If you ever want to know what it feels like to be completely free, Yolanda Perea Mosquera recommends you go to the town of Rio Sucio, Colombia. Its name means dirty river.
Inquire about a horse named Paloma. It was gifted to her as a child. “To ride a horse is to be free. You ride a horse, on the bare savanna, it’s pure green, and that pure air hits your forehead, and you feel like you own the world. That’s how I felt. Like I owned the world.”
If you ever want to know, what it’s like to be completely terrified, Mosquera also wants to talk about that.
The houses in the Colombian countryside often have dirt floors and no doors, only open doorways. One night, a masked guerrilla fighter slipped in.
She was 11. He was much bigger than her. And he had a gun.
“He left, and I hid in the back of the stable. My mom found me. She picked me up, and my clothing was covered in blood.”
That's when life unraveled. She says she lost the concept of time
“The only thing I still liked to do was go fishing. It distracted me. I would look at that water, and it was clean, and I wondered if I jumped in, if the water would wash away this filth I felt," Mosquera says. "It was like a filth on my body, and I couldn’t get it off.”
Several weeks later Mosquera miscarried. She didn’t know she was pregnant. Her mother went to report the assault to the rebel commander. He called Mosquera a liar. Soon after, several guerrilla fighters showed up the house. Mosquera followed her mom to the door.
“She put her hand on my chest and she said ‘No. Listen to me, Maria Yolanda Perea Mosquera. You aren’t coming with me. You’re going to take care of your brothers.'”
It was the last words the two ever spoke. Mosquera went to the kitchen.
“When I got there, it started raining bullets.”
There’s this word that keeps coming up when I speak to victims of the Colombian war. Venganza. Revenge. Some say they no longer need it. Many would still like to have it. And somewhere in the town of Rio Sucio, it was all 11-year-old Mosquera could think about.
“I wanted to join the guerrilla, just to get revenge. I wanted them to teach me to make bombs, grenades. Whatever they did to kill people. And then I was going to turn around and kill them.”
They didn’t let her join. You’re too angry, they told her.
“And I said ‘I better come up with something else.’ When the guerrilla fighters were thirsty, sometimes they would come asking for water or juice. So I made a juice. I mixed it with a chemical I used to disinfect the animals. I got dressed. I headed to the guerrilla camp. My plan was to give it to the man who had hurt me. And on the way, I ran into my cousin. And he said he was thirsty, and could he have a drink. And I froze. I dropped the jar and spilled the juice on the ground. And that’s when I said I — I can’t get revenge.”
Colombians' widespread desire for vengeance might stem from the knowledge that justice for victims is a rare thing. After more than half a century of war, nearly 250,000 deaths and 45,000 disappearances, there’s just too many bones to sift through and not enough money to do it. And then, there’s the issue of women. Sadly, Mosquera's story is not unusual.
María Emma Wills Obregón leads the department of gender and women at Colombia’s Historical Memory Commission. “They lost their sons, their companeros. And women suffered much more rapes and sexual humiliations than men. The [people armed fighters] chose to punish were those women who had a leadership role, or who transgressed the codes they had established.”
Research shows that in postwar countries where women are recognized as victims and receive justice, peace is more likely to last. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when the mass rapes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia came to light, that the UN defined rape in war as a crime against humanity. In 2014, Colombia followed suit.
But, after 52 years of war, in a country with limited resources, how much justice can women realistically expect? And can there be peace without justice?
Catalina Maria Diaz heads Colombia’s department of transitional justice. She points to recent, progressive laws to protect women victims. A 2011 reparations law provides rights for victims. But she says complete, punitive justice in a country this impacted is not going to happen. A lot of victims just want acknowledgment. “They want the person who is responsible acknowledging what happened. Because some victims even experienced accusations by fellow community members of being liars.”
So, when Colombia recently started hammering out a deal with the guerrillas, there was a lot of pressure on the government to focus on women. And it worked. The agreement had an entire chapter on victims rights which included the creation of a truth commission. And that truth commission included a specific gender team.
Miki Jacevic is the vice chairman of Inclusive Security, an organization that has been working with Colombian activists on advancing women’s rights and justice. He says the agreement was hailed as one of the most inclusive peace deals ever written.
And then, a few years ago, a slim majority of Colombians voted against it. They said it was just too lenient on war criminals. They wanted more punishment.
But not Mosquera.
“I voted yes. And if I have to do it again, I’ll vote yes again.”
Mosquera gets it, the desire for justice and punishment. The chances that she’ll get either are very slim. It’s been more than two decades since her assault. And here’s the thing: War rapes are extremely hard to prove.
The evidence is gone. And Mosquera has no idea who raped her. She might have come close to finding out a few years ago. She was working on a government-sponsored project. She and other victims were traveling the country by bus, sharing their stories with different communities. A sort of museum on wheels
“And this man stopped by. He specifically wanted to hear my story. He started crying. I got close to him and put my hand on his shoulder. And then he told me that around that time, he had been a rebel fighter, in my town. I told him, ‘Don’t worry. These things happened. We have to move on.’”
The former fighter left, and Mosquera got off the bus. She broke down in tears, kicking the bus tires furiously.
“And that’s when I got it. Life takes a lot of turns. And each moment puts us in the right place to get rid of our hatred.”
A few years ago, Mosquera started up an organization for young Afro Colombian women — victims of the war. El Puerto De Mi Tierra teaches them about their rights.
In her free time, she goes fishing with her daughter.