Colombia Field Report: Anniversary of a Massacre

April 23, 2010 | Oriana Zill de Granados

From Women, War & Peace producer Oriana Zill de Granados, on location in Colombia:

On April 18, 2010, our documentary team traveled to the remote town of Bahia Portete, Colombia, to film the sixth anniversary of a massacre of the indigenous Wayuu people. We climbed down from the various trucks and vehicles, expecting a tour of the abandoned village. Instead, as we walked into the first broken-down cement building, we were met with an outpouring of emotion and the loud wailing of a Wayuu woman in crushing pain. Every spot of floor in the house was covered with animal droppings, dirty straw and filth. The foul stench radiated in the heat of the midday Colombian sun.

Women, War & Peace producers in Colombia discuss filming the commemoration of a massacre, near the world's second largest open-pit coal mine.

Debora Barros tries to regain her composure as she stands in what was once her aunt's home. Violent, sexually explicit graffiti directed at the Barros women now covers the walls.

Worse than the smell in the house was the confrontational graffiti covering each wall, sexually explicit drawings understood to be threats of rape. Some of the graffiti even mentioned the name of one of the leaders of this Wayuu clan, Debora Barros. “Debora devórate estas dos copas,” read the wall, graphic slang for “Debora devour these two penises.”

Barros was visibly shaken as she explained that this building used to be her aunt’s home and the paramilitary gangs who she says slaughtered her family have used it to house goats and horses. Her aunt sobbed as Barros slowly walked through the house, trying to hold herself together.

On April 18, 2004, a group of armed men entered this remote desert village. Many of the male villagers were out tending goats or fishing when the armed gang arrived. Others fled in fear. The women remained, assuming that women and children would not be killed. They were mistaken.

Various accounts from witnesses hiding nearby say that one elderly woman was beheaded and tortured. Two people, thought to be children, were burned alive in a car. Others were put in the back of a truck, their body parts found many miles away. Two of the women have never been found. These are just a few of the many disappeared that have marked Colombia’s long civil war. The people who were left alive were told to leave the area and never return.

Deborah Barros points to graffiti on the wall of an abandoned home in Bahia Portete.

Debora Barros points to graffiti on the wall of an abandoned home in Bahia Portete.

Six years later, the women of this clan gathered themselves together and walked slowly around the entire deserted town, stopping at the houses, the broken-down medical clinic, the destroyed school house. A hot wind blew from the nearby port. Witnesses and family members have recounted their belief that the port was likely at the center of the problems here because it is irresistible to cocaine traffickers who may have worked with the paramilitary leaders who ordered the massacre.


Debora Barros, her mother Carmen, her aunts and her sister Telemina have emerged as leaders in this matrilineal society, fighting to return to their territory and to find justice for those who were killed. They now live as displaced people, divided between the nearby city of Maracaibo, Venezuela, and Riohacha, Colombia.

In the small coastal city of Riohacha they have all the trappings of modern life, but they are fighting for a return to a much harder, yet more simple rural existence. Debora is now an attorney and runs a non-profit organization “Women Weaving Peace,” which fights to preserve the Wayuu culture. The family is also leading the charge to seek justice under Colombian law for their family members who were killed. They have traveled repeatedly, along with other witnesses, to Bogota to provide testimony in two on-going cases concerning the massacre. So far, little has been achieved.

A text message threat received on Debora Barros’s cell phone reads, “Hey, you’re going to die.”

A text message threat Debora Barros received reads, “Hey you're going to die.”

Several days before the anniversary, as we arrived in Riohacha to observe the preparations, Debora Barros showed us a text message she received the day before. “Oye te vas a morir,” the note said. Its translation: “Hey, you’re going to die.” She said this was one of many threatening text messages, calls and letters they have received over the years. These on-going threats are the main reason they do not yet feel it is safe to return permanently to their homeland. Barros travels everywhere with two armed guards, provided to her by a division of the Colombian justice system working for peace and reconciliation.

“My life was forever changed by the massacre,” Barros told us. “I am no longer the happy woman I was before. I am overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility.” She downplays her fear of the threats on her life. One family member told us that the women have decided to keep fighting, even if it means they will be killed. “If I stop fighting, they will kill me anyway,” Barros explained, “and so I must keep fighting for justice and a return.”


Young Wayuu women by the campfire.

Young Wayuu women by the campfire.

Women have also emerged as cultural guardians for Wayuu society. More and more Wayuu from this region have been displaced to the cities, where their nomadic rural culture is disappearing. As we journeyed out of the city to the remote, dusty roads of this desert region, the signs of modernity disappeared.

One of the Barros family cemeteries is in a place called Media Luna, and we camped alongside the burial sites for several days. This is a sacred site for the Wayuu, who have strong burial traditions, which require the dead to be buried twice, and food and water to be left on the graves to help them in their journey to the other side. The cemeteries are also important because they are the way the various Wayuu clans mark their ownership over a certain area of land inside this large indigenous reserve.

As we slept in hammocks under open-air thatched wood huts, we quickly saw how these women are working to preserve a rich and complicated Wayuu culture, marked by hard work, celebration and joy. Each night, the women created a circle of swept earth surrounded by chairs. The first night, a huge fire was made inside the circle and an older woman shaman performed a cleansing ritual on all of those in attendance. She took a swallow of the local homemade alcohol called chirinchi and showered us with it to cast out evil spirits. After being sprayed, we were told to raise our arms and wish for a special dream.

A young member of the Barros clan participates in a traditional Wayuu dance in which women wear long red dresses.

A young Wayuu woman participates in a traditional Wayuu dance in which women wear long red dresses.

On the evening before we visited the massacre site, the circle was again swept clean. We all gathered to watch as a woman in a traditional, long, loose-fitting dress entered the circle, leading a Wayuu man in a tunic with large pom-poms over his bottom. She pranced him around the circle, yelling in a mixture of Spanish and their language of Wayu’unike, “Look at this fine Wayuu man, look at his muscles, his legs, his bottom, look at how strong he is.” They were quickly joined in the circle by a young woman dressed in a long red dress with a large red tunic pulled over her head. The man and the young woman danced in a prancing gait, appearing as a matador and her bull, accompanied by the pounding rhythm of a drum.

“It has been many years since we have been able to wear our red dresses, a symbol of celebration,” said Telemina Barros.

A Wayuu man is led around inside a circle of women, who call attention to his strong Wayuu "assets." The Wayuu indigenous tribe is a matrilineal society, and women are the leaders in their clans.

A Wayuu man is led around inside a circle of women, who call attention to his Wayuu "assets." The Wayuu indigenous tribe is a matrilineal society, and women are leaders in their clans.

After the first dance, several young men of 10 or 12 years old volunteered to join the circle. They were encouraged by all the women to learn the whooping call “O-sha!” made by the men who dance. Telemina Barros told us that spending time in the territory like this was essential for the survival of the Wayuu culture. “We need to return to our land so our young children can learn our traditions,” she said, “and can learn our ways and can run freely in the desert as we used to do. We need our land in order to continue to exist.”

Read more about Zill’s trip here.