The Hike That Kills

Dec 3, 2010 | News, Peace and Nonviolence

By Liza Smith

Friday, December 3, 2010, 12:19pm

by Jon Patberg, current Accompaniment Team Member in Colombia

I recently came back from a six day accompaniment journey to a remote village called Mulatos about 16 miles to the northeast of La Union. Mulatos is the site of the 2005 massacre in which community leader and ideologue, Luis Eduardo Guerra, his wife, his son and two other community members were murdered, dismembered and buried alongside the river by paramilitary groups. Since then, the village was vacated and has slowly re-populated as people came back from displacement. In addition, the peace community has made Mulatos its future center of operations, both because of its memorial importance and because of its geographic centrality amongst the villages of the peace community.

Me and my teammate, Isaac, were to accompany the president of the peace community’s council to the community villages in the department of Cordoba, where we were to meet up with other members, and then to Mulatos where we would join delegations from all of the villages that make up the peace community. In total, about 200 community members (along with about 30 people from a peace community in Portugal called Tamera, and several others from Israel, Palestine, Holland and Germany) gathered for the regular Assembly, during which, community leaders from the various regions would bring up problems in their regions and here about potential solutions. In addition, the community’s leaders, including those providing ideological and political direction from the cities, held workshops and lectures on topics ranging from community ideals, to sustainable agriculture and political aims. During these two days, the community ate together, (they slaughtered and butchered an entire cow—) sleeps together (in very tight arrangements) and plays together (mostly consisting of the swimming hole in the nearby river, joke sessions in the kitchen and campfires with music at night). In all, it was reminiscent of church summer camp, but for a bunch of largely non-religious peace activists.

As accompaniers and in accordance with the agreement FOR has with the community, Isaac and I are prohibited from directly participating in their internal meetings unless we are specifically invited. This means that during the day while the community members are meeting from 6am-6pm, Isaac and I had very little to do. We would meet with people during meals to get information about the status of the situation in the villages that we rarely frequent, but largely, we sat around, read and watched the community interact. While at first the whole event did feel like summer camp that, from my point of view, promised to be pretty boring, I ended up appreciating being there more than I could have thought.

I started this job with, what I liked to think of as, a healthy dose of skepticism. Not only about the Colombian conflict and the press surrounding it, but about everything…even the complete veracity of the peoples’ stories. It wasn’t that I didn’t think the stories occurred, or that I doubted the armed actors have committed several atrocities, or even that the government has done many things to completely destroy trust with the country’s rural population. Rather it was that I never really let the true gravity of such things, like witnessing a massacre that was orchestrated by the military you thought was protecting you, really sink in. As a result, I found myself focusing on things like the use of the word ’massacre’ and debating whether or not that was really appropriate…(really? was it a massacre or just a murder?) Or, I cynically focused on the feeling, that the members’ devotion to the founding ideals of the peace community may falter as things in Colombia improve, albeit slowly. This raises the question of what happens to the peace community when there is no longer the threat of violence to bind the people together? How can the community continue? In my mind, this painted a picture of a community with not much chance of lasting past this current generation…

My view of the community changed these past few days because I got to witness the community actually wrestling with the challenges they face to maintain their cohesion. I am not lying when I say that the hike is killer. It is 8-10 hrs of walking strait up and down mountains on trails covered in three feet of mud so sticky it is like cement if you let your foot rest for longer than 15 seconds, but so slippery that if you go too fast you’ll find yourself half-way down the hill you just spent 45 minutes trying to climb. Yet, despite all that, it was important enough to these people to be able to meet with fellow community members, exercise what it means to be a part of this peace community and to remind themselves that they are part of something larger than their fincas or families. While discordance is present in the community, harmony is not what makes this social experiment great… but rather the fact that people make serious sacrifices to work with others to achieve security and a better political future.

I was really excited to see this happen and for the first time really felt that I was working alongside something truly exceptional.

To top that off, I was also able to talk to some of the community’s most highly regarded, and thus most physically threatened, leaders. Late into the night, we sat and listened as these leaders, whom are way too serious to ever exaggerate, told, in vivid detail, about the three massacres that have occurred over the past 15 years. They described paramilitary troops entering their communities, taking everyone from their homes, separating out a few leaders and executing them point blank in front of everyone, even children. Or they waded through the story of trying to resist or hide, but the paramilitaries broke down doors, fired at people as they ran or found people in their hiding spots. I don’t know how to relate the feeling to you, but something clicked that night. I had come to know these people as community politicians, mothers and fathers like any other, never really thinking how unlike any other mother, father or politician their experiences make them.

It is still impossible for me to truly understand that horror, but what I did begin to understand that night was how horrifying it is to me that my mind, which has been exposed to article after article and movie after movie describing things as violent as the Rwandan Genocide, cannot process their experiences enough to develop the emotions that must have resulted from watching their neighbors get executed. It is terrifying to me that the pain they suffered is so deep that I will never understand it. It is out of my league, like the expanse of outer-space or the rationalization of faith.

Now, when I think of the community and the Colombian context in which it exists, I still am skeptical about things like who’s to blame for what, or who is telling the truth or what news source is biased and how, but what I am not skeptical about is the complete and utter veracity of these people’s stories. As a result, I am much more confident that this community has the memory and the momentum to continue to work together to develop tools and activities that will hold the community together long after the violence as subsided.

I guess NOW I have a HEALTHY dose of skepticism.

To read more of Jon’s blog, click here.