Gina Escheback: A Life-Changing Struggle
When you see her warm and welcoming smile, you can’t imagine all the pain she is carrying. Claudia Quintero, or “Gina Escheback”, is a survivor with a 24/7 available optimism. This Afro- Colombia woman, wife and mother, has experienced firsthand the strike of political violence in her country. “I am Gina, a displaced, a citizen journalist and now a forced refugee.” says firmly.
It's Friday, it's spring.We are sitting in a coffee shop in Buenos Aires: Everything about her exudes determination: Thick body, wavy black hair and sharp dark eyes: “Let’s share a coffee, I can’t be without it.” she says. Gina, as she prefers to be called, is learning how to live without the enveloping aroma of fresh coffee, the comforts of her sleepy town in the Andean mountains and the salty smell of virgin beaches. In this city, where the jungle is made of concrete and the noise of traffic replaces the sensual cadency of Cumbia music, this 30 years old woman is learning to live without a past.
A Girl Out of Place
She was born on the Colombian-Venezuelan border. She was a child when paramilitaries invaded her town and kidnapped young boys to recruit them as soldiers, killed her neighbors, and some of her relatives:” I saw the dead bodies going down the river, the water dyed in red." she tells. A shadow of sadness covers her face like a veil.
Paramilitary forces develop a state-sponsored strategy further the fight against the insurgency. They serve multinational groups and drugs traffickers to evict people from their land; they torture, murder and use forced displacement against anybody who tries to save their home: “They call the children and offer them cocaine. Children feel seduced, after becoming addicted and they make them do whatever they want, even kill their own mother.” she affirms.
As she was growing, Claudia decided to do something about: “I couldn’t stay just like that, putting my head down in silence among that violence and slavery we were subjected to for being poor and far from big cities.” She explains. She focused on empowering her people.
Between 1999 and 2001, she was a young leader in her town, helping boys and girls who had fallen into drug addiction. She led the “Drops of Creativity” program in Cucuta; art workshops and meetings to encourage youth to say ‘No’ to drugs.
Sadly, part of the youth involved in the program was murdered by Paramilitaries, without giving them the chance to recovery; some were kidnapped to be forced to act like assassins. The girls were killed after being used for prostitution: “I became a problem; I denounced what they were doing. I was a girl out of place.” she declares. In 2005, Paramilitaries turned to Claudia as a target, forcing her to run to Bogota, with two dresses and few drops of hope.
Becoming Gina Escheback
“In Santander – North of Colombia- I was aware of Human rights; In Bogota, responsible for defending them.” she says. Claudia got involved in civil groups of victims of displacement, and began to write about her experiences: “I don’t have formal studies in journalism but I felt a deep sense of duty to tell what happens, say our truth, record life stories and speak out in behalf of those suffering the spoil of their land and dignity in favor of big business.” She says. Thus, Claudia became Gina Escheback.
As Gina, she wrote about the actions of Paramilitaries, as the voice of those expulsed from their homes. She met Alberto, her husband and partner in the struggle: “I met him throwing stones in a protest.” – She laughs. - “He is also an armed conflict victim. We share the same tragic story; we fell in love with each other and with our common dreams.” She adds tenderly.
In 2010, Gina and Alberto created the “Anne Frank Corporation” a nonprofit initiative to defend human rights and victims of violence; “We collected information, made files, built nets of support.” she explains, “We started to be threatened because we have valuable information about what is happening in rural areas with people and how the government profits off that.”
On August 14th an ultimatum was sent to her home; a post saying: “Choose life or death, your decision.” Alberto and Gina sit in the dining room facing each other; it was evening after dinner and children were sleeping: “I said to Alberto we must leave and he said has to be immediately since we don’t know when they are coming for us.” tells Gina. They woke up their two kids, prepared a small backpack and left the house in a cool night. The pot with warm coffee remained on the table; Gina again was displaced by violence. The family came by land to Argentina, after a long trip crossing South America.
Being Refugee, Being a Shelter
Gina is one of 5 million displaced in Colombia: “Is painful to leave everything behind: Home and friends, my mission and people who count on us. We couldn’t choose; our only option is going ahead.” She says. But Gina re-starts again: searching for a house, a job, a new life.
She wants to use her experience to support other refugees: “People come to seek refuge from Colombia, Middle East, and Africa. We are children of the same pain. We arrive with fear not knowing anybody; I want to help as a friend, an advocate, a shelter.”
Gina will start law school in 2012; she uses alternative media and social networks to spread the message about displaced people; she is organizing a humanitarian program called “Argentina loves Colombia” to send help: “I write in my blog and speak in community radios about them; I prepare a book with the stories I collected during my work in Anne Frank. I want justice; we deserve Dignity. I won’t shut up. Life changes, but my struggle continues.” says Gina.
Our coffee is done. The sun goes down in Buenos Aires. In her eyes, courage burns.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.