The Prisma is launching a mini-series about immigrants who fought for freedom in their home countries and have continued this activism from their host country. After a childhood of war tanks, brutality and protest, Miryam Ojeda was forced to flee her homeland in her early twenties. Despite living as an exile in the UK, she campaigns for peace and justice for Colombians every day.
In the late 1970’s the city of Cali, Colombia, was confronted with the sight of war tanks infiltrating the land and demolishing homes.
While many lost their residence, one neighbourhood decided to blockade the road and that was when Myriam Ojeda, at the age of 5, decided to join her mother in a cacerolazo.
After a year of fighting with the police and taking legal action, their property documents ensured they were able to keep their land.
This experience implanted a desire within Ojeda to fight against this injustice.
“I remember being close to my mother and hearing the pans and there was this road and we were in the middle of it, I remember the tracks, I remember the police, I remember my mother discussing with the policeman about destroying the houses and I was very afraid when I saw this huge tank going by,” she recalls.
At the time, Colombia was pervaded with conflict. A conflict that is still going on and that has as its actors state agents, right-wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers and guerrillas.
According to the Centro de Memoria Histórica, between 1958 and 2018, 215,005 civilians and 46,813 combatants were killed. A total of 94,754 deaths are attributed to paramilitaries, 35,683 to guerrillas and 9,804 to state agents. There were also kidnappings, disappearances, sexual violence, massacres, recruitment of minors and terrorist attacks.
At that time the war left 80,514 disappeared (of whom 70,587 are still missing), 37,094 victims of kidnapping, 15,687 victims of sexual violence and 17,804 minors under 18 years of age recruited.
Myriam Ojeda, who has risen from student leader to the International Consulate for Peace for the Colombians living in Europe, spoke to The Prisma about activism and how it feels to protest away from your birthplace.
Why did you become student leader?
My family had relations to left wing politics so from an early age I saw my family go to meetings because somewhere there was police taking people out of residences and police tanks trying to demolish small houses. It was very difficult not to be affected by this. When I was in secondary school I started to read books that were outside the school curriculum and I discovered that there was another history that we were not taught.
I had a lot of thoughts about what they were teaching us, everything had to be repeated from a book. Nobody taught us how to think or even invite us how to reflect on things.
I was questioning all these things, like why are we talking about geography in a way that asks what is the name of the river or a mountain, when we are in the middle of a conflict and we don’t know who lives in those mountains and who lives in those rivers. The education was so awful it was just really detaching kids from reality.
What were you campaigning for?
There was no care for our life as a student.
There were teacher strikes and because the teachers were divided some would go to strike and some would not so they would put us into the school for one lesson. Then the government started to cut loads of money from the public universities.
Most of us don’t come from wealthy families but every semester they would come up with new ideas about how to cut the budget.
One of the things that really struck the whole situation was when they decided to cut the food for the student restaurant so we had to pay a lot of money to private restaurants to eat in the university and that was unacceptable.
I think that was the moment that we said forget the film club we are going to fight for this.
In Colombia it is incredibly dangerous to protest. What made you think that this activism was worth risking your life?
There were many situations where I was in very serious danger but you had to go.
It is difficult to understand why a young person decides to confront a very violent state knowing that they mostly kill people who do that and yet, you still go.
It’s that sense that you have nothing and that sense that you feel like there’s no future, that everywhere you turn the doors are closed, that you live in constant poverty even if you are educated.
It was very tricky being 18 years old and having to look right and left front and back constantly because you knew in any moment you will be next.
Have you ever had that feeling when you are protesting in the UK?
No, I doubt that here I will be persecuted or killed or disappear because I protest because I lead a campaign, or because I speak up in front of people on the streets.
In my time the protests were, mainly, not that violent, the police would only act on you once the protest had finished. They would come in civil clothing and people would disappear and later be found dead.
Only now you see the policeman openly firing to the protests, this is something new.
Do you think the British government are doing enough to help Colombia?
Not at all. We are working on a campaign called EDM for Colombia where we are asking the UK to answer questions about the millions of pounds that are given to the Colombian government.
90 MPs have signed the EDM form, out of 650 MP’s.
We have documented the atrocities that have happened in Colombia in the last weeks and we are making some analysis and some political points about the international responsibility not only of the UK but also of the European and US governments.
The silence from these governments is because there are 16 commercial treaties of free trade with these countries in Europe, USA and other countries.
Your activism hasn’t just been restricted to Colombia…
In 2012 I did a project called Amazonas, where we strived to tell people in the UK what was happening in the Amazon region: the human cost of deforestation, the cultural cost of this situation and the responsibility of everyone in the world.
Companies from Europe and America allow deforestation to take place without taking any responsibility for what they’re doing so it was a call to respect the indigenous communities.
At that point, climate change was not on the agenda.
But the project managed to get the attention of people and we did a lot with music, using instruments that we bought from that region, and dance.
When you do things that reflect the soul of a culture people tend to connect more than if you just stand up and say we have been deforested.
How have the different generations worked together in these campaigns?
I think there is a new interest from young people who have Colombian origins to understand what’s going on and take more action and to be participating in the situation.
I see that we manage to share a space where we come from different backgrounds and ages and yet we are still unified in this campaign, which is the defending of human rights, the need for peace and the need for economic change in Colombia.
What do you think the older generation can learn from the younger generation?
I think from the younger generation we learn their complete resolution to change things.
It is a decision these young people have made, they are going to change the country full stop.
Many of the these young people have been killed, tortured, violated you name it but as a whole this generation of young kids, not all of them, but a big portion of them have taken the decision to change the country and it may not happen tomorrow but it’s going to happen very soon.