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.
Considering other roles of a potential presence:
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.
Establishment of the FOR-USA Colombia Peace Presence (CPP)
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?