lunes, 8 de febrero de 2010

A day in Bogotá's slums

6:00am, an alarm tolls the end of my night. Suddenly, the rumbling noise of buses rolling down the street takes over my tiny eight square meters room: 6 o'clock, Sunday morning, why am I up again?

A few days ago, Javier Camilo, director of the NGO's Un Techo para mi pais (TPMP)social integration programs, invited me to join them in one of their regular visits to Soacha. An opportunity I could not miss.

Going to Soacha means going South, this very place where, arriving to Bogota, one is quickly made to understand he is not supposed to go. Indeed, a few kilometers away from the Capital's shiny zona rosa, abundant in fancy restaurants and malls, the town of Soacha stands as a sad collection of Colombia's main demons. As the ongoing context of rural violence keeps throwing dozens of families out of their homes each week, urban suburbs such as Soacha have become the ending point of this forced migration. This phenomenon, along with other social factors such as an ever-growing economic exclusion and the high rate of unemployment, is largely responsible for the daily increasing spread of slums over the valleys and hills surrounding big cities. A great opportunity for illegal groups (including guerillas and paramilitaries) to dictate their rules.

On that last Sunday of January, TPMP is visiting one of its partner neighborhoods named “Altos de Florida”. The aforementioned, partly due to the extremely high number of desplazados living there, constitutes one of the poorest parts of the town. Getting to the Altos de Florida implies taking the transmilenio down to the Portal Sur station, then a 15 minutes ride in a small bus deeper into Soacha, finally a jeep or another small bus up to the top of the hill.

This particular neighborhood embodies yet another issue in Colombia: the so-called “invasiones”. Indeed, all of the makeshift houses have been illegally built on land that did not belong to the inhabitants. Yet, Altos de Florida represents a tricky case: those who built their houses did buy an informal title deed, but to a swindler whose rights are now being claimed by the sixteen real owners of the land. In consequence, last December, the 192 families living in the neighborhood learned that a court order permitted for their houses to be demolished. Since then, a few organizations such as TPMP, which were already involved in the community through the construction of emergency wooden houses, the main purpose of the organization, brings a legal and organizational support to the inhabitants throughout negotiations with the owners.

The purpose of our visit on that very day was to assist to a general assembly organized by the elected leaders so as to explain the state of negotiations. As we arrive to the Altos, we head directly to the house of one of the community leaders: Alex. On our way, an old man stopped us: “are you going to build new houses soon?”, and whereas he will not be the only one to do so during the day, TPMP's answer remains the same: “constructions will not start until the legal situation of the neighborhood is solved”. Here, the fate of the neighborhood is on everyone’s lips. Where to go if the negotiations fail? How to pay for the official title deed?

Alex's house is a wooden house TPMP built for the family a few years ago. Since then, the man became TPMP's main support among the inhabitants, letting them know of all problems or projects and helping them in their task. His wife, also very active, shows us the official report offering estimations of land prices for the upcoming discussions. She confesses to us: “I don’t understand anything about those numbers, do you”?

The assembly starts an hour later; it will go on for two more. The leaders, those who participate in the negotiations with the owners, show a real interest for the process to be as democratic as possible. Everyone has their word to say, their preoccupations to express. They show maps, explain numbers, blame the absent members of the community for their lack of interest in what is a “concern to everybody”.

This seems almost like a perfect representation of democracy. Nevertheless, when the discussions are over, everyone's fate depends on the benevolence of a handful of powerful people. As of today, negotiations are still running, and in spite of their determination, a great uncertainty remains over the future of those 192 families.

It seems so easy while living in Bogota, to forget about Soacha. So easy from new elegant buildings of the Northern part of the Capital, to forget about the misery of the spreading slums in its southern areas. So easy... and yet, in a country where 20 million of fellow-citizens are poor and around 3 million are “desplazados”, this is not only another reality, it is a major part of it.

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