‘I didn’t expect to find myself…’
Are you wondering what it’s like to do a walking tour in Comuna 13? Keep reading and find out what I experienced on my walking tour in this fascinating neighbourhood.
As I sat amongst locals one morning on the metro in Medellin, the only city metro in the whole of Colombia. In the direction of San Javier station in Comuna 13. Little did I expect to find myself shedding a tear by lunchtime. I was about to find out what happened in Medellin about 28 years ago. More specifically what happened in Comuna 13. A part of Medellin that had previously been given the worst nickname – ‘Colombia’s most dangerous neighbourhood’, a stereotype that has be a nightmare to shake off.
My tour guide, Stiven, a local from Comuna 13, greeted me enthusiasm. Asking if we were ‘all good, all good?’ I nodded. We walked away from San Javier metro station and up to a park, on the edge of San Javier (the rich area of Comuna 13) and the beginning of the poor area. Then he began. Telling us his story of what it was like to grow up in Colombia’s most dangerous neighbourhood. It all started in 1991, I gasped in silence, this story wasn’t old – this is fresh history. I was born in 1991 into the most loving family and it wasn’t until after Stiven has told us his story, that I realised just how privileged I was to be born in the UK.
In 1991, in Medellin all hell was breaking loose on the streets. The city had hit rock bottom, violence, crime and murder was at its highest. The majority of murders were teenagers, who unfortunately represented the most vulnerable age group to be at that time. Growing up with Guerrillas, Para-militants and Cartels fighting, meant teenagers were a prime target for them. They either recruited you to join their group or they considered you a spy for the opposing side – which was life-threatening.
There were rules and regulations to be strictly followed. No cars were allowed into the neighbourhood, not even ambulances for emergencies. Everyone was to be inside their home after 7pm – no exceptions. Invisible borders were implemented. Don’t be fooled because they were invisible – these ‘lines’ could cost you your life. Which unfortunately I know now is true. Stiven allowed us into his personal life, he told us that two of his friends were killed for crossing these invisible lines. One for the most innocent reason you could imagine – crossing to the next mountain to complete some homework with a class mate. We, mere visitors, were about to cross these invisible lines within 3 hours. Stiven had not been able to cross them in 4 years.
Comuna 13 became the Holy Grail. Due to its location as the first neighbourhood in Medellin to be reached travelling inland from the Pacific coast. In other words, it was perfect ‘Narco’ trafficking ground with easy access to the Pacific coast, to Panama and ultimately the rest of the world.
Halfway into the tour, Stiven told us that even though he was from Medeillin, he was actually born in ‘el campo’. His family were originally from the beautiful Colombian countryside. His family were displaced because of the horrific fighting there. Forced inland to the city, Medellin. The did not want to be here, they were country people – the city had no place in their hearts. Thousands of people had been displaced and forced into Medellin. Migration is still a massive debate in Medellin.
When the tears came:
Towards the end of the tour, I sat with the rest of the group and watched a break dancing group perform. The music began and I felt mesmerised. Then a young boy, one of the dancers sons come to the front of ‘the stage’ and started to dance too. He was very good! Suddenly I felt sad and happy within the same second. A tear developed in my left eye and rolled down my cheek, I wiped it away quickly before anyone saw. At that moment I realised that this little boy was barely a few years older than my baby nephew at home!
The thought came into my head – what if he had been born into a Colombian life, would he be taught to dance? To show the world that there is more to life in Comuna 13 than the violence and crime that it has previously suffered. I was sad because I now knew the real story behind Comuna 13, and of course missed my nephew hugely. However also happy because I could see that this neighbourhood has so much passion for life and change.
The dancing represents a more hopeful future for them and future generations. Much like the murals that cover the walls in Communa 13. They not only serve as reminders to locals of the gruesome past but they also represent a bright future. The murals, dancers and escalators provide a reason for me, and other travellers and tourists to go and visit a once forbidden area. The escalators enable two worlds, past and present to collide. To integrate and grow as one, together to create a better future for Medellin. More importantly to create a new identify for Comuna 13.