia. It’s also the name of the indigenous council where, for more than a decade, 68 families have been living, all survivors and victims of one of the most appalling crimes committed in Colombia’s decades-long war: the massacre of El Naya. The governor of Kitekkiwe is Lisinia Collazos, a petite 46 year-old woman with exuding self-confidence and penetrating eyes. Lisinia is prone to sonorous outbursts of laughter.

I met her earlier this year in Bogotá. We were at a forum where she was sharing her experience interviewing other women for the report Women’s Truth (“La verdad de las mujeres”) by La Ruta Pacífica. I wanted to know her story up close, so on a weekend in September, I travelled to her home in Timbío, in the department of Cauca.

To get to the indigenous council, one is forced to travel three kilometres from town, following a route that borders, for the most part, a lush coffee plantation belonging to one of the most powerful families in the region. A wrought-iron fence marks the entrance to indigenous territories, where houses constructed of native woods preside over blooming gardens. It had rained that morning, and just above the ground lingered a lukewarm mist emitting an almost fruity aroma.

Lisinia’s house is perched on a hill overlooking a set of mountains containing every possible shade of green. It’s a simple house, with two rooms and kitchen, constructed of rustic wood and heated with a wood-burning stove. A cup of coffee with panela water steams in each of our hands as Lisinia tells me how the war has changed her life.

The Power of the Womb

Lisinia was born in Cerro Azul, a village located along the entrance to the Upper Naya, a cresting point within the river basin that serves as a border between the Colombian departments of Cauca and Valle del Cauca. It’s the place where the hills push against the sky and clouds of fog linger at dawn, eventually unfolding over an untamed forest that ends at the Pacific Ocean.

Born of Nasa parents, Lisinia is one of fourteen children, ten of whom are women. “That strength, that power that we have, it comes from the womb we shared. My father was always there when my mother was giving birth. I remember, being very small at the time, my father carrying one of my newborn sisters around and saying with sadness, ‘Anooooooooooother girrrrrrrrl!’

Faced with a male shortage, Lisinia’s father had no choice but to teach his daughters the trades that usually corresponded to men when working in the fields. “It was up to us to get the horse ready, to saddle it, tighten the straps and do whatever else needed to be done. My parents were harsh. But that’s why, even though we were small girls, we all felt very big.”

At eleven and a half years old, as if she were much older, Lisinia left her home for the deepest reaches of El Naya to eke out a living working in the coca trade. Shortly thereafter, she found herself working in one of the most common jobs held by girls of her ethnicity: a domestic servant. At seventeen, she badly missed her home and returned to the mountains around the municipality of Buenos Aires. Upon arriving, she noticed that, next to her father’s land, there were some new neighbors. “They were a family from the Putumayo [a department along the southern border with Ecuador], and Nasas like us." One of the newcomers was Audilio Rivera, who would become her partner and the father of her three children.

In the mid-1990s, she heard for the first time a concept that marked her thinking: human rights. “We went to Cali for a talk that lasted for two days. Then the organizers sent us a book. The teacher in our village, a very learned Afro-Colombian man, read this book aloud to the entire community. That book opened our eyes. It seemed to us such a beautiful thing, like nothing else.”

But the communal readings didn’t last long. One day, a commander from the [leftist] National Liberation Army (ELN) came and burned it. “They told us it was no good to read stuff like that, and if the teacher were to read it again, they’d throw him out. It was chilling.” Fear took hold of Lisinia, and she threw the notes she had been taking into the fire. “But I kept with me all that I had managed to store in my head.”

With each passing day, the atmosphere around El Naya seemed to be getting worse. The [leftist] guerrillas were growing, getting stronger, and altercations between them and the Army were becoming more frequent and intense. “They were very disrespectful. They would simply come into your house, take the pot from you and start cooking in your kitchen. Then the Army would come and say: ‘You lent them the kitchen.’ Every now and then the Army would come and turn our house upside down.”

Still, elements of those readings about human rights stayed with the community, and the idea that there had to be something to limit the authority of the armed groups was buzzing in the heads of all the leaders in the Upper Naya. After working up some incredible guts, the community took the issue up with another leftist armed group active in the area, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In a frank conversation, the community told the FARC that they never again wanted them in their houses, in their school, and that they would no longer be permitted to travel through their village. “They grumbled a little, but in the end they accepted it,” says Lisinia. “With the ELN, we did the same.”

Then, at the end of the year 2000, something very serious happened in the outskirts of Cali: ELN guerrillas kidnapped more than sixty civilians as they ate lunch at a rest stop along the highway leading to Pacific port city of Buenaventura. Such an indiscriminate kidnapping terrified the elites of the region. The guerrillas pushed their victims along the rough roads of El Naya.”

“They were about to bring their hostages through our village, but they didn’t because they had been warned. As they passed by, we saw that they had kidnapped a very overweight man, who they had on a horse. It made us sad, because he asked for water, but when my cousin went to give it to him, the guerrillas wouldn’t let him take it. We saw how he stammered in the saddle of the horse and disappeared along the path, dying of thirst. It was very cruel."

The kidnapping caused an immediate reaction. Relatives of some of the kidnapping victims sought out Carlos Castaño, a right-wing paramilitary leader who was then expanding his own death project throughout the country. They wanted him to order an incursion into El Naya to exterminate the guerrilla. They did so knowing that he would use his trademark style: killing civilians.

“The paras first arrived in Jamundí, then Timba, and from there they entered Cauca by simply crossing the river,” Lisinia recalls. That’s when the selective murders began, along with the signs of an impending massacre. But nobody did anything, and those who stood up were the first to be killed. The men couldn’t go to town for a haircut, so it was only the women who could travel up and down the roads. If men were to leave the village, they simply wouldn’t return. I’ve never been one for shopping, but I had to go with the list Audilio gave me. Every Sunday the chiva [communal bus] would be filled with women and young girls. No one could bring back more than 40,000 pesos [approx. $20] in provisions. There was silence all along the way.  We were expecting the moment in which, either at a curve in the road or near a ravine, the paramilitaries would jump out.”

The rumor was that a slaughter was being planned, but nobody knew when or where it would begin. Lisinia had no idea that her house, located along the edge of a mountain, would be the starting point for a journey that would destroy her world within a week.

“April 10, 2001. It would have been 5 o’clock in the morning or so. I was just sitting up in bed. I had gotten up at 2 a.m. to begin preparing the coffee and breakfast for those travelling along the road overnight. I saw a shadow on the wall and someone emerging from the ravine. Then there was the noise of boots, men murmuring in the dark, and the clinging of metal. ‘The paracos are here,’ I whispered to Audilio. At that moment, the door swung open: ‘We are the AUC [paramilitaries],’ they told us. And they took over the house.”

“By mid-morning there was a pistol to my head. I was told that, since I had cooked for the guerrilla, I would have five minutes to pluck the five chickens they had carried with them in a bag. I was so distraught that I fainted. When I awoke, I found we’d been locked away in a room. Silently, we listened to what was happening outside. They were detaining people as they came up the road. Right there, they killed five people. We didn't see anything, but we heard the screams, the weeping, the cries for mercy, and the shots.”

“That day was so long. It seemed like it would never end. As the sky was fading, they ordered Audilio to fix a load of guns to the back of a mule. They were making to leave. But they took Audilio, surely because they expected him to urge the mule along the path. Realizing this, I ran to get him some boots, as well as a coat and a lantern – Audilio was in his sandals. As I gave him these items, he looked at me slowly, from top to bottom, and he was silent and sad. A paramilitary behind me shouted: ‘If we don’t get moving before the sun goes down, I’ll torch the house!’”

“The night was even longer than the day had been. It was raining hard, and I could feel the leaks streaming through the roof. Who could sleep? I could only think of Audilio, of how he would be on his way to get us out of there. He would rid us of the cold and fear that were haunting us. But that rooster crowed, and Audilio still wasn’t back. The kids and I packed up our things in the darkness. By four o’clock we had everything ready. The children carried their own packs with the little clothing they could fit. And there, still in the shadows, the fleeing began. The gorges along the path were pure mud. As I walked, I anticipated and hoped I would find him. I thought, Audilio, where are you right now?”

“The sun came out, and we stopped at another village to wait for him. At about three in the afternoon, an older man arrived and told me to get my husband, who was at a curve along the road. A group of people had seen him while they were travelling on top of a chiva. At first, I didn’t quite understand. ‘Tell him that I’ll wait for him here... it’s better if he comes here to me,’ I told the man. ‘No, Lisinia,’ he responded. ‘He’s not coming. He’s dead.’

“At that moment, I thought the sky had fallen on me. But I had to be strong. I had no choice. I didn’t have time to sit and cry. I had hidden a bit of money in my bra and used it to hire a car. I collected Audilio from the ditch where they’d left him, and I buried him. That day, my life changed drastically.”

War Changed Us

“We went to my mother’s house, and that night the ELN arrived. ‘Señora,’ they said, we come to give our condolences. We are sorry for your loss. Now your nephews have come to join us. We will avenge the death of your husband!’”

“That’s when I exploded. I couldn’t stay quiet. ‘You're the reason they killed him,’ I told him. ‘They were looking for you. So nobody here is going anywhere with you.’ The guerrilla commander was clearly angry, and he responded: ‘Well then, you’re all going to die.’ ‘Then we all die,’ I shot back.

“Just imagine: seventeen people in a tiny room, eight of whom are young children, waiting in total silence while de decided what he was going to do with me. In the end, he decided: ‘Get out of here.’ I don't know if it was from my anguish or my pain, but I responded once again in defiance: ‘I’m leaving. But I’ll be back when I want to be back, because this place belongs to me!’

“From that exact moment, we were displaced. I felt that things couldn’t have gotten any worse. We walked the entire day and later caught a lift to the city of Santander de Quilichao, where my mother-in-law lived. We arrived at 5 p.m. and slept under the beds of her tiny house. Grandma gave us to food to eat for a few days. She couldn’t afford to keep us any longer than that, so we went to the cattle market, where other displaced families were also arriving from El Naya.”

The massacre, which took place during Holy Week of that year, claimed an incalculable number of lives. Some say there were 24 murdered, 50 disappeared, and 3,000 displaced. Peasants arrived from the countryside en masse. They were without water, clothing or food.

“People were overflowing. It was like being locked in a jail. At the beginning, women earned some money washing clothes, while men looked after the children. But as time passed, the men gradually returned to working in the fields. Many who would leave simply stayed in the farms, abandoning the women. Alone with their children, so many women could only wait for the men to return.”

Not one to deal well with confinement, Lisinia left for Tóez, in Caloto, where the office of the indigenous council to which she belongs is located. “We stayed there, thanks to the solidarity of our companions, until March of 2004, when we received this little piece of land.”

The Other Women

While all that was happening, Lisinia was becoming a leader. “We were rejecting the violence in the country through all kinds of initiatives, and that’s how I came into contact with La Ruta Pacífica and Las Mujeres de Negro. They funded some seminars for us, and that’s when I discovered something totally new to me: gender. Never had I stopped to look at myself in the mirror, to see what I was like, to value myself, and to learn that my body belongs to me and is respected.”

In 2010, La Ruta Pacífica – a Colombian feminist movement promoting pacifism – sought to document the ways in which the war has affected women. Lisinia was given the challenge of interviewing indigenous women, documenting the lives of others who, like her, had survived and been transformed in the midst of extreme suffering. What was that pain like, but also, what had they learned from it? Assuming indigenous women to be reserved, she expected only to find two or three who would be willing to talk about their experiences. “On the day we gathered in Timbío, to my surprise, there was a queue around the block. So many women wanted to be heard. The thing is, when you keep so much inside, the soul dies. I say this from experience. I feel that because I was able to get that out of me, I can no longer be stopped.”

The report finds, in part, that while the violence of war has deeply impacted indigenous women in particular, that experience is eclipsed by the profound effects of the violence of everyday domestic life. “When we spoke to some of our women elders about gender in northern Cauca, one of them asked me: ‘why didn’t you ever talk to us about this before? All that time we put up with our husbands hitting us, and we just stayed silent. If you’d come earlier, maybe some of those things wouldn’t have happened.’”

“Working on the report made me reflect a lot as a woman. I asked myself, from a woman’s perspective, what is the difference between the violence of a guerrilla fighter and the violence of a community leader? None! Listening to those women was also a great relief for me. The El Naya massacre was so cruel, so ruthless, but when I heard the stories of others, I often thought: my God, what happened to me seems like nothing!”

Last June, Lisinia was elected to a governor’s post within the indigenous council. She is accompanied by ten other women in the local leadership, an unprecedented experience of female governance. Certainly, there are difficulties. For example, half of the community abstained from voting for them. In the midst of a degree of political tension in Kitekkiwe, Lisinia publicly shared an episode of sexual abuse to which she was subjected by one of the leaders of the community. That caused a great commotion, but she remains firm in her denouncement of the situation, which is not unique among the indigenous communities of Cauca. “It’s going to be complicated for them, because we women aren’t going to be shut up. This really is an awakening," she says with tremendous conviction.

Lisinia wears her best clothes to worship each Sunday. She goes with “Don Carlos,” a Nasa man from Toribío who is now her life partner. In the afternoon, as we talk, it rains several times. The fire keeps going out, and the coffee is now gone. Before leaving, I ask Lisinia if she considers herself a feminist. She immediately lets loose one of her signature outbursts of laughter. Then, thinking about it, she becomes more serious. Sighing, she responds: “feminist, yes, but with a home.” And she bursts out laughing.