Helena Christensen Mission to Colombia with UNHCR

I have just returned from a trip to Colombia with UNHCR, where I had the privilege of meeting some incredibly courageous, but very vulnerable women. As a photographer, it was an extraordinary opportunity travelling to Colombia, spending time in communities there, talking to women and documenting their lives — using photography to tell their stories.

Colombia has a population of 48 million people, of whom almost 7 million are internally displaced (IDP’s) forced from their homes: to put it in perspective — that is the equivalent of almost the entire population of Hong Kong being forced from their homes.

The conflict in Colombia that has caused so many people to abandon their homes, has been raging for fifty years and shows no immediate promise of ending. Large swathes of the country are still run by armed groups — such as FARC, ELN and the EPL. They govern districts, often mercilessly forcing people from their land using threats and sexual violence. It became very obvious to me that many Colombians still live in great fear with the constant threat of violence and unfathomable atrocities looming over them, and I was shocked to discover that on average an IDP in Colombia will be forced to leave their home, not once or twice, but five times.

 

My focus was to photograph portraits of inspiring women and to convey their stories, experiences and hopes. From the entrepreneurial Maribeth, to the hip-hopping Angie, all of these women have shown extraordinary courage, resilience and power.

We travelled to the barrio of Soacha, a settlement crammed on top of a sand quarry about an hour outside of Bogota, where we met the incredible Maribeth Palacios, 41, who lives in the barrio of Altos de la Florida and works as a cook and traditional dancer. She has four children aged 19, 8, 8 and 6, and she sells incredible tasting dishes made with rice, meat and lots of spices, wrapped and steamed in banana leaves. Maribeth was displaced from the department of Choco on the pacific coast, when she was 7 years old, when armed guards shot and killed her mother and sister. She fled and has never returned to her home town — “I am too afraid and it has been too long.” Maribeth has a dream of opening her own traditional choco restaurant in Bogota and running more dance classes for the local children.

I also met 61 year-old Mercedes, a former radio journalist, a grandmother and now community leader, Mercedes’ 17 year old son was brutally murdered last year. He was shot outside the local bakery — gunned down in broad daylight in front of his friends. Nobody knows why, though everyone knows who is responsible. They suspect it was punishment for refusing to be recruited into the local armed gang. Mercedes proudly showed us photos of him — looking handsome in his football gear like “a young Ronaldo.”  She told me “I will fight for justice for my son, I will fight for my community and support women, who have been raped and abused. I am not afraid of what will happen to me. Our community needs justice and I am proud to be a community leader and an activist.”

We met Angie, a 29 year old single mother of two. She shared her harrowing story of survival — displaced since she was 6 years old and witnessing the violent stabbing of one of her brother’s friends. “He was stabbed 25 times” she told me. Her family fled and she was split from her mother. She subsequently became addicted to drugs and had to live on the streets — driven by fear and self-loathing, surrounded by aggression and danger. She was raped, but knew no-one would support or believe her, but thankfully she finally found a welfare group, who took her in and protected her. Angie uses her skills now to train and practice hip hop and rapping with local children. Her organization is called Salvando Vidas — Saving Lives — and she hopes to be a fully trained teacher one day to help enable children getting off the streets. She believes music is her saviour and she wants to pass on her passion to help these kids. “When I sing, I feel calm and my soul is free,” she says and smiles, “I am happy now, living in Soacha. I believe UNHCR saved my life and I am beginning to feel safe for the first time.”

UNHCR works with these communities, helping them get access to land and supporting their resettlement. “A key part of our job is also helping them integrate into communities, so they are not stigmatized and isolated in their homes,” Stephane Jaquemet, UNHCR’s representative in Colombia told me “We work hard with the local government to ensure that the settlements are legalized, once they become so, then the district has to provide water, health and education. We are working towards this goal in many communities as it will make a fundamental difference to people’s rights to land, education, clean safe water and livelihoods.”

 

We drove for many hours to an isolated reservation in Aracua on the Venezuelan border to meet the Makaguan, an indigenous community in danger of physical and cultural extinction. They have lived in isolation for the last four years, and their make-shift houses, surrounded by plastic bags and wire fences somewhat reminiscent of a prison, are directly adjacent to the military base. Being so close to the base they are often targeted by the guerilla groups and I was shown where a bomb had exploded just inside the compound next to the make-shift dwelling.

Almost every woman I photographed had a story to share of violence, sexual abuse, fear and trauma. They have all had to move many times and have faced abject poverty and unemployment, along with a severe lack of food. Despite this, there was still hope from within and as the day began to draw to a close, I met with the inspiring 15 year old, Soreli Martinez.  Soreli told me she did not want to marry, but selflessly wanted to train to become a nurse, as she wanted to help sick people. “Many people in my community get sick, as there are mosquitoes and diseases. I want to help and have the freedom to be in charge of my own life.”

My heart goes to Soreli and her brave ambitions. Despite the sea of machismo and violence, she wants to make a difference — this was the predominant feeling shared by all the women I spoke to. Whilst facing incredible hardship, the glimmer of hope of a better life for them and their children, still shone through. I hope my photographs can be a platform for them to share their stories, a narrative that provides inspiration to support UNHCR’s important work providing shelter and safety for these women, offering them the vital hope of a better future.

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