36 Hours (and More) in Cartagena

by | Jan 20, 2017

Neymar and Sebastian, two of Gavelys’ grandsons, taking a bath out back in Membrillal, a community of cinderblock and wood houses built by displaced people. Photo by Sahara Borja.


I arrived in Colombia in August 2014 on a Fulbright grant to research La Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas (The League of Displaced Women), an organization formed in the late 90s in barrio El Pozón, Cartagena. In 2003, after formalizing their organization as a women’s rights group with the help of a human rights lawyer from Bogotá and a U.S.-backed grant, its members began the collective construction of their homes—and future—in Turbaco, south of Cartagena. Slowly, La Liga built more than a hundred cinder block homes for themselves. All women, mostly single mothers and household heads, they were victims of internal and forced displacement because of the country’s ongoing armed conflict, and had fled from all over the country seeking a new life. Over the course of about a year I met a number of original members of La Liga who still live in the homes they built, as well as several other women leaders who belong to other groups that meet, advocate, and fight for the advancement of women whose realities have been adversely shaped by the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia.

Some 220,000 people have lost their lives and countless more have been maimed, abducted, and sexually assaulted. Many have also been uprooted from their homes,  the places on which their social and economic security—however humble—depends. The official number of displaced Colombians continues to rise towards the 6 million mark, although some sources say it has already surpassed that figure. Internal displacement, as it is euphemistically called,  has overwhelmed large cities and small pueblos alike, and the government, though aware of the situation, has found it difficult to find viable solutions. The crisis deserves international attention as much as during any other time over the half century of conflict.

Most of the women I met came from places where subsistence farming was key to a healthy, “rich” life: they would often tell me that once, they’d had everything they needed. Many of these women lived in areas overrun by armed groups (FARC, AUC/paramilitary, ELN, government armies, drug traffickers and sometimes even big business). As always, the victims are caught in the crosshairs of greed-fueled violence and struggles for economic dominance.

These portraits and scenes of daily life were taken while getting to know these courageous leaders and their families, in communities and barrios far away from the bustling tourist zone of Cartagena’s “walled” and “romantic” colonial center. For these women, Cartagena is no vacation. Every day they must forge ahead, put food on the table, keep their children (and themselves) safe, and try to just “have a life”–against all odds. These women seek humanitarian aid from the government, which rarely arrives; they seek out access to schools, health centers and police protection in their communities—a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare—as well as access to affordable housing on the outskirts of Cartagena. If one doesn’t register as a ‘victim’ in the system, one is not entitled to anything, and even so, humanitarian aid is never timely. It was only in 2011 that newly elected President Juan Manuel Santos acknowledged the existence of millions of people who had been internally displaced.

I spent almost a year in various neighborhoods far outside of Cartagena’s historical district: San Jóse de los Campanos, Membrillal, Refugio La Carolina, Villa Estrella. Ample money is being spent on hotels and the tourism industry, while the needs of Cartagena residents continue to grow every day. The struggling working class, Afro-descendants, indigenous, the displaced and women are constantly swimming upstream without much infrastructure or help from government agencies or offices. Finding solutions to the very basic needs of daily life can be overwhelming and often impossible. To paraphrase James Baldwin, it becomes very expensive to be poor.

When The New York Times published its “36 Hours In…” travel piece on Cartagena in September 2014, I noticed that all of the photographs and video were taken within the walled portion of El Centro and just across the street from the Clock Tower in Getsemaní on Calle Media Luna; the writer and photographer had had not gone beyond the “safe » area, and their time was dedicated to shooting and writing about “linen clothes,” ice cream, and gelato spots (“to-beat-the-heat”).

In the shadow of luxury tourism, daily life does not improve for those who are often left outside of the conversation. While tourism rises, so does insecurity in the city. Most of the women I worked with arrived in Cartagena between the late 90s and early 2000s, forcibly driven out from their various respective pueblos around Colombia. Many of them are also survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, or the killing of people close to them. All of these women live day-to-day; none have a regular, formal job. Some rely on partners or family members, some sell perfume, or wash or iron clothes. Many of these leaders could not do the organizing work they do and also keep a steady job. None plan on returning to where they are from, even though some have also been targeted in the city (as they reported to government entities in Cartagena) by other armed groups who seek dominance of urban areas like Cartagena. Three women I met have all been sent personal text messages by members of ERPAC (Ejercito Revolucionario Popular Anticomunista/Antisubversivo de Colombia—paramilitary descendants) as far back as 2011 and as recently as 2015. The response time from the Office of Victims was four years, decidedly too slow.

The downtown colonial glory is not Cartagena, entirely, although tourism literature might have you think otherwise. The historic walls and military fortresses built at the water’s edge to keep enemies at bay now seem to do the same for their own vulnerable inhabitants.

Winter 2017Volume XVI, Number 2

Sahara Borja studied photojournalism at the International Center of Photography. Photography has anchored her engagement in community work, including that as a teacher with the Josephine Herrick Project, a nonprofit based in New York City which uses photography to acclimate young adults on the autism spectrum to their surroundings. She has worked as an associate editor and contributing photo editor with a number of online outlets and recently returned from a Fulbright research grant working with internally displaced women on the outskirts of Cartagena. 

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