The Fellowship of Reconciliation Peace Presence (FOR Peace Presence) is an organization dedicated to providing safety, political visibility and solidarity to communities and individuals in Colombia who are working to promote human rights, peace and justice. We have had a permanent presence in the peace community of San José de Apartadó since 2002, initially with a field team of two, then three members. In 2005, we established a team in Bogotá to provide support for the San José team, carry out the political work with government officials and the diplomatic core and accompany and support other Colombian partners. We also carry out advocacy in the US, host delegations, organize speaking tours and publish a variety of resources to help folks understand better what is going on in Colombia and how the issues here are connected to issues elsewhere. We currently have a team of five, an accountant and one full time staff person and we continue to receive financial and staff support from FORUSA, the organization we have been part of for the last 11 years. Although we have been doing this work since 2002 as a program of FORUSA, we are now in the process of venturing out on our own as an independent organization. We are excited to carry on this important work in Colombia and explore new paths forward as well!
The meaning of words like perseverance, humility, and accompaniment sunk in deeply during my months with the families of San José de Apartadó, as together we earnestly and imperfectly sought to protect one another. I remember San José as a place of sudden sadnesses and sudden beauties. Of an orphan’s horse that we named together “Relampago” [Lightning], of an adopted grandfather named Ramon, and a beloved godchild named Ander. Of harvesting rice in a curving line of dozens of hard-working friends. Of sugar cane and baby bananas. Of singing ridiculous, joyful songs to not-quite-tuned guitars. Of long, frustrating meetings with officials who had never made the hike up the mountain to see with their own eyes, to hear the stories from the mouths of those who lived them. Of the plaintive sound of a crying infant, atop the muffled drone of the helicopters in the distance. The people of San Jose de Apartado were and remain a beacon to a cast of pilgrims, from so many corners of our fragile planet, who want to join them to make things better– pilgrims who assemble there to try. I’m so grateful to have been one of them. – Chris Moore-Backman, FOR Team Member 2002
FOR Peace Presence provides physical safety, political visibility and solidarity by accompanying communities and organizations that embrace active nonviolence to defend life, land and dignity.
In 1998, FOR-USA awarded the annual Pfeffer Peace Prize to the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. It had been nominated by the Colombia Support Network, and a representative of the Peace Community traveled to the U.S. to receive the prize. In March 2000, FOR-USA’s Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean (TFLAC) visited the Peace Community for the first time after being invited to participate in the Community’s third anniversary.
The year 2000 was a tragic one for the community, as it suffered two massacres at the hands of the paramilitaries: one in the town center of San José de Apartadó in which five people were killed, and the other in June when paramilitaries assassinated six leaders of the Peace Community in the village of La Unión.
Along with the human rights organization Global Exchange, TFLAC decided to organize a U.S. delegation to Colombia in March 2001. While in San José, Peace Community representatives asked the delegation to return and observe its meetings with the government’s investigative commission to investigate the crimes committed against the Peace Community. After the delegation returned, the request was modified to include permanent presence from FOR-USA. Two more visits were made to the community in 2001 to develop the relationship, TFLAC’s understanding of the Community’s process, and consider the possibilities of international accompaniment.
While analyzing the request from the Community, various factors were considered. The Peace Community already had periodic accompaniment from Peace Brigades International in the town center of San José de Apartadó, and national support from human rights organizations. Analyzing the experiences of PBI, the conflict in Colombia and specifically in the region of Urabá, and considering the international recognition of the Peace Community, an advisory committee determined that generally armed actors respected and were wary of an international presence, refraining from directly attacking the Community while it was accompanied. The analysis of our capacity for dissuasion of this kind has been ongoing. It is continuous, and very complex in a dynamic conflict, which fluctuates rapidly according to national, regional and international circumstance.
Given the high level of U.S. military support for Colombia, the Committee believed that the presence of U.S. volunteers could help in showing the U.S. public an image of Colombia that would contrast with the general perception of a violent country without hope for change. Documenting the experiences of civilians seeking independent and nonviolent ways of life in the middle of conflict would serve to motivate Americans to demand a change of the militaristic policies and give support to civilian and grassroots initiatives.
For these reasons, it was decided that TFLAC’s Colombia Program would not only serve as accompaniment in San José de Apartadó, but that public education work in the U.S. would also play an important role in protecting the Community and securing long-term changes.
In January of 2002, the new program coordinator and the first two accompaniers arrived in the Community.
In years since the start of the CPP, the volunteers and coordinating team in San Francisco and later Bogota have shared all kinds of experiences with the Community: joys, sadness, dangers, fears, parties and successes. One of the volunteers who was in La Unión for 14 months describes the experience:
“In the last two months, while life here has gotten under my skin, I have see two distinct realities y have tried to understand how they can exist simultaneously. One reality is the peasant life — hard work and pride in that, laughter, so many skills that I don’t have (how to saddle a horse, for example), huge plates of rice and beans, fried plantains, expeditions with the children to far away fruit trees. And on top of this life — inside of it — is the life of war, the memories, the constant monitoring of the armed groups (soldiers were spotted in the road yesterday… was it a checkpoint or were they only passing through? the noise of gunshots and the evaluation: are they close? are they coming closer?), the fear. And this reality, the reality of the war carries its opposite — the reality of resistance to the war and its logic, the resistance that this community is living everyday.
I see people who every day choose to resist the military and economic forces that want to stop them through displacement, death, buying them off as informants or whatever other way, but who also choose every day to smile at me, to bring me guavas, eggs or baby bananas.
I see that the resistance is composed not only of a political position, but also of how one lives ones daily life. And the two realities that seem so distinct, seem to merge… survival is resistance and resistance is survival, life is made up of the past, present and future, of memory, of daily chores and of moving forward. One has to always move forward.”
The closeness and sharing of life with the Community distinguishes our work from many other international accompaniment experiences in Colombia. On one hand this closeness creates very gratifying and important bonds of friendship, both for the volunteers as well as for the organization, and contributes to the profound understanding of this alternative to war constructed by the war’s victims. On the other hand, sometimes the decisions are difficult — What is our role when a pregnant woman urgently needs transport to the hospital in the middle of the night? Is it the role of the volunteers to advise the representatives of the town center to organize? Can one say that it’s not?
In requesting international accompaniment, the Community made the decision to raise its profile in order to protect itself. The founding of a peace community is a proactive strategy and the international presence is an additional ingredient. In addition, the request shows the desire of the Community that its history be documented not only for its own memory, but also for the outside world. Each time that we celebrate three months of resistance we do so in remembrance [of the victims], because they have offered their lives and did so choosing peaceful alternatives.
The experiences of various organizations in Colombia demonstrates that international presence in a conflict region can diminish considerably the risks of the civilian population that has been converted into a military target by armed actors that consider them the collaborators of their adversaries. As explained in Unarmed Bodyguards by Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren, accompaniment literally personifies the international concern for human rights. It is a convincing and visible reminder to those who use violence that their actions won’t go unnoticed. The premise of accompaniment is that there will be an international response to whatever violence is observed by the volunteer. That request carries the implicit threat of diplomatic or economic pressure; a pressure that the perpetrators of violence want to avoid. Therefore, all of our efforts focus on the prevention of attacks on those being accompanied.
Because of this, the armed actors and civilians in the conflict should have explicit knowledge of the physical presence of the international accompaniers as well as the support network that backs them up. The work therefore has two prongs: the physical presence of the volunteers and the political/diplomatic work that raises the visibility of the accompaniment as well as of the accompanied person.
The volunteers and coordinating team of the FOR Peace Presence maintain direct and frequent contact with the Colombian civilian and military authorities in order to advise them of the international presence in the Community, inform them of how witnesses are faring, and to be able to listen to the government’s analysis of the situation in Colombia and the community. These opinions are incorporated in our analyses of security and the political climate. We also advise these same officials about specific accompaniment tasks that differ from the norm. Additionally, the volunteers meet with the U.S. embassy and various other diplomatic representatives for the same reasons. In addition, relationships with international, national and local NGOs are extremely important for building internal solidarity networks and to jointly analyze and react to threats. We do not make direct contact with illegal actors.
The hope is that with a great visibility and higher level of international support we can open the political space for the very important work of the movements seeking justice and peace that does not exclude the poor and marginalized.