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Exiled Colombians in Canada share stories of death threats, violence that made them flee home

Elsi Angulo never expected to have to leave her homeland of Colombia and live in exile. 

After years of hard work, she became one of the few Afro-Colombians to work at the attorney general’s office as a prosecutor. But when she was on the verge of sending a corrupt politician to jail, she started to receive death threats and was told that a paramilitary group was going to kill her.

Like thousands of Colombians, Angulo saw no other option than to pack her bags and leave the country she was so set on rectifying behind.

“It’s very terrible to leave your country in this way,” Angulo said. “You leave your life, your country, your family, everything.”

“But when this kind of situation happens, the only thing you can do is try to move on.”

And in some ways, Angulo says she did.

She, her husband and their two children came to London, Ont., and rebuilt their lives from scratch. They worked, their kids went to school, and she was able to pursue another post-secondary degree. The family achieved stability in their lives, but also safety — something those who seek refuge do not take for granted.

Now, almost sixteen years after being forced to leave Colombia, Angulo, like dozens of other Colombians in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia, is sharing her story with the Colombian Truth Commission node in Canada.

The Truth Commission, which works to collect testimonies of Colombians in more than 20 countries, was struck in 2018 as part of the framework of the 2016 peace agreement made between the Colombian government and the Marxists guerilla group known as the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. 

The peace accord was signed in hopes of ending five decades of drug-traffic fuelled armed conflict in the country, which killed more than 260,000 people and forced thousands like Angulo into exile. 

A police officer sits amid the ruins of a police station which was destroyed by a bomb attack in the municipality of Inza, Colombia on Dec. 7, 2013 — blamed at the time on left-wing FARC guerrillas, one of countless acts of violence extending back to the group’s formation in the 1960s. (Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters)

Now they can talk about it

The commission collects first-hand accounts of the consequences of armed conflict, including the experience of those in exile, in an effort to collectively heal, clarify what happened during five decades of violence, recognize the victims, and prevent such violence from happening again. 

Around the world, it’s heard testimony about of the murder of family members, death threats, kidnapping, torture, sexual violence, and blackmail. 

“A lot of people had to leave Colombia under duress … and their whole lives were put into a complete disarray and there’s no real recognition that that happened,” said Sheila Gruner, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., who is also the provincial coordinator for the commission’s Ontario node.

Sheila Gruner, a professor and provincial coordinator for the Columbia Truth Commission’s Ontario node, says hearing the experiences of those in exile is important for understanding the consequences of armed conflict. (Submitted by Sheila Gruner)

“They’ve never had a chance to say ‘Oh my God, do you know how hard it was to leave under those conditions?’ and now they have the chance to talk about it. This is the step where what has happened is being recognized.” 

According to the commission, Canada is now home to the third-largest number of Colombians who have fled due to internal armed conflict. 

“The experience of people who had to leave the country is such a huge, important part of [the consequences of armed conflict in Colombia], and those voices have historically been, perhaps, the most invisible,” Gruner added.  

While Angulo made a new life in Canada, she said there will always be a part of her that wishes to make things better for those she left behind.

“You can start a new life like I did in Canada, but it’s not like ‘Okay, now I’m in a different country and that’s it.’ No, you are also in the country where you were born because your story started there and you have your family there.” 

“It’s difficult to explain, but the people who are outside of Colombia, I think, are the people who really want the country to be fixed. That way at least they can go back to visit … and also know that [their] family is okay.”

Back in 2016, many people celebrated in a park as they listen to the announcement that delegates of Colombia’s government and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia had reached a peace accord to end their half-century civil war. (Fernando Vergara/Associated Press)

Armed violence isn’t over

Gruner said those, like Angulo, who have laid their truth in front of the commission, do so wanting to help reconstruct peace in the country, while knowing that uncertainty lies ahead.

“After [the interviews], people express feeling a little bit lighter and being happy [they were] able to contribute, but it’s not always this big catharsis people may think,” Gruner said. 

Despite the peace agreement that halted conflict with the FARC, other armed groups have settled in and have fuelled armed violence that has led to hundreds of deaths.

On Saturday, eight people were shot to death by an unidentified armed group in a drug-trafficking area in southwestern Colombia. 

Gruner said knowing that people are still dying at the hands of these groups causes a mixed bag of emotions for those telling their stories now, as they recognize that armed violence has yet to cease. 

“Everyone wants to contribute to the construction of a peaceful society … but there are a lot of questions of where do we go from here.”

While a peace deal was signed with FARC in 2016, armed violence hasn’t stopped in Colombia. This file photo from 1998 shows FARC guerilla fighters patrolling through long grass in the jungle near the town of Miraflores, 300 kilometres southeast of the capital. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

The commission’s Ontario node, made up of about 40 Canadian and Colombian volunteers, has just wrapped up collecting testimonies and will now focus on filing a report of their findings. A final report, which will have the findings of commissions from across the world, will be released next year. 

The goal is to look at the patterns of victimization, explain the violence that people have faced and set out collective responsibilities to help ensure that violence isn’t repeated.

“I think it’s important that we had the chance to tell our story to heal some traumas, but, ultimately, I hope that from telling them, the younger generation in Colombia can live in peace,” Angulo said. 

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