By FOR Peace Presence accompanier Jeanine Legato
As an accompanier, I oftentimes find it difficult to explain to friends and family in the U.S the work we do, what it’s like accompany in conflict zones, why it works to dissuade violence, and anyway, what’s a paramilitary?
While preparing recently to accompany the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space in celebration of its first year anniversary, I ran into this difficulty. Buenaventura has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Its role as the major port of Colombia has made it a battleground where ordinary people — and, being the Afro-Colombian capital of the country, mostly ordinary black people — are violently displaced from their neighborhoods by illegal (paramilitaries or organized crime) and legal (developers) economic actors, usually, in that order, and with the tacit support (or at least oversight) of the Colombian government (and its police and military). It is not a destination that inspires my mother to say enthusiastically, when signing off a phone call before I go, “Buen viaje!”
Yet, for all the seeming singularity of the violence in Buenaventura — the corruption, turf wars and terrifying chophouses — when 10,000 people took to the Baltimore streets in anger over the death of Freddie Gray this week, most of the images I saw on the internet brought me right back to the Buenaventura storefront where I’d stood a week before when a father commemorated the recent murder of his son.
“Eight days ago I lost my son, but next it could be you. We have to stand up and denounce, despite the fear we have.”
The weight behind such a seemingly obvious message to denounce murder (what could be coined #DenounceDeath), like #BlackLivesMatter, exposes the contrast of such a plain truth to a grotesque state of reality where the devaluation of black life is blanketly accepted.
Just as in Baltimore, the residents of Buenaventura, repressed by (para)/militarized violence are looking to take back control of their communities and lives. No community has been bolder in doing so than the Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space. On April 13, 2014, this community demarcated its neighborhood as a paramilitary-free zone, simultaneously securing protective measures from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, and reclaiming a chophouse — previously used by paramilitaries to torture and kill victims — as a community space.
The Puente Nayero Humanitarian Space could have stopped its first anniversary short with the joyous celebration of a community baptism, itself significant as the neighborhood is the only one around where none of its residents have been murdered in the last year, a beacon for new life and a haven for displaced Buenaventurans. However, many of its residents instead ventured into neighboring Punta Icaco, memorializing with their neighbors four sites there where murder and extortion had never before been publicly acknowledged.
This is how I came to stand at the storefront in Punta Icaco where the father who’d lost his son invoked him publicly with votives and flowers at the site of his murder, a brave act in the light of day. “We can’t let people keep dying without acknowledging it. Every death needs to be protested.”
Days later, while mostly non-violent protesters in Baltimore were being demonized in the media, several of those who participated in the memory acts in Punta Icaco were threatened by paramilitaries for having invited human rights defenders (the process in Puente Nayero is supported by FOR Peace Presence accompanied partner Interchurch Commission of Justice and Peace) and international observers to confront the fear in the neighborhood.
Speaking to the threats against those who speak out, one leader in Punta Icaco told me “the government changes the legal name of paramilitaries, but they are the same, they act the same and go unnoticed.” I cannot help but compare this analysis to the practice of Maryland and other states in the U.S. to protect police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview. Likewise, the knee-jerk reaction in both cities to combat brutality with the deployment of thousands of military and police, despite the terror it causes residents, and a total repudiation for bringing the underlying issues of economic exclusion into the debate.
To be sure, the social movements in Baltimore, in Ferguson, in Puente Nayero, in Punta Icaco, and elsewhere exist in unique contexts and as such, their creation of alternatives are and should be unique. But their coherence is extraordinary: each of these communities are extremely brave to bring their mourning into the streets, where it requires attention, where it transcends the passive grief behind closed doors.
In that sense, we can look to Baltimore to understand Buenaventura, and vice versa. Their message is the same, and it is easier to understand than the violence that produces it. #DenounceDeath. #BlackLivesMatter. Every one, and publicly.
Visit FOR Peace Presence’s picture album of its recent accompaniment of Puente Nayero here.