by Erin Kindy
In a war forty to fifty years old, the work of nonviolent social change shifts. From my experience with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Colombia I would say one way this work shifts is that it becomes a routine part of daily life. At the heart of the struggle for nonviolent change is the challenge to simply maintain the social fabric in the face of violent change across society. Mothers send their children off to school with deep anxiety about their safety. Students who have taken action to protest the prioritization of “security” over education are sometimes followed and threatened. School teachers train their students, though facilities are often inadequate and attendance often varies because of family work demands or difficulties the children face in simply getting to school. Organizations that form part of the Human Rights Workers’ Space in Barrancabermeja continually support the work of the federal government People’s Defender (or Ombudsman’s) office by reporting instances of human rights abuses by armed members of the conflict.
Despite death threats, leaders across Colombia continue to offer their small grains of sand in hopes of building a better society for themselves and their children. In Micoahumado, in the department of Bolivar, on several occasions the community has had to pressure guerrilla groups to remove mines from roads. Because these are the roads community members must transit frequently they must demand that guerrilla forces cease to use them as weapons of war.
Yolanda Becerra, the director of Organización Femenina Popular (OFP), or Popular Women’s Organization, in Barrancabermeja is among many social leaders threatened by paramilitaries. She is one of only a few who have been granted body guards and an armored car through a governmental program. She uses this relative level of protection to further the efforts of her organization to promote the self-determination, self-awareness and political participation of women. As part of one of the OFP’s programs for income generation, Yolanda sold, out of the back of her armored car, soy milk freshly made by a group of women working together!
One of the most astute analysts of the situation in the Magdalena Medio region of Colombia is German. He has dedicated his work to supporting local communities in their efforts to create viable alternatives to violence in a conflict driven society. On occasion he can be found taking his guitar to rural communities and singing with them and interjecting new vibrancy into their conversations and decision making. In more introspective moments he sings, I must “decide if I’ll continue offering my blood to the land.”
I cannot offer sufficient praise for the many every day analysts of the conflict in Colombia who risk their very lives as they teach others and struggle to build a nonviolent Colombia in the midst of the rumors and active violence of war. The members of the Federation of Agro-Miners of Southern Bolivar recognize the precarious nature of their situation. They are small miners who work over one of the largest gold reserves in the world and they know that their situation demands struggle. Their holdings are desired by multinational corporations from Canada, South Africa, and other parts of the world. These corporate interests are backed by violence. In September 2006, Alejandro Uribe, a member of the Federation, was killed. Uribe’s death sparked a regional mobilization that lasted several weeks. The eventual resolution was based on signed accords with branches of the Colombian government. Some of these agreements have already been violated, but this has not stopped the Federation from holding training sessions and continuing their community organizing work.
Beneath and behind all of the previous examples is that of the campesinos, those who work the land. These are the families and individuals who labor over the land and create homes and communities across rural Colombia. They are the men and women who harvest plantain beneath the wings of the macaws calling overhead, who cut the brightly colored cacao pods, and scrape out the seeds and dry them to sell for chocolate making. These are the families who watch the river rise and drown their fields of corn. For many of them corn is their main source of income. These are the ones who join, time and again, with their neighbors to commemorate the life of a family member or a friend who was assassinated by the ever present violence. And, they are the ones who decide whether the risks are too great and wonder whether they could create a better life elsewhere. They often leave for the city, leaving their beloved land, life and livelihood behind. There they struggle against many odds, crowded with many other people, often missing their freedom and their community. These are the invisible people who make up the majority of the nearly four million displaced individuals in Colombia. Even so, they still sing, and raise their children, and dream. Their very lives are a testament of hope.
These daily strugglers for peace are those who make peace, after a lifetime of war, still seem attainable. Perhaps their main work for nonviolent change is best seen in their every day efforts of resistance as they keep the realities of war from changing them and dissolving their peace-filled visions. In a world where violence desires to be the norm, may we model our lives on those Colombians who refuse to accept that version of “normal” and who base their lives on that bet.
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Erin Kindy works with Christian Peacemaker Teams and has spent about a year and a half in Barrancabermeja and the Magdalena Medio region of Colombia. She currently lives and grows organic vegetables at Plow Creek Farm in Tiskilwa, Illinois.
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