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

Colombians who fled to Canada during five decades of armed conflict in the Latin American country are now telling their stories of displacement and violence to the country's Truth Commission.

Colombia's Truth Commission has taken testimonies of people in Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Alberta

Almost 16 years after being forced to leave her country, Elsi Angulo, like dozens of other of Colombians in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia, is sharing her story with the Canadian arm of the Colombian Truth Commission.  (Submitted by Elsi Angulo)

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 improving 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 16 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 Canadian arm of Colombia's Truth Commission.

The 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 between the Colombian government and the Marxist guerilla group known as 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 into exile. 

A police officer sits amid the ruins of a police station 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 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 Community Economic and Social Development at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., who is also one of the provincial co-ordinators for the commission's Ontario wing.

Sheila Gruner, a professor and provincial co-ordinator for the Ontario wing of Colombia's Truth Commission, 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 because of 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 said.  

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 'OK, 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," she said.

"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 OK."

Back in 2016, many people celebrated in a park as they listened 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 told 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 fuelled a new spate of 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 mixed 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. FARC guerilla fighters are seen patrolling the jungle near the town of Miraflores in 1998. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

Final report due next year

The commission's Ontario section, 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. 

About the Author

Sofia Rodriguez

Reporter/Editor

Sofia Rodriguez is a reporter with CBC News in London. She is a graduate of Western University and Fanshawe College. You can email her at sofia.rodriguez@cbc.ca

With files from Reuters

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