Friday, 3 August 2012

Privilege and Solidarity

There were moments in my first months here when I would be jealous of other internationals who would arrive in the community and the special treatment they would receive. Since their visits are rare, it’s more likely they get given food, paid more attention, and presented a rosier picture of the Peace Community than the one I have come to see. They can avoid the messy lines we are constantly confronted with. They don’t have to face the moral dilemmas which come with the intimate knowledge of a rural community’s internal problems in the face of war.

Privilege is key to the success of international accompaniment since we carry the implicit weight of international political pressure. This privilege doesn’t have to be middle-class white privilege, but international status in the Colombian conflict carries privilege nonetheless. Thus a problematic question international accompaniers ask themselves is: are we actually reinforcing those very structures we simultaneously seek to undermine?

What FOR began in Colombia was unique. We took the accompaniment model other organizations had used before and applied it to an entire community, granting them a permanent presence. Previously organizations had been accompanying Colombian organizations and activists who would in turn accompany communities like this one. We cut out the middle man and decided to directly accompany the campesinos who were so threatened and forced to displace. Is FOR’s project naïve in this respect? Are we naïve to believe that an entire community can remain neutral, dedicated to non-violence and strong enough in their convictions to reject the multiple pressures of the different armed groups? I believe this project’s strength comes from the intimacy with those who most have to resist, those who most have to confront the messy issues and blurry lines of the conflict, and also the fact that we accompany the entire community and not just its leaders.

The strength of a permanent accompaniment also draws into question the reinforcement of that privilege. What happens when accompaniers come and live with their “accompanied”? When we share the hard moments, complex questions and the daily grind of campesino life, as well as the rosy moments presented to other internationals? The other day a community leader described a massacre which took place in the centre of our village in 2001. She was asked how people deal with their trauma here, what therapies or counseling they have had. Her response was accompaniers. In part we are how they deal with their trauma; the solidarity and support we provide are some of the tools they need to overcome trauma, to push on and to continue resisting. The encouragement factor which comes from the relationships forged between accompaniers and accompanied should not be underestimated.

I’m no longer jealous of those other internationals. I don’t feel my connections with people here are marked by hierarchy, or by a need for them to portray themselves in a more favourable and optimistic light; they are not based on and don’t reinforce privilege. They are based on mutual solidarity which runs deep through the last ten years of our presence here. While privilege evidently plays a role in the broader dynamic of accompaniment, what marks our interactions with the community is solidarity, reciprocal protection, communal strengthening and mutual admiration and respect.