Voices from Colombia
Otago Daily Times, 18 September 2006
by Elizabeth Duke
"We women do not bear or rear sons and daughters for war." "Our association of lawyers tries to bring human rights violations to trial, with the goal of truth, justice and reparations." "Women united in the power of love, building scenarios for life." "We are trying to make an inventory of available native seeds, and to restore the historical memory of traditional agricultural practices. The soil is the patrimony of all communities and of all humanity." "May the life and the sacrifice of our brothers and sisters take root in us as a ferment of humanity, to impel our world towards truth, justice and love." Amid the fierce violence which possesses Colombia, these are the voices of people and organisations who stand for humanity and peace.
Colombia nearly rivals Sudan in numbers of internally displaced people. Three million have been displaced in the last decade, half of them aged under 15. Refugees from the rural areas have crowded into the cities. BogotÃ¡, the capital, and MedellÃn sprawl into their surrounding hills, where homes for the displaced cling to the slopes. Those who were once self-sufficient country people depend on Government payments for six months, then on what they can earn in low-paid work, or acquire by other means, in the cities. Former farming families try to bring a steep patch under cultivation for food
Why have these people left their homes and land? The simple answer is violence. For half a century Colombia has suffered political and economic conflict, which has deployed kidnapping, murder, rape, torture, "disappearances" and intimidation. Community and labour leaders, journalists and human rights lawyers have been targeted and killed, together with many ordinary people who were suspected, or who refused to take sides. Often fighting leaves a legacy of land mines or unexploded weaponry, which makes land unworkable. Many of the stories of displacement I heard this August included violence. "Guerrillas took me and my wife separately. She has disappeared. I escaped after a few months, but my son has been killed." "My son was taken on the road in 1998, and I have searched for him without success. In 2002 another son was taken by paramilitaries and forced to work for them; the last phone call he made was in June 2003. In June 2004 my daughter was killed in her home in front of her children and me. I have two sons left; one is working for the police because there is no other job."
The organisation with whom I travelled to Colombia, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), has heard many stories of grief. But they work with groups who take a stand for life and human rights. We met women who assist one another to maintain their families, after the men have been killed, recruited by armed groups or injured by landmines. Their "promoters of life and mental health" help women to rebuild their social fabric; "we learn to deal with the internal pain which paralyses us".
A youth group in MedellÃn helps those who have a conscientious objection to military service. The Youth Network also supports displaced people. They took us to a raw new district outside MedellÃn. The next day we accompanied a protest by a rural community commemorating 13 of their number who had "disappeared". We walked along the Pan-American highway, pausing to hear personal stories, to watch powerful theatre by the Youth Network, to lay stones painted with the names of the missing, and to attend a gathering including a Mass conducted by Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest who encouraged the congregation: "we could have a quiet life by doing nothing, but we do not choose to live quietly in the face of oppression and violence, rather to take a stand". The march was led by banners painted by the Youth Network, depicting those who had disappeared.
Organisations of rural people work to protect those who remain on their lands, to support the displaced, and to plan their return home. Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples organise to preserve their traditions and culture, and to assert their rights under the Colombian Constitution and in international law. Listening to all those we met, including representatives of national and local government and of the United Nations, we heard deep analyses of the violence in Colombia.
Old political conflicts take new shapes as groups battle for the country's wealth. Colombia has fertile land, hydro-electric power, coal, oil and other minerals. "The map of the war is identical with the map of economic resources and projects," we were told. On the Pacific coast people are being displaced and forests cut to plant African oil palm, a potential biofuel. Commercial enterprises are looking to profit from biodiversity, exploiting traditional indigenous knowledge. There are plans to cut a new canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific; land values along possible routes are shooting up, and traditional owners are being forced out.
The trade in coca, the raw material of cocaine, has multiple repercussions. It enriches the armed groups, paying for weapons. The Government, backed by the US administration, has a "Plan Patriot" to eliminate coca. The basic technique is to identify plantations and destroy them by aerial "fumigation". We heard from people whose food crops and health had been damaged by the spray. Some argue that this was no accident; "fumigation is done to drive us from our land." As coca plantations are attacked, the illegal producers move into untouched Amazonian forest and fell trees. Their new plantations are discovered and sprayed, damaging the surrounding native forest and polluting the water. The chemicals are produced by foreign companies; we heard that they pressurise the Government not to use alternative control methods.
It is not simple violence which brings death, disappearances and displacement upon the people of Colombia. Violence is a tool of national and international power politics and of economic greed. To all these the people we met oppose their courage, their solidarity and their passion for peace, justice and human rights. Their voices deserve to be heard.