Hernando Padilla, a Mennonite Pastor in Bogotá, shared with our group the many ways in which Colombia is a nation of contrasts. The nation has contrasting regions—mountains, beaches, plains, forests, jungles and swamps; weather—hot and humid and cool and dry; people–peace loving and war making; culture—classical and folk, western and indigenous; economy—very rich and very poor.
During our ten days in Colombia, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship delegation experienced all of these contrasts. The one we saw and heard the most about is the despair over the war and the poverty and faith in God that God will lead them to a different future.
We visited Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, four towns in Urabá, and Medellin which was once known as the most violent city in the world. In Bogotá we heard from people who worked in human rights and social ministry programs in the nation, and the U.S. embassy staff.. However, when we went to Urabá, a region that gets its name for the large gulf that opens from the Caribbean Sea south into Colombia, we met face to face with the victims of the Colombian war and the war on drugs.
Over 3.5 million people have been displaced by the war in the last 10 to 15 years. Today, about 2.5 million of those remain displaced. We talked with at least 100 of these persons while in Urabá. One after another they shared how they had lived good lives on farms ranging from 50 to 1,000 acres only to be forced off their lands with nothing by armed groups. Some were the victims of the Self-Defense Forces (AUC), armies formed to protect the interests of corporations, large land owners, and drug cartels, others are victims of the rebel groups known as FARC and ELN. (The U.S. State Department estimates that 55% are the victims of the AUC and 45% of the rebels.)
A common story was that of one woman who was given less than 8 hours to leave her home. Having been told that she was not permitted to use the good road, she packed what little she and her children could carry and walked to the nearest village, where she got temporary help but eventually made her way the several hundred miles to Chigarodó, Urabá, where we met her. During the years of the war, she had lost her husband and several sons. Another woman we met in Turbo about 25 miles north told us a similar story with one difference, she had lost all of her seven children to the war with the exception of one who had died of natural causes.
We had an opportunity to talk with students and teachers from the Colegio Americano, a kindergarten through high school established in Apartadó by the Presbyterian Church. Several of the students could not remember living at “home” because their families were forced off their land before they can remember. The students were articulate and optimistic about their future and quite clear on what leads to peace: love, respect for others, learning to negotiate one’s differences, and a willingness to share resources.
The living conditions varied. Some lived in government or NGO built cinder block houses with a well and a toilet. Absent no running water, they flushed by pouring water into the toilet from a bucket. Others lived in houses built of thrown away plastic, cardboard and wood. A very few have jobs. Having lived on farms in regions without electricity, few knew how to use modern machines. The women knew little about modern household conveniences so were poorly prepared for being household servants for the rich or for working in local businesses. The same went for the men.
When we learned that the communities we visited had grown by 4 to 5 times in less than 10 years, it was no surprise unemployment was so high. There are only two basic industries in Urabá: ranching, and banana farming and shipping. Both had sufficient labor prior to the displaced persons came pouring in.
In Turbo, I asked why they did not fish for food in the gulf that was only a short distance away. They said they could not afford to buy boats and fishing equipment and access to the gulf was highly restricted. Another possible food source were the mountains that towered upward about ten miles away. The mountains were unsafe for anyone but the rebels.
Our own baptism into the war of Colombia occurred in two ways. On our first night in Apartadó, a bomb went off at an upscale nightclub five blocks from our hotel. Some of us felt the building shake from the bomb and the lights flash on and off. Eventually, 20 of its victims died and about 30 were seriously injured. This event triggered a peace march two days later which our team partners felt was not a good place for us on two counts: our safety and the possibility that our presence may incite an incident which could threaten others.
The second way was through the meeting we had with displaced persons from the cliffs around Medellín. We were late to the meeting and were surprised that our guests were even later. Until we had talked with them for about an hour, we did not learn that we would not be able to visit their community as planned. The reason was that a gun battle between the police and the AUC had been raging since a murder in the early morning. The people from that community had endangered their lives to come and share with us. They would return afterwards to a violent place. We learned on returning home that one woman with whom we talked was detained for her work in organizing the community to provide the kinds of things all communities need: education, trash collection, sanitation, and public safety.
One of the common themes we heard throughout the trip is that the primary danger to most people in Colombia is a sort of cultural paranoia among the armed groups: AUC, FARC, ELN, the Colombian Army and the National Police, and the government. That is, “If you are not for us, you are our enemy.” Therefore, persons and groups that claim neutrality become targets of all the armed groups and the government.
Despite this fact, villages have joined together in Communities of Peace and Resistance. These communities disarm and forbid armed persons in their midst, maintain complete neutrality, teach their members and children how to avoid conflict, and share in labor and its fruits. Fortunately, North Americans and Europeans volunteer to live in these communities, which gives a measure of protection from the AUC and government.
Yet, rhetoric continues to be threatening towards them. In September 2003, President Uribe stated that human rights workers trying to help the displaced people were nothing but terrorists. After having tried to distance himself from that claim for months, he went to Apartadó a few days after the bombing and subtly but clearly said of those who were accompanying the Communities of Peace and Resistance and others in human rights work are obstructing justice.
We would expect to meet despair and cultural depression under such circumstances. However, we heard the voices of hope and perseverance through it all. The people look to God for hope, assurance, and safety and for the strength to continue to overcome violence with peace and love.