Sunday, 28 October 2012

Leaving the Community

There is an old woman in our village who is possibly the most affectionate person I have ever met. Her skin is soft and wrinkled. Her warmth is effortless and comforting. She strokes my arm as we sit for hours talking about everything and nothing. She has an age of Colombia’s history in her, has outlived five of her seven children and has a beautiful spark about her in spite of the horrors she has witnessed. From her house, she can see the back of ours and is always comforted when she sees our lights come on in the evening and knows we’re home.

There’s an old man who likes to come to our house to drink coffee. He tells stories in his own peculiar way and has such a strong accent it’s hard for foreigners to understand him at first. He likes to quote the bible to make the most absurd arguments and in ways that simply don’t make sense. He is always the first to tell anybody and everybody who arrives that we are the reason they are respected. He is also the perfect example of how a community can work so well. He has no family here. Everybody here is his family.

There is a woman my age who is hard-working and caring. Her father was a powerful community leader and was killed in the massacre of 2000. She is part of that generation. She is one of the ones who so easily could have gone to fight with the guerrilla to seek revenge. She didn’t. She stayed and walked with the community, choosing active non-violence over vengeance.

There is one leader who is so pessimistic it’s unbelievable. Whenever you talk to him he laments the direction the world is going in. Everything is getting worse, day by day. We call him Eeyore. He doesn’t believe there can ever be justice. He doesn’t believe non-violence stands the remotest of chances. And yet he dedicates his entire life and all his energy to a project which insists on justice and non-violence.

There is one woman who is gossipy and infuriating. She is one of the most intelligent women I have met, a female leader in a community dominated by masculine, machista dynamics. She has a dark sense of humour and is incredibly cynical. I love her laugh. We laugh so much together. Her dedication to this life, her convictions of its value and its worth, run deep. She has travelled the world representing the community and sees no reason to be anywhere else but here.

In ways accompaniment work did not get easier over the last year. As time went on, new and tough challenges came up. The boundaries were not always clear. In fact, they never are. With these friendships and my emotional attachment to these people, I still wonder where the boundary is. We as FOR are part of the history of the peace community. By living here for an entire year, we as individuals are written into their story. How do we remain non-interfering when this is the case? How can we claim to be neutral from a community that could not and would not exist without us?

I have learnt so much from these people throughout this past year. I have learnt how hard it is to be neutral in this war zone. I have learnt the intricacies of war, the logic behind the strategies and the tangled web of criminal and political violence which has become meshed into the social fabric of Colombian culture and society. I have learnt to relate to campesinos and open myself up to this existence with empathy and solidarity. I have (at least tried) to be patient, to not judge, to not impose my standards, to stand back and to observe, to let these people carve out their own path and make their own mistakes along the way.

Leaving is hard. As I try and grapple with difficult goodbyes and worry about the future of these friendships, I must remember that the peace community is written into my story now, just as I am written into theirs. And these personal friendships will slot into a broader mosaic of a collective relationship of international solidarity which will continue to open up the space for them to walk their path in the future.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Urabá is Beautiful

Urabá is beautiful. As you come in on the plane you see vast fields of banana trees spread throughout the land, green and abundant, with little blue bags which encapsulate the fruit so it doesn’t get damaged. The plants go on for miles and miles. You see mountains. Rolling mountains filled with exotic plants, lush rivers, radiant butterflies, wild boar, and huge trees that look like the ones from the film Avatar. And you also see ridiculous military propaganda telling you “because of you soldier, the Colombian people can live in peace and harmony, heroes do exist in Colombia”.

Those bananas are the businesses of large land-owners and huge companies which have for decades paid paramilitaries to protect the lands from the guerrilla. And the price of that so-called protection has been the lives of the innocent. The Colombian conflict continues to be played out through third parties; civilians continue to bear the brunt of a violence which here has increased in recent weeks, in spite of the government’s peace negotiations with the FARC. Like the campesino who died last night from the shots he received when caught in the middle of a combat in San José two weeks ago. His family was immediately threatened into saying he was an insurgent so he can be falsely sold by the military as another guerrilla killed in combat. And these beautiful mountains are the stage for those combats, like the one which took place today near one of the settlements of the Peace Community.

Sometimes when I travel the road between Apartadó and San José, seeing children riding their bikes, a fat black woman laughing, hearing music blaring from a stereo, banana plants and guava trees lining the way, I want to forget the murders which have taken place all along there. I try to imagine what it would be like to see this road through entirely ignorant, foreign eyes. I can almost see it. It would be lively and light. It wouldn’t be weighed down by death. It would be exotic and beautiful. 

It is essential not to forget. It is important for these horrors to remain in the collective memory of the Peace Community and the Colombian people so that the perpetrators of violence be held accountable for the atrocities they have committed. And yet how do you break the cycles of revenge, those killings to avenge vengeance killings, in order to overcome and move forward? How to balance validation, justice and the need to remember with forgiveness, reparation and the need to move on?

I can no longer see banana trees without thinking about the complex nexus of power behind them – companies, land owning elites, paramilitaries, military and government officials – and all the blood which that nexus of power has devoured.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Peace Talks in Colombia and the Challenges Ahead

Elements of the Colombian peace process that begins October 8 in Oslo indisputably distinguish these negotiations from prior attempts to put an end to Colombia’s five decade-long conflict. The insistence on learning from past mistakes is cause for optimism, and both parties seem to be taking the process seriously. The fact that negotiations are taking place abroad with international support, that the first phase has already been completed, that the agenda is limited, focused and has the clear objective of ending the war, that the FARC are militarily weakened and that they will be granted space to be involved in politics, are all factors which lead many to believe that this time could and should be different.

There is controversy surrounding the fact that no cease-fire has been declared. Indeed,FARC attacks on both the military and oil pipelines and other infrastructure have increased in recent weeks. The ability for both sides to show their strength through violence as they put pressure on and push forward their agendas at the negotiating table is a serious concern. Each party wishes to strengthen its negotiating position in this way and is thus tempted to increase military efforts. Yet continued violence and recourse to these strategies could lead to a loss of credibility and provoke a break in the negotiations, and so “both sides must act with restraint on the battlefield to generate immediate humanitarian improvements,” says theInternational Crisis Group. While Santos declared that “military operations will be carried out in the same way, with the same or more intensity,” some civil society groups are pressing for a ceasefire to be implemented as the negotiations take place.

Perhaps the “make or break” point of the agenda will be land reform. The FARC arose from peasant communities in areas with persistent histories of inequality, exclusion and repression of land movements. But it is difficult to see how the guerrillas’ idea of agrarian reform can fit together with the State’s national development plan centered on foreign investment in the form of multinational companies’ megaprojects exploiting Colombia’s natural resources. As such, maximalist demands by either side may end in stalemate. The FARC face a dilemma: if they go to the negotiating table insisting on comprehensive national agrarian reform, agreement may be harder to achieve. If they go requesting something less comprehensive and more localized in the zones in which they have had historical control, it seems more likely that an agreement could be made, but this could also bring with it serious consequences for campesinos living in those regions and for a possible continuation of violence.

Many also look to the Santos government’s victims and land restitution law as an important rapprochement to the FARC’s long-standing demand for agrarian reform. It is too early to say whether this law will be effective without further measures, or how it might relate to the FARC’s idea of land reform. Indeed, while the law appears to represent progress, it is clear that there will be many challenges for its application. Considering Colombia’s history of progressive laws and reforms that are impressive in theory but in practice are shot dead before they can even get off the ground, unfortunately, full implementation seems unlikely. Indeed, many of those who reclaim their land under the law have been seriously threatened or murdered, but little protection has been provided.

These threats come principally from paramilitary successor groups that continue to function in the same way as before their demobilization of 2006, and are another major obstacle for both the negotiations and the construction of peace in Colombia. The continued phenomenon requires a response.

In fact, former paramilitaries have pointed to this problem. According to alias ‘El Alemán’, “the success of negotiations depends on the treatment of those who demobilize. If the government makes a bad decision, the soldiers may rearm, as happened to the paramilitaries who reorganized themselves into ‘criminal gangs’”.

The FARC has its own history of painful experience with attempted demobilization. During negotiations with the government in the 1980s, it formed a political party, the Patriotic Union, but thousands of its leaders and members were murdered. FARC leaders will have that memory close by during the current talks.

Combatants have also switched sides. A supposed demobilization of another guerrilla group, the Popular Liberation Army, in 1991, was followed by threats to their security, which led to many members then joining the right-wing paramilitaries. This must be avoided this time as opportunities and incentives need to be given for guerrillas to reintegrate into civilian life. In order for peace to take root, paramilitary structures must be thoroughly dismantled and those responsible must be held accountable for their crimes.

A negotiation between the government and the FARC in itself will not be able to eradicate violence. The divide between rural and urban Colombia has often led to huge discrepancies between what is said and decided by elites in the capital and the reality in different regions of the country. As such, there is fear that different factions of the guerrillas may splinter and refuse to lay down their arms.

This is perhaps more the case with those fronts deeply involved in drug-trafficking, which leads to a doubt about this point on the agenda for the dialogue. As Antonio Caballero maintains, “the issue of drug trafficking is an insoluble problem for Colombia, with or without the FARC.” The demobilization of an armed group is unlikely to impact the drug trade, because it will not touch the underlying problem. Other groups will simply take over the space left by the guerrillas as demand for production will not decrease. Indeed, the Urabeños/Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia and the Rastrojos already fight over territory for drug trafficking routes, and removing the FARC from the equation may simply consolidate drug production, trafficking and violence in the hands of other groups.

In order for peace to take root and for the deeply ingrained wounds of violence to heal, the socio-economic problems and fundamental inequities underlying the conflict must be addressed. Social movements and civil society must be allowed a role in the peace process, and investment must be made in the remote conflictive regions of the country. As several social movements say, “this peace process must have a chapter of regional dialogues that allows [them] to participate with autonomy and [our] own voice in the new scenario of peace.”

To lay the foundations for peace, the militarizing logic of the Colombian state should be countered with an insistence on other types of state investment (education, health etc.) Space must be made and recognition granted for those social movements and nonviolent resistance movements (such as the indigenous peoples of Cauca and the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó), to have a role in building peace.

In conclusion, other important lessons need to be learned and emphasized throughout the process: that of previous failed demobilizations and paramilitary successor groups; the lesson we all need to learn from a decades-long ‘drug war’ that has barely affected the drug trade and has caused thousands of victims; the need to focus on structural changes, land reform, and investment in rural regions of Colombia; and the importance of including civil society movements in the construction of peace.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Learning to Walk

I remember the first time I came to the Peace Village of Mulatos I was told that I didn’t know how to step. Up until that point I wasn’t aware I had been doing it wrong. But that day I was definitely not walking right; I would sink into the mud far deeper than the people I was accompanying. I became desperate in that mud, and my “accompanied” had to take my hand like a child, and show me how to navigate the mud.

People here see their struggle as a long arduous walk. They see the path to peace and the way of resistance as a process of walking together.They often ask who is prepared to walk with them, they talk about who has walked with them in the past, who will continue to walk with them in the future. Life here is a constant process of walking and learning from one another, strengthening one another along the way.

I have learnt to love walking, to embrace the uphill climbs, to feel strong with every step, to accept the mud and the sweat. I’ve got better at it and people now know me as somebody who walks fast, who is capable of taking on the tough climbs, of walking wherever necessary with the people who need it for their safety and protection.

After my time in the Peace Community, I see the path of resistance as a path through a thick and vibrant jungle. It’s long, the mud is thick, the air is humid, there are mosquitos and radiant blue butterflies which dance around you, and sometimes you despair that with every two steps uphill, you sink one step back down.

I still fall. I have got better, but I still fall in the mud, and I slip and I slide. I dance too. You end up moving your body in strange ways when you’re trying not to fall, when one foot hits firm grounds and the other is about to sink, you have to twist yourself in ingenious and innovative ways, inventing dance moves along the way. And I have learnt so much about resistence and carving out spaces for peace and non-violence from walking with the Peace Community.