In 2012, just before Christmas, rumours started to run around Comuna 13, District 13 in Medellin, Colombia. This is the poorest part of Medellin, and normally a stronghold for drug cartels, armed criminal gangs and the FARC guerrilla. The YMCA in Medellin is located in Comuna 13, and has a wide circle of community leaders involved in its programmes. YMCA is rooted in Comuna 13, and is highly respected for its Youth Empowerment work.
Now mystical telephone calls started to be received, anonymous voices asking for named teenagers. The tension was growing and violence was increasing, and soon a death list with 50 names turned up. Several of these young people were YMCA people. Nobody were thinking that this should not be taken seriously. A death list is exactly what it is called, a list of teenagers to be found killed after a few days.
This graffiti is famous in Comuna 13. It is part of the collective memory in the community, and depicts five young people, who were found dead on the streets of Comuna 13 (See the first photo.) All of them belonged to the Hip Hop culture, rap singers, graffiti painters, artists from the youth culture. This Hip Hop culture had started in the YMCA. And because these young people won a high profile through their performances, they became targeted for the violence. Murdered before life had really started. They had names and families and friends, and now thy have a memorial in the form and shape of a graffiti wall.
In 2002, the evening of 16th October and into the night and early morning of 17th of October 2002, the National Army decided to attack the enemy in Comuna 13, and 21 military operations were completed in what was code named Operation Orion. The Army was supported by helicopters and they were waging a war in the narrow streets of the slum of Medellin. People in the poor huts started to wave with white flags, but nothing was able to stop the Army. Comuna 13 is situated in the steep hillsides of Medellin, and as in many Latin American cities I have visited, the higher up you come, the poorer the slum and the more miserable the people who are forced to live there. In Medellin these are mostly rural populations forced by the violence and civil war to leave their farms and search for protection in the big cities.. Now these poor people from the highest parts of Comuna 13 extremely courageously started to march in big numbers down hill towards the progressing Army.
In this crossing that you can see in the photo above, the hundreds of poor inhabitants with white flags encountered the Army coming up the steep hill. There was a moment of silence, nothing really happened, and then the Army started to withdraw. This moment is one of the proudest moments of Comuna 13, and you can find the date 16th of October 2002 on school walls and public buildings, to commemorate this moment in the history of Comuna 13 and the violence. Julian, one of the strongest community leaders and a professional in the Medellin YMCA lost his brother that night. He was one of the many young people caught by the Army, disappeared and turned up dead some days after. Julian could have become a prosperous part of the criminal gangs or the drug cartels and made “a real success” of himself in those circles. In stead he decided to join the YMCA.
He is inviting us for a Graffiti Tour through the Comuna 13. This experience depended on the security situation on that specific day, our YMCA friends wanted to take no risk with our security. We went slowly deep into this part of Medellin, unknown territory for most people from the outside, and we studied graffiti walls and we met young people, who told their stories to us. Julian greeted people he knew, and it seemed that the whole population in Comuna 13 was his friends. He was born there, and he still lives there.
Only two years ago this death list with 50 names on it started to circulate, and soon the YMCA had found all 50 of them and brought them together. They were going to negotiate for protection with the government, but they only wanted to meet the government representatives if they could bring 3 leaders from 3 different youth organizations, one of them the YMCA. It turned out that none of the other organization came, so in stead 3 YMCA leaders went with the young people to negotiate for their lives. They were hosted in a hotel, and Alexandria, the General Secretary of Medellin YMCA stayed with them all the time. They changed hotels every week, and there were strict rules about not using phones, not contacting their families or friends.
As it started to come closer to Christmas and New Year, some of the young people started to break the security rules. It was hard to be away from family for Christmas.
After some weeks the tension started to come down and the death threats were no longer seen as real. Some of the young people left the city, but most of them returned to their families in Comuna 13. Nobody was killed. They had found the protection they needed in the YMCA.
I was deeply moved by the stories about the YMCA and its real life Empowerment work with young people. It made me immensely proud of the Medellin YMCA and its leaders. To celebrate their 40th birthday, together with many of the leaders who had been active in protecting the lives of young people through these stories of death threats and violence, was an enormous experience. And to listen to representatives both from the State and the City governments praising the YMCA, made a deep impression on me. I have never been so close to the implementation of the slogan: YMCA EMPOWERING YOUNG PEOPLE before.
Alexandra told us about the different phases in this development, and how they had impacted on the young people in Comuna 13. In the 1990s the YMCA was running very successful youth leadership training. At one incident the Army had caught a group of guerrilla soldiers, and it turned out that several of them came from the YMCA. This general leadership training had made them attractive candidates for the criminal gangs and the guerrilla, not to mention the drug cartels. Alexandra and her friends in Medellin YMCA decided that their leadership training needed to include real life political information and training, to make it clear for the young people what was going on in the world around them, to protect them from becoming easy targets for the other side. This made a real impact on the young people and they were able to limit the recruitment to the other side.
There are peace negotiations between the government of Colombia and all the players in the violence, situated in Havana, Cuba. The weekend we were there, a famous general from the police had been kidnapped, and stopped the peace talks. The violence is still on going, and the last time the YMCA lost one of its leaders was in 2012. He had spoken at a peace event, and next day he was found murdered.
This is a part of the Untold Story of Injustice Towards Young People. The YMCA is at the front lines in Medellin and Comuna 13. All of us are needed to help tell the story of the real situation for young people in all corners of the world. I want to come back to Medellin YMCA, because there is so much more to be learned for a World YMCA focusing on Empowering Young People and mobilizing hundreds of Change Agents.
I have asked Alexandra for permission before I published this blog post. She has not read this text, but she gave me free hands to tell the story to you. Please share it with your friends.