Notes from the Peace Community: FORista Writes Home After Leaving Urabá

Oct 27, 2014 | News, Peace and Nonviolence, War and Conflict

by FORPP Accompanier Gale Stafford

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October 20th, 2014

Dear Friends,

I’m back, I swear I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth! (Or even permanently left Colombia!). It’s a busy time, but considering that I found a drafted email to you all from July that I felt was late then, I figure now is about as good a time as any to update you as to how things have been going (since May… almost six months ago…).

So May and June together almost marked the end of my time in the Peace Community. In the end of June, I had an unfortunate pair of incidents of theft of my bag (read: every important document, camera, and notebook, plus a couple other sacred objects – I’m physically fine, just irritated and a little shallower, wallet-wise) plus bug bites serious enough to need to get treated and healed a bit, and so got sucked to the big city of Bogotá for a couple of weeks to get everything in order. From there I had a brief return to the rural Community area, followed by a wonderful visit from my dear friend Heather, another brief stint in the Community, and zipped back to Bogotá. Since then it’s been a bit of a whirlwind, and I just haven’t gotten to scribble down my latest thoughts.


So because it is absolutely, utterly impossible for me to even summarize everything that has gone on in the last six months (sideways lookinatchu, stolen journal…), I’m going to take the remainder of this email recounting about the end of my time in the Community, and will tell more about things afterwards, and life in Bogotá, starting next time. So below, in no particular order, are notes in homage to and reflection on the nine months of my life in the village of La Unión, part of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. And after re-reading it, I’m realizing it’s a little epic again. Oops. It has been six months, so there’s that… Anyway.

– Ode to Campo and Comunidad –

For those of us unaccustomed, it is a special, special thing to spend the one-and-a-half-to-two-hours-depending-on-the-rainmud-situation-and-your-lil-non-campesino-leggies walk up to where we live passing person after person we know, or don’t, but who we know is either a close friend or related to several other people on the mountain. Everybody has their people, and they have them close.

Solidarity is taken extremely seriously. Throughout my time there I only grew to understand more deeply what peoples’ consistently renewed commitment to “keep on resisting” actually meant, and how tied up it is in keeping together. One time I watched a casual, but fierce, soccer game in LU, and saw a couple of different occasions of people on opposite teams helping each other up. Could happen anywhere. But it was in no way begrudging, and it was absolutely a gesture, albeit simple, of understanding and solidarity.

Hummingbirds are noisy buggers. Man, part of our job is to be attentive and visible when helicopters fly near or overhead in the Community, but I swear to you it has been more than a sparing few occasions on which I was occupied doing something and then sat up, hyper-alert, only to see one of those flashy dashers rocketing by. Gorgeous creatures, but truly I cannot think of them as elegant any longer.

The most important thing is showing up. When our old, beloved neighbor fell ill one evening, almost every child and at least half of the adults in LU showed up to just be there. In reality only about two or three of these people were actually actively doing something to help him – everybody else was just there, with him and each other.

Pigs, on the other hand, are very elegant creatures. Whether advancing by trotting forth, ears flapflapping gaily and involuntary grunts escaping their throats every fourth bounce (every fourth bounce exactly), or ambling forward as they rove the land, mining it for whatever tasty greens they can find, they do it all on their tippy-toes, truly achieving a level of charm unanticipated by these otherwise stocky creatures. Another fun fact about pigs is that they love to be scratched, like weird, coarse-haired dogs. Unfortunately, this is about the only time they look relaxed, because their otherwise buggy eyes just tend to look a little freaked out and neurotic all the time… I do wish they would take themselves only as seriously as their heels allow them to, because I love them and pigs are unequivocally my favorite.

There is nothing – nothing – that compares to the taste of beans cooked the same day they are picked, or the wonder you feel at realizing that beans were capable of tasting like that (beans are secretive and coy in this way).

Except for possibly the smug satisfaction in knowing you can whole-heartedly enjoy another in a parade of a zillion mangoes, because you have cleverly recognized that floss is a part of the essentials during mango season and can therefore savor freely and clean up later.

I have learned viscerally how messy war is. It is different to see the gore and intense angles seen in different areas of the news, versus walking the same trails that the army, guerilla, and paramilitary walk. I remember one time accompanying in a cacao field when we heard a combat a little ways away and thinking, “that was the sound of someone dying”. And it was true, we learned later that one guerrilla and one soldier each were killed that day. I guess I just hadn’t previously thought too much about what being on the ground means in a warzone… I think before coming here I somehow had had it conceptualized more as decisions being made in closed rooms or hidden huts, and then later orders being executed… digitally? Or more cleanly somehow? In spite of having varied experience thinking about and processing different images and discussions of war. But no. People scale the ground, people strategize new plans, and then groups of individual humans work to realize them against other groups of individual humans.

In the case of our region, it means they walk through the same mountains we do, experience the same jungle, heat, bugs, and utter, utter fear that comes for a lot of them. This is in part because, no matter what armed group they are part of, many of them are recruited as minors. We walk often past soldiers standing in the middle of town on our way up to our house, and there is not one time when I don’t think to myself how young they look. I know I’m no geezer myself, but I look into the eyes of the uniformed men, often plucked from their own native regions in order to serve elsewhere (a common military strategy), and more often than not I see uncertainty and fear. They are all dressed the same, but they are so different from one another. And then decisions are made by people in closed rooms and hidden huts, and the petrified young soldiers defend against and shoot towards other, generally also young men, who are shooting at (or back at) them and are often similarly petrified. And then we hear about it later, maybe from people who have heard from someone who know one party or another, or maybe from the military on the radio letting us all know how many guerrillas (people) have been “neutralized”. And then I visit my neighbors and cannot possibly understand how this is the same country, with people so incredibly generous and loving living among a very real, brutal war.

I’ve learned that I can be a coffee drinker, because it is impossible to go into any given house in LU and not have a warm mug of tinto (coffee (sort-of) drink) offered from weathered, working, and gentle hands. They offer it to you, but it’s not really a choice, because it is just in their nature to share.

After living in LU, I am different.

My body is different. After walking so many trails and needing to do some of it damn fast, my balance, which started out good, is now excellent. I can handle humidity better. I never want to see a bug again, and so help the next sorry suckers that set their sights on me. The scars will fade eventually. And I can sleep in a hammock now. I love that.

My mind is different. I have learned what strategy and thinking about it looks like, on a conflict level, but also on a community level, on a team level, and on an interpersonal level. I think more efficiently, and have stronger ideas of how to discern what my personal and team wants and needs are. I’m getting better at improvising. I’m starting to make Spanish puns and people don’t just think I’m nuts. And I’ll be counting how many laughs I get here, but my mom has begun calling me Flex, because truly the furthering depths of my flexibility only continue to floor all those who know me well.

My heart is different. The idea that everybody has their own things going on has been impressed strongly upon me. I have talked with people who have experienced unspeakable trauma, and am both quieted into reflection about my own upsets and humbled by the trust in connection and desire for understanding. I have been reminded by my teammates how many different ways there are to connect with people, and to look for the gems that people inevitably have to offer. Above all, unexpected opportunities arise by having different conversations that divert from the topic at hand, and sometimes impulsiveness is just the thing.

So that’s my summary for now. True to form, not exactly such a summary… Good thing I’m charming? Er… looking forward to being in better-thought-out, less random contact, and hearing from you! Hope you all are well. Ciao for now.