The Women Keeping War-Torn Colombian Communities Together

For more than 50 years, Colombia has been in a civil war, fighting over land rights and the murder of political leaders. The human costs of this conflict have been tremendous. There have been 5.7 million people internally displaced, 25,000 forced disappearances and 220,000 deaths. Women have especially been impacted by this violence. Some have lost brothers and husbands, and others are still looking for their family.

As a colombiana-salvadoreña, understanding civil war was something I grew up with through family stories and innate curiosity. When I moved to Colombia last year, I was confronted with a reality that shook my core: I heard stories of torture and met people who confronted murder. I wanted to understand the war through women on the ground. With a camera in hand, I was able to capture mujeres' hope in the midst of brutality. These women were strengthening their communities, and I was compelled to share their stories through a photo series called La Fuerza.

MORE: Colombian President and FARC Leader Sign Peace Commitment Agreement

These narratives demonstrate a different side of the civil war, a side of strength and organizing. This is the side that is overlooked in mainstream media, a side that needs to be heard and remembered.

1. Women Keeping War-Torn Colombian Communities Together

Lets start this story with Gloria. A humble spirit, Gloria took me to her neighborhood of Moravia in Comuna 4. Gloria and her family have been heavily affected by the civil war, losing many friends and family members. Like other familias in Moravia, they were displaced by violence in Valle del Cauca. Despite all the violence and poverty they have witnessed, Gloria helped create a community center called el Centro de Desarrollo Cultural de Moravia. Her role is preserving the barrio's memory in the archival department. 

2. Women Keeping War-Torn Colombian Communities Together

Gloria then took me to a day school for children from ages three to six called Mama Chilla’s Jardin Infantil. This is Luz Mirena, one of the pre-school teachers. She was in such a happy mood when we came. Luz Mirena and Gloria have known each other since they came to the neighborhood. One of the first organizing mothers, Luz Mirena still carries the same spirit. Chasing children and teaching them art, she took a moment to take a picture. It was her birthday. 

3. Women Keeping War-Torn Colombian Communities Together

Mama Chilla’s Jardin Infantil is named after the one and only Mama Chilla, and it is actually located in her old family home. Mama Chilla is not only Gloria’s mother, but also one of the most important organizing mothers of the neighborhood. Escaping the violence of the war on the Pacific Coast, she came to Moravia to settle in the 1970s. She told me that she began organizing with the children. She would see them on the street with no food or parents, so she'd take them in and help them out when she could. Children motivated her work. She organized to combat poverty and even more displacement in the barrio.

4. Women Keeping War-Torn Colombian Communities Together

I met Marasoul one day at the Centro de Desarrollo Cultural de Moravia. There was calmness in her voice and intellectual energy. She is an Afro-Colombian teacher and artist who is an advocate for Afro-Colombian rights. We had a chance to sit down and talk about the black struggle in Medellin. 

5. Women Keeping War-Torn Colombian Communities Together

Luz Elena is one of Gloria’s homies; they go way back. Gloria and I were climbing the hill in Moravia, formerly known as El Basurero, when we met up with Luz Elena. For context, the population in Moravia inflated, and by 1977, the basurero, the dumpster, was officially located on top of the hill of Moravia. Translation: There was literally an attempt to displace this population by throwing trash in the middle of their neighborhood. Luz Elena’s home is at the top of this hill, and she has witnessed the changes in her community from the beginning. Today, she is the leader of an organization called ServiHogar, where she organizes workers to clean different parts of the city. 

6. Women Keeping War-Torn Colombian Communities Together

Estela is another one of Gloria's comadres. As we were walking down the hill, I could see sancocho a la leña cooking for a group of people across the street. There were at least 20 people in an open house with lots of vegetables. Every week, Estela organizes a truck filled with veggies and gives them out to her community members, who do not have access to fresh produce. They cook sancocho across the street to feed the volunteers. 

7. Women Keeping War-Torn Colombian Communities Together

This is Flor. She is a community activist and artist. This day, she was at the Museo de la Memoria for an event on Medellin’s cultural and political memory. She came representing a group called AgroArte, an organization active in Medellin’s infamous Comuna 13. AgroArte uses art to bring environmental awareness in their barrio. The group teaches young people about community urban gardening with an artistic twist.  

8. Women Keeping War-Torn Colombian Communities Together

Luz Elena Galeano is one of the strongest women I’ve met. From Comuna 13, her story on loss and perseverance gives hope to the movement of women combatting this war. Sitting on various committees, her allegiance is to her organization Mujeres Caminando por La Verdad, where women fight to find their forcibly disappeared and murdered family members and friends. Last September, the organization won the National Award for Defending Human Rights in Colombia. With her own story of trauma, Luz Elena leads this group of women doing necessary work for her neighborhood. Here, she holds a photo of her husband, who was forcibly disappeared.