Support for the families of El Oasis, Medellín

Update posted by Adam Moore On Sep 01, 2017

On Friday 18th August 2017, the sector of El Oasis in the neighbourhood of Moravia, Medellín suffered a fire of catastrophic proportions, leaving many poor families homeless. For many, this preventable incident is the latest episode in an endless series of displacement from their homes. This tragedy should have been prevented, but past experience tells us this is likely to become yet another episode that does not end in any form of durable housing solutions for the affected.

The fire that began in the early hours of Friday morning has affected, approximately, 1444 people – 748 children and 696 adults. Following the fire, 471 families spent the night in El Bosque – an educational institute nearby (http://www.elcolombiano.com/antioquia/calamidad-publica-en-medellin-por-incendio-en-moravia-ME7143691). Others bedded down underneath the Madre Laura Bridge. As things stand, no deaths have been reported. However, 12 people have been injured from the inhalation of fumes (https://www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/incendio-medellin-afectados-hogar-moravia.html).

Residents of the surrounding area gathered to offer their assistance. Forming human chains, they passed buckets of water to crucial areas. Eventually, they managed to tame the flames along with the fire authorities, but all that remains is scorched earth. The crisis, now, lies in the lack of housing prospects for the affected.

El Oasis is located on a steep mountainside in the north of Medellín. For more than 40 years, it formed part of the city’s rubbish dump. Over the years, many families arrived to construct their homes on top of the garbage – many of them fleeing conflicts in other regions of the country, or gang-related violence within Medellín itself. All seek a home – somewhere to stabilise a life and move forwards - even if founded in the use of loose materials.

Some, like Jose, who came to Medellín from Uraba to escape paramilitary threats in 2006, are registered as victims of conflict with legal entitlements to government support. “I’ve been waiting ten years for a housing subsidy”, he told me, last year. It never arrives.

The displaced - along with many others priced out of urban housing markets – nail their homes together with plastic and wood in undesirable spaces of the city. Sadly - as El Oasis knows all too well - these are susceptible to the rapid spread of flames.

In 2007, El Oasis suffered a fire that burnt 200 homes to the ground. A five-year-old boy died (http://caracol.com.co/radio/2007/02/28/nacional/1172654760_396581.html). Then president, Álvaro Uribe, publically lamented the tragedy and pledged to subsidise the resettlements of the 267 affected families. Of these, 153 received solutions, but many simply suffered more as a result. Many had to return to Moravia due to lack of protection from violence and higher exposure to insecurity in the resettlement localities (http://www.cjlibertad.org/destacados/100-derecho-al-territorio/836-donde-van-a-vivir-los-pobres-de-medellin.html).

In 2013, many families in need of a home populated the space again. Like others before them, they came to mark their plots. They dug out the garbage and flattened the earth to guard against rats and landslides. Finally, they built their homes upon the flattened mud.

In October 2015, Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD), the Colombian Government’s mobile riot squad, drove the residents of El Oasis from their beds with tear gas at 3am (http://www.elmundo.com/portal/pagina.general.impresion.php?idx=266238). With the construction of the Madre Laura Bridge underway nearby, they came to demolish thirty-eight houses that stood in close proximity (http://www.elespectador.com/noticias/nacional/desalojan-38-familias-el-sector-de-el-oasis-medellin-articulo-600114). This series of evictions was strongly condemned on the grounds that the affected families had not been guaranteed their rights to a vivienda-digna (decent housing) before the evictions took place (https://www.polodemocratico.net/noticias/titulares/9345-en-medellin-son-desalojadas-mas-de-38-familias-de-sus-viviendas-denuncia-senador-alberto-castilla).

Demanding their rights to a vivienda digna, the residents of El Oasis together with members of the academic community, residents of surrounding neighbourhoods and social organisations put up strong resistance to the evictions (http://www.lapoderosa.org.ar/2015/11/desde-oasis-al-mundo/). Despite the community’s best efforts, state authorities demolished 38 houses – newly displacing vulnerable families, instead of guaranteeing their rights to housing.

“If we are displaced because of the violence of the armed groups and now by the state, I don’t see what the difference is in the displacement”, said Andres, a vocal member of the community.

Pablo, like many other members of the community that day, confronted the batons of ESMAD. Having been displaced from the region of Uraba years earlier, he felt particularly aggrieved. He’s received intermittent restitution cheques as a victim of conflict. He’s tried paying rent, but struggled to make the payments each month. ESMAD shot him six times with rubber bullets during the resistance.

“First, this was a garbage dump”, he reminded me a few months after the evictions. “They didn’t care when this was a garbage dump. But now that you have people and kids and everything living here, basically, a society, a neighbourhood, whatever you want to call it, now they want to take us out. Now they want to use brutal force because that’s what they do”.

Many of the evicted families soon returned to El Oasis. “They had nowhere else to go”, said Andres. “Some were given 500.00mil pesos (€140.00 approx.). For others, they paid one months rent. Others were given a mini-mercado (some basic goods)”. So, many returned and moved into the homes of friends or neighbours. Others rebuilt their homes in less visible pockets of space on the other side of the hill.

Even for those with the possibility to move elsewhere, the prospect of life in a new unfamiliar neighbourhood can be a daunting one. “The armed conflicts are different”, said Wilder, whose home was demolished during the evictions. Memories of gang violence shape present perceptions of the city. “Lots of deaths occur because someone arrives to an unknown neighbourhood. The combos (street-gangs) say, ‘where does this guy come from? He came to gain intelligence for another combo.’ So, they kill them”.

María, a mother of two, fled her small farmhouse in the countryside for Medellín when a group of armed men came knocking at the door. Her house in El Oasis was not demolished during the evictions of 2015, but she remained fearful over the uncertainty of her future. “They want to remove us from here”, she said during our interview soon after the evictions. “Supposedly because they are doing urban renovation and the Madre Laura Bridge...because Medellín won the prize for the most innovative city in the world. So, they said, ‘we’re going to beautify the city’, but at a cost: overriding the rights of the people”.

And it is these rights – the rights of the citizens of El Oasis – that have been disregarded, subordinated and violated on multiple occasions. Not only as victims of conflict, but also as citizens of Colombia. Repeatedly, their urgent cries for housing assistance have fallen upon deaf ears, or been met with false promises. Repeatedly, they have had to construct unsafe housing from the scorched ashes of another. Repeatedly, the government has publically lamented the devastating social consequences of the fire, whilst doing little to guarantee the rights of the affected to a vivienda-digna. Repeatedly, blame has been assigned to the use of flammable wooden structures, rather than the series of social injustices that reproduce their being (http://historico.elpais.com.co/historico/mar012007/NAL/burn; https://www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/incendio-medellin-afectados-hogar-moravia.html). Repeatedly, the residents of El Oasis have been persecuted or condemned as they strive to find their own way out an inescapable cycle of violence and forced displacement.

On Friday 18th August 2017, despite previous warnings and despite multiple cries for help, the people of El Oasis suffered another preventable tragedy. At the heart of it lies the unresolved crisis of their access to safe, secure and affordable housing – and the lack of political will required to provide it. This not only means housing that is built from non-flammable materials, but also housing provided with greater guarantees of protection against subsequent incidents of violence and displacement – this, for many, means housing in Moravia itself.

We still don’t know what will happen to the families affected by the fire, but past experience suggests there is little reason to believe things will be any different this time round. The only certainty, it seems, is that the community of El Oasis, Moravia, as ever, will continue the ceaseless fight for their right to a vivienda-digna.

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a truly worthy cause Adam. I wish you the very best.

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