A Report on Two Days
with the 2004 Delegation
By Parrish W. Jones
©2004. All rights reserved.
We visited two communities—Currulao and Turbo lie north of Apartadó on the main highway that runs north and south through Urabá—to hear from the displaced Presbyterians. Turbo lies farthest north and closest to the Gulf of Urabá from which the region gets its name. The land we passed on our trip is rich farm land cut from what was once jungle and perhaps swamp. The ranches we saw had pasture that most North American ranchers would die for that probably results from the rich soil nourished for millennia by the decaying debris of jungle and marsh, the apparent abundance of water supplied by the mountains that border the region and the tides of the Gulf, and the year round growing season. All these natural factors also explain the thousands of acres of banana and plantain trees all of which had bunches nearing harvest.
This apparent wealth is juxtaposed by incredible poverty everywhere present in the towns we visited. The people with whom we spoke this day were not always poor. Most spoke of having lived on productive land that provided for the needs of the family that once lived in nice homes. None claimed great wealth. However, like most people, they had satisfying lives.
The pastor in Currulao, our first stop, told about his own experience of displacement. His story differed from those that would follow—he was displaced because he lost his congregation to displacement. Once nearly all the families in his church in the Córdoba region left, he asked the Presbytery to send him elsewhere and if possible to Currulao where he knew some of his parishioners had gone. Fortunately, it did so.
In Currulao the Presbyterians had already begun to meet, so establishing the church and providing for spiritual nourishment was not difficult. They were prepared for that. What they were not prepared for was lack of work, food, clothing, and shelter. Few were able to bring much that they had from home because they were forced to leave quickly. They arrived destitute and received only a little help from the presbytery, which is also poor. They were also ill prepared as farmers for urban life. The men knew little of modern machinery or technological approaches to agriculture. The women had no experience with modern household appliances, so work in the homes of wealthier persons was and is hard to find. Therefore few work and the days are passed in unaccustomed sloth, which they find undignified.
They still found a way to build a church building for worship, Bible study and activities. It is little more than a roof and floor. The floor is concrete and the walls are boarded half way up the sides with space for air to flow above that level. When I first saw it, it reminded me of a summer barn in the U.S. Here it is a manger of faith.
After the pastor’s introduction, we heard from several men and women about their displacement. The causes were the same: unending violence, lack of security, threats from armed groups, and, in many cases, forced departures under threat of death. They had come from Chocó across the Atrato River to the west and from Córdoba to the east.
Intimidation and threats have not ceased in their new communities. Any attempts at community work or organizing draw threats and often violence. Those who appear as leaders are driven away, accused of being FARC, ELN, or terrorists, disappeared, or murdered.
We heard gripping testimony by one woman who told us how she had lost children to the war and violence. Having been widowed for 20 years, she lost all but one of her 7 children to violence and that one died of natural causes. In Currulao she depends on the good graces of her neighbors and brothers and sisters in the church for survival.
Following our time with the people of Currulao, we traveled north to Turbo where the church was preparing lunch. We arrived early (had to be a first) so they decided to share first and then eat.
The church building here was much nicer than either that of Apartadó or Currulao. I am not sure why except I think the church here has existed longer and predates the beginning of the conflict in this region. However, like the housing in Currulao and Chigorodó, the housing around the church was barely more than four walls and a roof. Some had outdoor sheds where commodes appeared to be connected to plumbing. Whether each home had a septic tank or there was a community septic collection system I did not discover. None of the homes we saw appeared to have running water or community water supply. Most had a shallow well about ten feet deep from which they collected water by bucket.
The pastor of the church once again introduced the sharing time. He shared that during his seminary time, he began serving a church in Córdoba and traveled to Apartadó once a month for study. As time passed travel became increasingly difficult and dangerous because of increasing violence. Then the violence came to the village he served. At first, their visitors only threatened detentions that usually only intimidated them. Then, the soldiers forced members of the church to let them use their houses. So the members all gathered in a few homes. Eventually, the people began to leave. Seven years have passed and the church has fallen down and the village is a ghost town.
One man shared that he had 40 hectares (98.8 acres) and livestock, all of which he lost after several years of violence between 1993 to 95. Finally, the pressure led he and 35 other people to leave. They went to different places depending on where their families lived. His family went to the Córdoba region where they suffered 5 years of economic and spiritual hardship. There was no Presbyterian Church and they missed it. Finally, they had heard that church members had come to Turbo and decided to come here. In the process he lost everything except Christ. However, they live in emotional and spiritual pain over the losses of land, livelihood, home, and especially, their church.
Another shared his story of conversion. As he grew up, his older brother went to war, joining one of the guerrilla groups, and was killed three months later. In a few years, he himself got married and moved away from home. While they were not rich, they had a nice house. One day they came home to find the house full of FARC. They threatened him for collaborating with the Paramilatary and army. He told them his philosophy was the same no matter whom he met. They were humans and deserved being treated as humans. He did not ask them who they supported, all that mattered was that they were hungry, thirsty or sick.
Within three years many in the community had been killed. Finally, the Paramilitaries came in and gave them 8 hours to leave. All his family was included. For a while he heard nothing from his brother. He prayed and promised God if his brother returned, he’d believe. A few days later his brother came to where they were.
Having no knowledge of city living or work, he prayed again to find work. In 3 months he found a job in bananas. The company required him to finish high school, so he prayed for God to help him study and finish, which he did.
At that time his wife became a Christian, which forced him to reflect and take account of his life. He shared with his wife that he had made three promises he had not followed through on. Perhaps, he had endangered his own life. He then accepted Christ as his Savior and felt completely whole for the first time in his life. Now he has a job, his wife, 2 children and is all right. Thanks be to God.
One of the women then shared her story of suffering the assassination of her husband without being able to show grief for fear of the lives of her children and self. She fled to Turbo with 6 children where she was permitted a small parcel. With the parcel of land, help from the church, and pastoral support, she has been able to survive.
We asked in most places about help from NGO’s and government. We got the same story. Government did little. NGO’s had little resources to aid anyone very much. Many were forced to cease their work because of threats and intimidation.
Their understanding of the aid from Plan Colombia is that one has to have land and be willing to return to it. Many do not have land because the Paramilitaries bought the land at gun point and at their price not what it was worth.
Others told us they could go back, but there is no security and the armed groups are still in the areas so they are afraid to return. All that will happen is that they will be displaced again.
In the evening, we met with high school young people and teachers from the Colegio Americano. These schools are a legacy of the missionaries who started schools as a means of providing education and of creating a financial base for the churches, most of which are made up of poor people. Many of the young people were raised in displaced circumstances and have little memory of what parents may call home. Like most young people everywhere they dream of a better future.
We broke into small groups so we could have more intimate discussions with the young people and teachers. Each cluster had a teacher, several of the youth and several of us.
They shared with us their dreams for themselves but also for their country. We were astonished by their political astuteness. They also know a bit about the U.S. and have both positive and negative images of it.
Like young people everywhere, they like music, sports, and hanging out with their friends gossiping and playing games. A few have televisions, but little technology.
Faster than we could say the words, we had formed a bond as they sensed our concern for and interest in them and their future.
We asked them what their vision of peace was. They each spoke of living within society and contributing to it seeking to live each day without violence and in an atmosphere of respect. Peace, they understood, could only be reached when every person did their part to build peace. One youth shared that respect was very important because those who were causing the violence were not respectful of those who chose to live in peace. Another suggested that unity of purpose was very important because if we have different purposes, we will always be in conflict. And another said, we must learn that violence will only lead to more violence.
They think of the U.S. as a nation of great knowledge and resources, but with a narrow vision of the world and of Colombia as a drug dealer. They wish the U.S. would put more money into education, health, and community welfare than into guns and drug eradication. Our families, they shared, did not grow drugs, but the government still took the land.
Once the deep sharing was completed, we sort of hung out due to a torrential downpour. The young people were enamored by our technology. They had never seen a digital camera or a Palm Pilot both of which I had. As I demonstrated the Palm Pilot, they kept asking, <<¿Que mas?”>>
That question lingers in my mind over this day. What more? What more does it take to move beyond the policies that perpetuate such suffering? What more must these people suffer? What more will be done in the name of security, the war on drugs, and the war on terrorism to make their lives even more difficult? What more will be done to rob people of their livelihood and dignity?
I think of Romans 8:35 “Who can separate us from the Love of Christ?” Certainly, what appears to be the worst has come to these people and it has not separated them from loving Christ. However, are they not separated from love from Christ by the lack of concern for their plight among Christians in North America.