Volume 14 Number 6
Saving Lives in the Shanty Town
01 December 2001

At the age of 23 Diana Patricia Pabón-Ramirez has already devoted more than a decade to tackling the social problems of her Colombian community, Paul Williams reports.

Altos de Cazucá is a hillside shanty town on the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia. It was built on a former sand quarry and is home to 70,000 people whose numbers are constantly being inflated by refugees from the fighting in the interior of the country.

Diana Patricia Pabón-Ramirez moved there with her family when she was six. ‘It has serious geological faults and most people lack basic public services,’ she says. When she was nine she joined a children’s group run by the local Catholic priest. She had been a member for about a year when a particularly bad landslide destroyed many houses and damaged others. Their partly-finished church was made available to house 30 families who had lost everything.

‘In this crisis I was appointed “Social Worker” for the youth group,’ she recalls. ‘I felt very important. I sat behind a table and wrote out badges for each family. I was able to do this because I was going to school and had learned to write. There was one bed for each family and they had to take turns to sleep on it.’ She allocated everyone tasks such as cooking or cleaning. Although she was only ten this was accepted without question. ‘I suppose people were just so shocked by the scale of the disaster,’ she says.

Now 23, she says this early ‘appointment’ set her on a path, from which she has never turned back, of working for the people of her community. Before long she graduated from the children’s group to an older group of which she quickly became President. In an effort to boost morale in the community they organized football and other games for the boys and taught dancing to the girls. ‘The lessons were very popular. We provided all the girls with white skirts,’ she says. ‘We would go to better-off areas to collect used toys, and then mend or paint them to give to the children as presents at Christmas.’

The hillside communities lived under the constant threat of violence. Armed, hooded men would appear, closing down shops and demanding ‘taxes’. Often lists of those earmarked to be killed would be posted up. ‘There were nine deaths a night on average. We decided this could not be tolerated and organized a series of awareness marches to help rally the community against the violence.’ Pabón was then 15 and was just finishing high school. She and others wrote and staged a street drama about violence. All the parents of the group and others in the community were invited to the first performance. It portrayed the devil as the agent of death.

Besides more ‘serious’ activities like holding courses on non-violence and forgiveness, fashion shows and Christmas parties were staged to boost morale. With all this they were reaching out from their own immediate neighbourhood into the other communities that made up Altos de Cazucá, bringing people together in a new way. ‘Gradually the gangs began to lose their grip on us. The killings, though by no means completely eliminated, came down to just two per day.’

By 17 Pabón had a job teaching at the school. Wanting to reach more of the teenagers across the settlement, she decided to break the taboo on holding activities at night and organized a bonfire feast. The bold, intimidation-defying move paid off as 90 turned up. With momentum established, they held musical events, dance concerts and fun days. The result was the formation of a new dynamic youth group which they called Revivir (New Life).

‘We decided that if we put our trust in God, no harm would come to us,’ says Pabón. ‘People thought I was sure of myself, but at first I was often scared. For the sake of the community I steeled myself to be hard. Sometimes I present a fierce temperament—but it’s not my real nature at all.’
Revivir was soon organizing events for the adults. They started by offering painting and hairdressing workshops. For the over-sixties there was the chance to make brooms and floor cloths, which, she says, ‘they took great pride in making to the highest standards’. The culmination of all this was the opening of a canteen. The rent was paid for out of the wages of Pabón and other friends who had jobs. ‘We managed to fit in five tables, each with five plastic chairs. Each day we gave breakfast to 210 children, sitting in relays. When they had all gone to school, 30 elderly people would follow who could be looked after at greater leisure.’ They were able to keep the canteen going for five months before funds ran out.

By now Revivir was becoming better known and it decided to join the Colombian National Assembly of Young People for Peace. ‘We were the only affiliated youth organization from the shanty towns,’ says Pabón. ‘No one there even knew where our settlement was. We didn’t have computers and e-mail like the other clubs, but we knew how to keep ourselves up to date—and we loved Colombia just as much as they did.’

Revivir was one of the groups selected to go on a peace mission to meet the leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) at the Wells of Caguan in the demilitarized territory. As part of the peace process, regular weekend ‘hearings’ are staged on neutral ground where groups of Colombians can make suggestions on possible ways forward. Revivir was among the few organizations selected to make a presentation at this special hearing for youth that was to be televised live over National TV.

Pabón was the spokesperson. ‘We worked on our proposals through the night and had them written out on large sheets of card. At the meeting I began putting them directly to the guerrilla leadership who were all sitting on a table on the platform. What we said was not exactly what they wanted to hear and everyone went quiet. Someone even attempted to cut off the TV transmission. One of the leaders prevented this, but before I could challenge them on child soldiers and the fate of the disappeared people I was cut short.’ However she went straight up to the platform when the meeting had finished and presented all her points. ‘They were surprised and asked me to sit down at the table.’ Before she left the insurgent camp with her delegation, one of the most prominent FARC leaders wrote on her name tag, ‘the fighter for peace’. ‘If you have an ideal,’ he told her, ‘ you should fight for it.’

Deaths in the settlement still occur. ‘I have had to pick several bodies up from the streets with my own hands,’ she says. Tragically, one of them was her own brother. ‘I found him lying outside full of bullet holes and had to drag him into the house.’ Her other brother was attacked and badly wounded by a gang who wanted his baseball cap and shoes.

There are several on-going projects at Altos de Cazucá that she would like to see completed. ‘God will show us how. They won’t solve all our problems, but it is a part of the whole.’ She would like to see the young people in her group finish their studies and find careers that would enable them to support their families. She would like to see her mother housed in a more secure building and find a job that will not blister her hands. She prays her brother can make a complete recovery.

For herself, she would like to study sociology or social work to help her to work more effectively with deprived communities—her own and others. She would also like to see Revivir established as a foundation in its own right with its own building.

‘If you have a vision and are shown a better way, you do begin to live differently,’ she says.
Diana Patricia Pabón-Ramirez

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