After years in rural Colombia reporting on the armed conflict, journalist turned filmmaker Nicole Karsin devoted herself to documenting the struggle of indigenous women caught in the middle of the ongoing battle between FARC guerrillas, paramilitaries and government armed forces.
“It became clear that this problem was not very well-known, especially in the U.S.,” which has been funding coca-eradication projects for years in the country, Karsin told Colombia Reports. The journalist said she was drawn to telling the story through the eyes of the women in these communities, many of whom have had their men disappeared and murdered.
Karsin will tell these women’s stories in the United States when her film, “We Women Warriors” has its Washington D.C. premiere Friday, International Women’s Day.
“I was so impressed with them, even with all of these groups killing them off, they have been working very hard to create a world without armed conflict,” said Karsin of the indigenous women, many of whom have taken leadership roles, trying to steer their communities to peace.
Groups on all sides of the conflict have been guilty of carrying out atrocities against the indigenous. In this terrible conflict where “severe systematic killings are carried out – none of the [armed] groups are angels – these women are being really careful, they don’t want their kids to grow up and seek revenge for the deaths of their fathers, they want to stop the circle of violence and they are doing this through the way they raise their children.”
The women hope that the next generation will break out of the vicious circle of conflict, but scenes in Karsin’s film show that the human instinct of revenge may be hard to avoid.
In one scene little boys play together in the river, one, Albeiro, wants to be a rebel to avenge his father’s death, and his cousin wants to kill the rebels because they killed his father. “And if our paths cross?” they ask. “We’ll kill each other.”
According to the United Nations, nearly one-third of Colombia’s indigenous tribes are in danger of extinction, their cultures threatened by armed conflict and displacement.
The Kankuamo people in the northern Colombian Sierra Nevada mountains experienced the “most severe situation,” according to Karsin. It is estimated that over 300 people were killed since the year 2000.
“So many men there were killed that consequently there was a lack of fathers for the children. Obviously this has consequences for the community,” said the filmmaker. “But in the communities I found female leaders, indigenous women who were so brave.”
In the documentary, Ludis, a Kankuamo widow who was imprisoned for a year accused of killing 15 policemen, stands looking at the graveyard: “There is not one natural death here,” she says. “They were all killed.”
On paper the indigenous people have a lot of rights, a number of laws have been passed protecting them and their culture over the last few years. But in practice, the situation is very different.
“Colombian armed forces are violating international humanitarian law,” said Karsin. In 2006 the army came in and dug trenches and built barracks. “They took over public spaces, they were right on top of people’s homes,” said the documentary maker.
According to a woman in the film, that’s when a “shooting competition” started, with the indigenous people once against stuck in the middle of the conflict – until an 11-year-old boy was killed.
Spurred on by theis tragic death, the Nasa tribe from Colombia’s southwest took to non-violent resistance led by Flor Ilva, the first woman to govern the tribe in 300 years. They gave the police 72 hours to remove the barracks.
“Apart from their bravery you see an amazing unity among the indigenous,” said Karsin. “They had a ‘Minga’ – an act for the whole community’s well-being – they began to remove the barracks. One by one they took away the sandbags, children, women and men.”
In July 2012 the Nasa indigenous people attempted to use non-violent methods to expel the army from a sacred site in a rebel stronghold. Around 1,000 people surrounded the troops who had set up camp on a hilltop in a key drug-trafficking corridor. The Nasa offered to carry down all the army’s equipment and gear, however when they got it to the bottom the army started firing, said Karsin.
The documentary maker said the Colombian media covered the incident putting the indigenous in an unfavorable light. “They reported that the Nasa tribe had maybe acted against Colombian law by interfering with the army,” said Karsin. “But what about International Humanitarian Law?”
Karsin’s film follows two women who are tribal governors. “They are very strong women in what is a very sexist society. They definitely face obstacles, but they certainly weren’t insecure about being women.”
Machismo dominates Colombian society with women countrywide suffering violence, abuse and oppression at the hands of men. This problem is amplified in the rural regions of the country and especially, according to human rights group Plan International, in the indigenous tribes.
According to Plan International around 37% of indigenous teenagers are either already mothers or pregnant. “They have very few options, they have little or no education, it is natural for indigenous culture to be like this,” said Karsin.
Doris, a young female leader of the southern Colombian Awa tribe, who Karsin follows in her documentary, has been speaking out against crop fumigation and violence despite serious consequences. “She is so brave,” said Karsin. “Speaking out – to Americans it may not seem like much – but here it is very brave in the face of all these armed groups.”
“Despite the situation these female leaders find themselves in, and it seems that there’s no way out and they are trapped. But they use their resources and the unity among themselves to take steps to protect their lives and move towards a conflict-free Colombia,” said Karsin. “They are amazing role models and they pave the way for the new generation.”
- Interview with Nicole Karsin
- Interview with Plan International