On some days in La Unión, the war is a faint pulse in the background — a far-off helicopter heard but not seen, or a military troop walking by on their way to a distant destination. On those days, to an outsider, La Unión is like any small town in the world. Neighbors talk about their days — about the cake being baked down the road or the baby with a cold. They work their fields in the hot sun and convene in the center of town when it sets.
On other days, the war permeates every moment. There are days when the war is so close that there is nothing else. When the jungle right around the peace community heats up with combat, the primary concern is generally for the unarmed civilians, particularly peace community members themselves. Our neighbors don’t go work the fields — they stay near the FOR house, pay close attention to what other civilians say when they are coming up or down from the hills, and make sure that they are safe. Things get quiet and tense in the village.
This is not only due to fear for their own safety. The peace community is only 15 years old, after all, and many members have family members who left home before the process began to join the FARC guerrillas or the military or the paramilitaries. When combat occupies the troops close by, many families in the community worry that their sons or brothers or cousins or friends may be killed in the fighting. In the village where we live, there are mothers who have one child in the peace community, one in the military and one in the FARC. It’s hard to even imagine what neutrality means to them.
The peace community respects every individual’s decision to choose his or her own path. The fact that the community is not old enough for a generation of children to be raised in the culture of neutrality means that all sides of the war permeate the existence of the families here. There is no good or bad guy, there is no right or wrong choice. There is only the simple reality that war is deadly.
In mid-November there was combat near La Unión between the FARC and a local paramilitary group which violently demonstrated that simple reality. The fighting lasted from 5:00 a.m. to early afternoon, and many soldiers died on both sides. Because this combat was so close and the troops were local, the community knew several fallen soldiers. And so it was that, like with so many firefights before, the community listened and worried for the people they love.
Then the community was contacted by the International Red Cross about the wounded and the dead. And so it was that brothers went with hammocks to pick up their siblings from the jungle and bring them home, dead, to their mothers. And so it was that the whole peace community mourned, on the same day, young men who believed different things and chose to kill for those beliefs; young men who came from the same background and left the same villages to go into the same jungle and kill one another on different sides of the same conflict. And so it was that even those who chose neutrality were once again affected by all sides of the war around them.
In theory, neutrality to the war sounds easy. Peace seems like an obvious answer. Sometimes I hear myself talking with my family about peace and the peace community process and I think it even sounds utopian. The community seems serene — some pretty picture of how to make a better world after so much suffering. The community always seems strong, of course. There is no comparable organization that I have ever known. The rules and regulations that these people follow in order to be unarmed, peaceful, non-collaborative civilians in a war zone are severe, but on days when the war is a faint pulse in the background, these sacrifices seem simple enough.
However, there is nothing simple about living in a war zone. Even the people who choose peace, live in community, are neutral to the armed groups, who forgive their neighbors for the crimes committed against them and respect all people in their death, even these people acutely suffer. They suffer from the violence they see and the way the different armed groups involve them in the war – even if the only way they manage to involve them is by a son choosing a different life path than his mother and coming home to his family dead in a hammock. Their choice or not, the peace community is left to mourn the effects of the war as long as it goes on.
Gina Spigarelli is a member of the FOR accompaniment team in Colombia.