Just over a year ago, on July 9, 2007, I wrote about the tragic murder of pastors Joel Cruz and José Humberto Mendez. In the days following the murders, six families (all related to pastor Cruz) fled to the city of Ibagué. I recently visited Ibagué and had the chance to meet with some of them, including Yuby Oyola, Joel’s widow and their young daughter Lilly (pictured here).
Pastor Daniel Vargas of the Protestant Peace Commission took me to visit with them. He had coordinated efforts to support these newly-displaced families, finding emergency, and then long-term housing for the families. Of the six families that initially displaced, three have decided to move to a town closer to the farm where they all used to live. “It’s still too dangerous for us to go back to our farm because the army has come in and are building a base near our farm, and the FARC are saying that we asked for the army’s presence… they could kill any of us for this,” stated Rosember, Joel’s brother. Those that have returned nearby have done so in the hopes of renting out the farmland to others and avoid losing the farm. They are afraid that it could be taken over by others, or expropriated by the state if it lies fallow for too long. Returning to the area with these tensions in the air is risky-business, but adapting to city life has been very hard on those who have stayed in Ibagué.
The three families lived in a cramped space in a peripheral neighborhood in Ibagué, the type of place where everyone is struggling just to get by. The women tried making and selling tamales for a while, but couldn’t sell enough most days to cover their costs. The men work sporadically as day laborers, usually in construction, sometimes they bring enough home to buy some groceries and pay a few bills, most days they don’t. Yuby’s sister in law is taking an industrial machinery technician course, and hopes to land a job in that area soon, if she can scrape together the 15 dollars she needs to buy the safety glasses that are required to finish the course. Yuby traveled to Cali in the hopes of finding work there, but returned a few months later. When I asked her about her plans she said, “I’d like to rebuild my life in the country. The city is very hard for me.” The families are now running a small store selling school supplies such as notebooks and pens out of their living room. I was there all afternoon, and no one showed up to purchase any goods. Times are tough, and they are afraid that despite their best efforts the store may also fail.
It was clear that the family had rallied around Yuby and Lilly. Yuby’s brother spoke of their father’s decision to leave the family farm he had lived on his whole life to make sure his daughter was safe. As he spoke, the father quietly wept in the corner. Yuby’s strength and determination, despite what she has lived through over the past year, was impressive. When I asked her about her desire to return to the countryside where her husband was killed she responded, “I don’t harbor any anger towards the men who killed Joel. I’d like to talk to them. I’m not afraid of them, because I haven’t done anything to them and I don’t owe them anything… Nor am I worried about people’s comments; I only worry about what God thinks of me.”