Caitríona Ruane: Around that time in 2001 I was working as the Director of Féile an Phobail in West Belfast. I had young children and I decided I had to take a break to be a full-time mammy for a while. The Féile ended in August, and that was when I should have been leaving, but the following day three Irishmen were arrested in Colombia.
Peter Madden, a solicitor from Madden & Finucane, was travelling to Colombia and I had Spanish and a background in human rights, so I agreed to go for one visit.
We travelled out on 13 September, just two days after 9/11. It was a very scary time in the world, and we didn’t know what was going to happen to the men.
We realised very quickly when we arrived that this would be dragged out for a long time – the Colombian legal system is different to anything we’re used to. So I ended up being the full-time worker, on a voluntary basis, for the men.
What did your job involve initially?
Well, the second thing we realised was that we would have to start bringing people in from the outside to see exactly what was happening to the men, and examine how the legal system worked.
We knew we had to fight the system, no matter how bad it was, so my first job was to bring in international people to help.
Did you ever feel in danger when you were over there, or worry for the safety of any of the visiting delegations?
The first few times I went over there it was a shock. It was like we were in a goldfish bowl. Colombia doesn’t get many tourists anyway. I went a few times on my own and that wasn’t a pleasant experience at all. I love Colombia and I love its people, so any criticism I have is directed at the government.
Were there any positive aspects to the experience?
Definitely. I’ve worked in Central America and I’ve worked in the Six Counties, but this was the first time I had witnessed great minds from all over the world strategising together. The exchange of ideas that took place was unbelievable.
And I found allies in the strangest of places. We’d be saying to the guards: “These are our men, I hope you’re treating them okay,” and some of the guards we’d get on with.
I heard one time that they were planning on transporting the men to the court the following day in chains. I went right up to the prison guard and said “Don’t you do that. Don’t you dare humiliate these men by putting them in chains, because they won’t be getting out of that prison van if you do,” and he got my point.
You find humanity in the strangest places. And I firmly believe that you can judge a country by how it treats its prisoners.
The conditions the men are being subjected to is one of the main problems for the campaign. Can you tell us exactly what they have to deal with?
So far, they’ve been in six different jails altogether. The first jail they were in they were like animals in a cage. They were actually being held in a police holding centre, which even in Colombia is illegal, so eventually we got them out. Then they were sent to a prison full of alleged drug-dealers and right-wing paramilitaries.
Of course, the Colombian Army at all times wanted to move them out to the country, just to make their lives hell. They were successful two times. One time they moved Niall Connolly and we worked like mad all day to get him back. He rang that night to say he was back. I’ll never forget that call. You have to look at the small victories to keep going.
Now they’re in La Modelo. There are 22 of them in a communal cell and they are surrounded by 3,000 right-wing paramilitaries. There are no good conditions and there is no safe place, but at the moment the cell they’re in is okay. We’re not worried that they’ll get stabbed in the back while they’re in that cell.
Niall was sharing a cell with an alleged drug-dealer at one point, and he didn’t know when he went in at night if he would be coming out alive.
When the men were first arrested, the media had them convicted and in jail before they had even seen the inside of a courtroom, but the Bring Them Home Campaign seems to have brought some balance to reports. How do you view the campaign?
We have run an amazing campaign, but to run one like that you need support. The media never recognised it, but the people of Ireland, from every corner – Dublin, Cork, Donegal, Galway and Cavan – supported us. We had concerts – Christy Moore and Frances Black played for us. We climbed mountains and got sponsorship. It’s because of events like this that we were able to raise the money and the awareness we needed to keep the campaign going.
The international support was crucial. We had delegations from three different continents come out to see the men, and when they saw for themselves the conditions the men faced, the lack of human rights, they spread the message back home. It’s because of people like that these men are still alive.
But the campaign is still ongoing, and it’s become more crucial than ever that people stick with it and continue to put pressure on the Dublin government to call for the men’s release, and to use the EU Presidency to actively seek it. We have a window of opportunity there and I’d hate to see it wasted.
Has the media’s attitude towards the men changed much since the start of the trial?
Initially, the whole media coverage of Colombia was a disgrace. There were a lot of so-called journalists taking their line from intelligence sources. But when they started to come out to Colombia, and they too saw what it was like there, what the men were dealing with, some of the reports changed. They were more fair, not biased in any direction, and we don’t need bias in this case because the facts speak for themselves. That was all we were asking for.
Of course, there is still a problem because some papers have an obvious editorial line and they don’t want to publish the facts.
Have you any idea what the judge is going to come back and say?
Absolutely none. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. But we are still campaigning for the men to get justice, and if the verdict doesn’t go our way, we will be taking the case further. We won’t rest until these men are sent home.