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Geographies of terror and fear: forced displacement and black communities in Colombia

Final Activity Report Summary - GEOG-TERR/FEAR (Geographies of terror and fear: forced displacement and black communities in Colombia)

Since the terror attacks of 11 September 2001 much geopolitical reasoning on the so-called 'War on Terror' focussed on strategic questions regarding how to combat terrorists. This dominant approach often failed to show a deeper understanding of the underlying causes for terror and terrorism. At the same time, other terrorisms, including state-sponsored terror, were frequently overlooked. This research project examined terror and terrorism through a geographical perspective. It aimed at providing better understanding of the complexities of contemporary forms of terror and how these might take on many forms in different places.

In particular, this project developed an original conceptual and methodological framework through which to view and examine the impact of terror 'on the ground' and the multiple ways in which its manifestations affected human beings in a variety of settings. During the project's outgoing phase, the department of geography at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) provided the academic environment in which the framework was developed and tested in front of interdisciplinary audiences. It was also subjected to critical peer review.

This framework, which I termed 'geographies of terror', should be seen as the project's most important scientific achievement. It consisted of seven interrelated points that together provided a coherent lens through which contexts of political conflict and terror were suggested to be viewed. The framework was explicitly not restricted to any particular context or conflict, but, on the contrary, invited researchers and the wider public to critically apply its insights to an entire range of different conflict and terror situations. Reactions to my presentations on conferences certainly confirmed the framework applicability.

A second major objective of the project was to document the geographies of terror in the Pacific coastal region of Colombia, South America. In particular, the study sought to explain the ways in which the country's black communities of this region were terrorised and forcefully driven off their lands by the various armed actors of Colombia's internal conflict. Evidence for this ethnographic study was collected with black Internally displaced people (IDPs) and afro-Colombian leaders in the capital of Bogotá and the small town of Guapi on the Pacific coast. Qualitative data was gathered in numerous informal conversations and observations in the field, as well as through in-depth interviews and focus group sessions, which were recorded, transcribed and analysed. This study constituted the project's second major scientific achievement. It was the first study of its kind that dealt specifically with the situation of forced displacement amongst afro-Colombians, a population group that had historically experienced discrimination and racism and currently felt to be at the brunt of the trend of forced displacement in the country.

One aspect of particular interest, as well as the third objective of the project, laid in the examination of the impact of terror on social movements. Most social movements today organise and mobilise in non-violent ways. It thus becomes an enormous challenge to them to adapt to a context of terror and violence. Activists may be persecuted or killed, the normal ways of communication are interrupted, movement members are restricted in moving around freely and are often not able to get to meetings. These problems often trigger creative responses by social movements. This project examined some of them in the case of Colombia's social movement of black communities. This was achieved through a number of interviews with movement leaders in Bogotá, Cali and the abovementioned small town of Guapi, and also when afro-Colombian activists travelled abroad to talk about their communities' struggle. In fact, while I was at UCLA in Los Angeles, I was able to accompany on two separate occasions two black activists from Colombia who sought to mobilise support and international solidarity for their people back home. All these experiences were fed back into the development of the theoretical framework of 'geographies of terror'.