Travel

Notes from Comuna 13

Once one of the most dangerous places in the world, Comuna 13 is now a cradle of art and culture

Nestled in the Andes mountains, Medellin is one of Colombia’s most infamous cities — notorious as the adopted home of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the subject of the hugely popular Netflix series Narcos. And tucked away in a corner of the former ‘murder capital of the world’ is Comuna 13, once one of the most dangerous places in the world, and now a cradle of art and culture, and a symbol of the fight against terror.

The city of Medellin is divided into Comunas, or communes; Comuna 13 is a haphazard slum perched on a hill top and made up of thousands of brightly coloured houses — very reminiscent of Dharavi, but much more Instagram-friendly. What sets Comuna 13 apart from Medellin’s other 15 communes is the striking street art and graffiti you find on every wall in this densely populated area, home to almost 1.5 lakh people from Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico.

Bloody wars

At first glance, the graffiti is hard to understand: a herd of elephants weeping, a group of disoriented people looking nowhere in particular. But hidden within every piece of art in Comuna 13 is a strong message, not just to the residents of the commune, but to the world. If you look closer, every elephant in the herd carries a white handkerchief to denote peace, while thick tears roll down their eyes, despondent about the violence once rampant here. It is hard for people to forget the violence that was once a part of their lives; and elephants have the greatest memory. Another mural captures the anatomy of a human face each side of it a different colour, appealing for an end to racism against Afro-Colombians.

When Escobar died, several gangs tried to take control of Medellin, leading to bloody war as the youth picked up weapons bought with money earned from drug trafficking. Comuna 13 happened to be on the highway used to transport drugs out of Medellin. Millions of people lost their lives to gang-violence in the commune before the government stepped in. But all hopes of peace were dashed when the government fired indiscriminately at homes to target gangsters. The result was a massive loss of innocent, civilian lives. Ambulances could not negotiate the steep slope on which the area is perched. This was when the people of Comuna 13 came together and waved white handkerchiefs symbolising peace, and ending four days of bloodbath. Artists protested by splashing the walls with colour to depict the people’s suffering. And thus was born the street art of Comuna 13.

Many parallels

Today, Comuna 13 sees scores of tourists every day, and none of them goes back without visiting the studios of some of the commune’s most famous artists, who, thanks to social media, are now a source of inspiration for others in the commune too. So what began as an outlet for the people of Comuna 13 is now a major source of revenue for the small hamlet. Visitors to Medellin make it a point to visit Comuna 13, pick up local art, and post pictures on Instagram.

Comuna 13 reminds me of Mumbai’s Dharavi, where ‘slum tourism’ celebrates the community’s resilience, and the underground art, music and dance movements. And yet, Dharavi and Comuna 13 are poles apart. Violence is still a part of Comuna 13 and the mafia still controls it. And every small business has to pay ‘protection money’ to the bosses. Things aren’t perfect yet, but hope is an infectious thing in Comuna 13.

Medellin is also the birthplace of renowned figurative artist and sculptor Fernando Botero, whose works adorn the Champs-Elysees in Paris and Park Avenue in New York.

As I leave Comuna 13, a group of children rolls out a large tarpaulin on a slope and showers it with soapy water, creating a make shift water slide. They shout gleefully, inviting me to join them in their innovative water sport as heavily armed policemen stands guard and the night falls slowly on the commune.

A true blue Punjabi, the writer can cross the seven seas for a good dal makhani and butter chicken.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 8:02:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/notes-from-comuna-13/article31001477.ece

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