Olga Castillo died 10 days ago, a year after she was diagnosed with breast cancer which metastasized to her lungs and other parts of her body. I would like to say that she died in peace and had obtained the justice which she fought and died so hard for. But she did not. Olga should not have died.
Fighting until the end: the denial of the right to health care
Olga, a woman and a mother of a girl who suffered sexual violence by members of the U.S. military, died ten days ago. I met her about a year ago, just when she was protesting in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, and when she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She started that protest after getting to know the diagnosis. Only after she would be heard and the persecution she suffered during those years acknowledged, would she begin treatment for the cancer. She camped in front of the Embassy for three months, but the only response she received was silence and mockery from the security guards. From there she moved on in front of the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she received a response, no other than more silence, for another five months. What did change, however, was her health after the cancer metastasized in her lungs. Sleeping on the tent floor in the climate of Bogotá would have dire effects on anyone’s body, especially that of a woman who had lived in the past nearly fifteen years from one enforced displacement to another for the mere fact of demanding justice for her and her daughter.
Nobody says it, but we all know it: persecution makes one sick, finger-pointing makes one sick, uncertainty makes one sick, loneliness and the complicit silence of a large part of society that cares very little that you are fighting for their rights will make one sick.
It was only when her body had had enough, when she could hardly breathe, that she withdrew her tent in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But that did not mean that she stopped fighting. Back and forth to the clinic, with all the documentation she had collected during these years of persecution, she continued to fight. Thus, with all the pain going through her body, she managed to reach the first roundtable of dialogue with state institutions. Olga was there, so strong and so dignified, surrounded by her collective, but also by a bunch of state officials who pretended not to know what had happened and to dissociate themselves from their responsibilities. However, not even all the technical and bureaucratic discourse could prevent Olga from telling the officials what she had suffered and about what they carry a share of responsibility for, due to the complicity of the institutions that they represent and for their action or omission when she faced persecution, absence of justice and attempts to silence the case.
Memory: death as a beginning and not an end
With all the rage and pain at the death of a woman who died fighting until the last minute, as she had to fight even for the recognition of her right to health and dignified care, I remember her. I remember her voice, I remember our last conversation before her death, I remember her infinite will to live and keep on fighting. Then, at that moment, I tell myself that she is not dead, for she is not dead in my memory nor in the memory of us all who knew her and came to love and admire her. I remember her words and in honor of her and her struggle, I remember that her struggle is not over, that her death is not the end. I remember that her death is not the death of her struggle and that she is still alive in each one of us who listened to her story and learned from her. Her struggle for justice and for an end of impunity for the members and contractors of the U.S. military who rape girls and women in Colombia continues. The search for justice will continue. Her resistance will not be in vain. Her memory is alive and we will keep fighting for her.
That is the image I will remember of Olga every time I lose hope, a woman fighting against a monster (as she called the U.S. military) alone with her word and her body. A woman who spent nearly 16 years fighting and demanding justice alone and who in the end found a collective of women who surrounded her, accompanied her and who will preserve her memory alive, the memory of a woman who became a reference in defence of the rights of women and girl victims of sexual violence by U.S. military forces in Colombia. And we remind those who believe to have won with her death that Olga's body had died but her word and struggle will live on, because as long as there is memory there will be resistance.
P.S. The cost of resistance should not be one's existence
Whenever I write, I always try to write from that place where one resists in order to exist, from that place of hope in the resistance with others. However, today I find it difficult to write from that place. Death does not allow me to do so. The absence feels real and the silence is heard so strongly that it deafens. The feeling of impotence and of knowing defeat by death that manifests itself before me is unbearable. I want to believe that death is not the end, that death does not silence, that death is "sowing", as the Nasa people say, and that "those who die for life cannot be called dead", as that activist song says.
But what I feel is the silence of death and in the middle of that silence I feel the laughter of those who had sought to bring it about. I feel the laughter of those who think they have won and suddenly, rage runs through my whole body and I can only cry, I can't even scream. I want to scream that they have not won, I want to scream that they have not defeated us, I want to scream that Olga is still alive and that her struggle will stay alive, but the silence of an accomplice State and a society indifferent to the 15-years-long struggle of this woman imprints on my face this harsh reality.
During my years in Colombia I have met social leaders who were terribly ill as a result of intense resistance. In women there is something particular: if not the uterus, then it is the breasts, if not cervical cancer, then it is breast cancer. The pain is unbearable, the resistance is insurmountable. I listen to them, I look at them and I keep asking myself how they do it, where do they get so much strength to resist. It is not a mere idealization of these women, but simply a fact: how do they have the will to keep fighting when there is so much physical pain and so much indifference? What a coincidence: none of these women have the money to pay for the medical care they need. The health system has not collapsed, it simply works like that. It was designed to work only for a few who can pay for the health care service. Because it is a service, not a right.
Olga had the right to live a life in dignity and peace. Olga should not have died, nor should other leaders that I have not known and will not know die for resisting. No one should die for defending the rights of their communities. Resistance is admirable, but it should not require laying one's life in it.