Journalist tortured and raped by paramilitary fighters is now working to raise awareness of sexual violence in warfare
On the first day that Jineth Bedoya Lima arrived for work at the offices of Colombia National Radio in Bogotá, she was assigned to cover a story that would become her life. That day, in December 1996, her task was to report on a riot at what is probably the most dangerous prison in the world, La Modelo, infamous as a focal point for trafficking in drugs and arms between the forces of state, cartels and rival militias.
Less than four years later, on 25 May 2000, Bedoya returned to the jail after the massacre of 42 prisoners by inmates belonging to rightwing paramilitary groups, who were terrifying the country. This time, she was seized at the prison gates, kidnapped, tortured and raped by the paramilitaries’ men on the outside.
Three years later she was kidnapped and held again, this time by the leftist militia that the fascists claimed to be fighting – the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Farc.
Then, in 2009, Bedoya emerged from this wind tunnel of violence and violation and – with resilience that defies imagination – became the voice of the many thousands of survivors and victims of Colombia’s greatest hidden crime: described by a report published this month as the “habitual, extensive and systematic” kidnap and rape of women in the country’s internal wars.
Earlier this month, Bedoya toured Britain and Ireland to lobby politicians and rally supporters as a new movement calling itself Now Is Not the Time to Stay Silent bursts defiantly into the open – and to promote the report, compiled by the London-based ABColombia.
She is slight of frame in a way that belies her gale-force energy. Asked why she did not, as most would, crawl away into a cave after these experiences, she says: “How did I overcome my fear, when it looked like my life was over? How did I continue as a woman and a journalist when faced with this black wall? I needed to know what happened. When I leave this world, I need to have known what happened to Jineth Bedoya, to my colleagues and so many other women.”
Bedoya was born in 1974 to parents who were – like millions of other Colombians – displaced to Bogotá from the countryside by the long civil war the country calls La Violencia. She grew up in the fallout of that war, as the narco lord Pablo Escobar waged his cartel’s battle against state and society. And she began her work as a reporter on the slipstream of that war, after Escobar was killed and his empire fragmented into a labyrinth of paramilitary units and new cartels, while the state armed forces, Marxist guerrillas and gangs calling themselves combos mobilised further murderous forces.
“After that first day, when I had been the only reporter granted access to the jail, I began to work on what I found out there: complicity by the army in many of the massacres carried out by the paramilitaries, and ways in which the military were arming the paramilitaries – some members of the military were even selling weapons to Farc,” ” Bedoya said last week.
She was not, she says, “working then on the violation of women. But I can see now that as well as being furious at what I was writing, they were offended by the fact I was a woman – young, pretty, petite, but sticking my nose into their affairs.”
Honing in on the corrupt and vicious duplicities of Colombia’s wars, Bedoya moved to the newspaper El Espectador, and secured, in May 2000, an interview with a paramilitary leader, jailed in La Modelo, who went by the name of El Panadero – “the Baker”.
“I knew about arms trafficking to the paramilitary prisoners with state complicity,” she says, “and he wanted to tell the story of why the massacre in the prison happened. What I did not know then, but do know now, was that gun-running into the jail was happening on the authority of people high up in the military and police command.
“When I got to the prison entrance, a woman asked if I was the journalist. I was about to answer when a man came, put his arm round my waist, a gun to my side, and said he would kill me if I did not start walking.” Bedoya was “taken to a warehouse where there were other men. They tied my hands and feet, blindfolded me and put me in a truck. We drove for a long time to a place where they raped me, tortured me and held me kidnapped, prisoner.”
After some time, Bedoya was driven to another location when “a phone call came. I understand that it was a warning about the scale of the rescue operation.” And she was suddenly dumped, naked, on a roadside – “freed”.
Two weeks later, she was back at work – “though I cannot believe it, and cannot think why” – writing now for the prestigious newspaper El Tiempo. Her work reporting on crime did not change, but “I began to contact other women to whom the same had happened, for my own reasons, not for work.”
In 2003, Bedoya “was travelling to meet the Farc with a photographer. But we didn’t have permission to enter what they regarded as their territory. We were kidnapped, held – this time not raped, but humiliated and beaten. After eight days, they released us.”
For six more years, Bedoya continued to work only as a journalist, “and said not a word about what had happened to me”. But in 2009 she broke her silence. She did so, she says, because “I had met so many women who had experiences similar to mine, yet the state would not recognise these crimes. No one wanted to look into it, or even talk about it. When I wanted to pursue my own case, and contacted the police hospital for the evidence, it had all been destroyed.”
Bedoya’s discourse goes beyond Colombia – it addresses the crisis of the misogynisation of warfare. “It happens in all wars now, the abuse of women’s bodies as a weapon of war,” she says. “But in Colombia, after decades, women had come to regard their bodies as weapons of war as almost normal. It was only when we began to document the abuse of women’s bodies as a weapon of war that we understood the scale.”
Speaking in London at the Frontline Club, which focuses on conflict reporting, Bedoya said: “There are dramatic cases in rural areas in Colombia where women have been beaten, where their breasts have been cut off, where they’ve been amputated, where – and this is especially a practice of the paramilitaries – they’ve been abused and beaten to serve as a warning.”
But the crisis transcends war. “Violation against women is not just a result of the conflict,” she says. “This is also a business, a commercial opportunity” that accompanies modern Colombia’s efforts to secure investment by multinational corporations. “I can tell you that, today,” says Bedoya, “a bus will arrive in Medellín, and girls aged 12 to 16 will be taken to camps for miners and their bodies will be sold and they will be abused for four days and then returned to Medellín.” Such girls are known as “the pre-paid”, she says, “like a phone card”.
Reporting from Colombia this year, on the much-trumpeted resurrection of Medellín, I stumbled into a drama workshop run for displaced and violated women, who are encouraged to act out their stories. I spoke to Rosney and Blanca, who had been serially raped and who told me such violation was ubiquitous.
Bedoya said: “In Colombia, the levels of impunity for crimes of sexual violence have reached 98%. Of the 150,000 rapes of women that had been recognised by the paramilitary groups, only 2% have resulted in guilty verdicts.”
Apart from being endemic in all societies, this happens partly because “in Colombia today, those in charge of drug trafficking and the exploitation and trafficking of women are like a holding company. Most of them were paramilitaries, who agreed to disarm so they could consolidate their drug and business interests, and now they offer their services to a corporation; they may be the heads of security for a new multinational investment.
“Nothing is allowed to get in the way of the arrival of the multinationals,” says Bedoya, “but what happens in reality is that the multinationals fund the crime and exploitation. So that any action we demand goes against the investment, which will not happen – so we’re back to square one. It’s a vicious circle, catch-22.”
Or, to be fair, it was catch-22 until Bedoya recently published a report on mining interests. Until then, she says, “of the majority of the mining companies, all of which are foreign, none had any kind of plan to prevent sexual exploitation even though they knew it was happening. It was only after the report that they began to implement social investment plans.”
On her visits to parliament and the Foreign Office, Bedoya sought to connect recent British government initiatives on sexual violence in warfare to corporate responsibility. Back home, Colombia’s World Cup stars Camilo Vargas, Alexander Mejía and Omar Pérez have signed up for the campaign against sequestration and the abuse of women, as have all the leading domestic teams.
Bedoya lives now with an armed escort. “Here, I’ve been free to walk the streets,” she says. “When I get back, there’s the bulletproof car, all the bodyguards. But that’s my life, that is what I have chosen.”
However, she adds: “The worst that can happen to me has already happened. There are threats against me, and every morning I leave the house knowing that I may not return in the afternoon. But the worst they can do is kill me, and I’d rather die of a bullet in Colombia than of sorrow in exile.”