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A Father's Lament After Justin Bieber Graffiti Brouhaha

Leaving his mark in Bogota
Leaving his mark in Bogota
Gustavo Trejos*


BOGOTA — The urge to wander the streets and feel the adrenaline rush that comes when painting on a public wall or bridge is condemned in our society, which has demonized this colorful art form and freedom of expression.

This is a fundamental right — to communicate through letters and images painted on surfaces that are otherwise cold and without expression. The finest wall comes to life with lines turned to art or just a “signature” visible to an unsuspecting passer-by.

These lines identify authors who wish to leave a trace, express themselves, and tell society “I’m here.” The artists and their work call attention to social inequalities and the causes of generalized indignation: poverty, bad government, hungry children, people dying in hospitals. Graffiti is a silent but all-powerful cry, and it creates social awareness.

Such manifestations on bridges, tunnels and public walls in Colombia’s major cities are, in short, a general protest against government and police authorities for their double standards and hostility to home-grown urban artists dismissed as mere vandals.

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Photo: Guache

The police who have mercilessly turned young Colombians into military targets are the same authorities who apparently now perceive the childish, infantile, school-boy tracings of a foreign pop star a legitimate work of art. They even prepared him a spot, usually restricted to local graffiti, where the idol could express his rebellious feelings before a nation's youth eager for someone to admire.

It was more a novelty act on singer Justin Bieber’s part than the expression of some deep idea, yet the head of the Bogotá Metropolitan Police described it as art. The National Police chief told a radio station, “We have to evolve. Graffiti expresses a feeling or motivation. It is an artistic expression. Those painting graffiti want to tell us something, and we have to listen.”

They weren’t listening, though, when a certain young man named Diego Felipe Becerra went out with his friends in August 2011 and painted his beloved Felix cats along street walls. He never dreamed that night would be his last, that a policeman would shoot him dead for his actions.

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photo: Bixentro

So perhaps now the police chief words appear wise, uncovering as they do the reality of graffiti as a form of art within society — and accomplishing as well a diplomatic, if weak, response to the storm of criticisms the Bieber incident provoked across the Internet social networks in Colombia.

Young artists are justly demanding equality from authorities and respect for the right to freely express themselves. They want a law that will help them create spaces where they can display their art without risking punishment, police apprehension — or death by police handgun.

* Gustavo Trejos is the father of Diego Felipe Becerra, a young graffiti artist who was killed by Bogota police on Aug. 19, 2011.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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