Colombia: Two Hostages Released; What About those Being Held by the Government?
While the international spotlight was shined on two women hostages released by Colombia's FARC guerrillas, IPS interviewed by telephone a woman who reflects the other side of the hostage crisis.
These are the invisible women thrown into prison on charges of "rebellion," many of them merely because they live in rebel-controlled areas. A significant proportion of them are civilians who are eventually acquitted and released -- but not before they spend up to four years in jail.
Unlike the cases of former politicians Clara Rojas and Consuelo GonzÃƒÂ¡lez, who were freed Thursday by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) amid great fanfare, these women's stories are seldom if ever told.
In the El Buen Pastor women's prison in BogotÃƒÂ¡ there are 63 prisoners serving time for "rebellion," but only 25 or 30 of them actually belong to the FARC, a peasant insurgency that rose up in arms in 1964.
"There are many people who are arrested for 'rebellion', but who have no real ties to the movement. They are treated as criminals because they live in an area under guerrilla influence, and everyone there is seen as a FARC collaborator," said E., a woman under 30 who is doing time in El Buen Pastor.
(The FARC control an estimated 40 percent of the national territory, mainly in rural, sparsely populated areas.)
E. asked IPS not to publish her personal details, because she preferred to speak "in the name of several of us." The interview took place simultaneously with the release of Rojas and GonzÃƒÂ¡lez.
"There are thousands of 'Emmanuels' in Colombia," said E, referring to the son Rojas gave birth to in captivity in the jungle, who was separated from his mother when he was around eight months old.
The children of the inmates of El Buen Pastor can live with their mothers until they turn three, when they are turned over to other family members or to the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) -- the institution that took Emmanuel into custody when he was found to have serious health problems.
IPS: How do you see this hostage release, from prison?
E: Obviously what is happening makes us really happy, because these two women are returning to their families. But they are only two people in a conflict in which many people are suffering.
People's hearts need to open up, so that the two sides sit down, in whatever conditions are established, to reach the goal of a humanitarian exchange (of FARC hostages for imprisoned guerrillas).
And also, what is really being sought is to reach the possibility of a solution to Colombia's social and armed conflict. Many of us are here because we believe in a different country, and that certain sacrifices have to be made. We are convinced that there will be a new Colombia, and that we will be able to live in a country with social justice.
IPS: The hostage release was a unilateral gesture by the FARC. Is it a step forward, towards negotiations?
E: It's a window of opportunity for a humanitarian swap to begin to be arranged, a gesture that shows that it is possible to reach an agreement between the two sides. As political prisoners, what we hope for is that humanitarian considerations take precedence in the conflict.
It is also a sign that there is willingness and interest on the part of the FARC. But it is the conditions in the armed conflict that are keeping things from being done the way they should be.
What we in prison are saying is the same thing expressed by the FARC leadership: a (demilitarised) safe haven is needed, both for the safety of the hostages to be released and of the people who will be negotiating.
IPS: Do the FARC inmates in your prison have children?
E: They are all mothers, except for three or four. In total, they number around 30.
IPS: How many are living with their mothers in the prison?
E: There are about 30 or 40 kids in this prison. In this wing (of women imprisoned for war-related crimes), there are six. Most of them are the children of women serving time for "rebellion". They are babies and toddlers up to the age of three. When they turn three, they are separated from their mothers. And if there is no one to take them in, they go to the ICBF.
IPS: Can they still see their mothers?
E: The ICBF has an agreement with the prison, so that the kids can be brought once a month to visit their mothers. There are thousands of "Emmanuels" in Colombia. One of them, fortunately, will see his mother again. There are thousands of others who can't.
IPS: International humanitarian law (IHL) distinguishes between civilians and combatants. Hostage-taking is prohibited by IHL, while exchanges of combatants have occurred since war was first invented. A civilian is not the same thing as someone who has actively committed themself to war.
E: That's true. But look: here in El Buen Pastor, most of the women are civilians who live in guerrilla-controlled areas, and who after spending two years in jail are simply told: "go home."
Of 100 women, at least 50 have nothing to do with (the war). Last week, three women were released after spending a year and a half in jail. They were told "go home, what a pity, we made a mistake." Others are sentenced for 40 to 60 years. There are people here who have accumulated sentences in several cases.
The rest are teachers, trade unionists, "community mothers" (women who run government child care centres in their homes), or small farmers, who have to spend at least a year and a half here, no matter how well things go for them in court. Very few actually end up being convicted. The prosecutions drag on for up to four years. Last year, two women who were released had spent four years behind bars, and were acquitted in the end.