CPT Colombia: installment #1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26 Feb 2003
Dear Friends and Family,
Warm greetings to you all from Colombia. It’s up with the roosters this morning to get some focused computer time in the midst of a busy schedule with a seven member delegation present. Will go to the upriver Opon area tomorrow and off and on for the next week, so am taking advantage of technology access while I can.
Drenching rain finally hit us here in town yesterday to cool things off temporarily. Some would say that it’s the first since before Christmas, but not to be thought of as the end to the dry season. A pleasant respite, though. Dry would seem generally to mean warmer, but I’m grateful to report that on my thermometer, we’ve stayed in the mid-to-high 90’s at tops. Not my favorite weather, but not absolutely intolerable either. A fan in town, and a hammock under a shade tree in the campo mid-afternoon helps out a lot.
If I’d gotten to this several days ago on returning from my second trip upriver, you’d be hearing superlatives about birds and animal life by now instead of the weather. My apologies. But maybe I can still recover some of the excitement…The beginning of that particular trip took us an hour up the Magdalena to the Opon and then through the “cano” (put a squiggle on that n …), a narrow waterway connecting the Cienega del Opon with the river. I’d long looked forward to visiting the community on the far side of this shallow lake about the size of Lake Monona at home. But it was the trip along the mile-long connection that had me grinning from ear to ear almost from the moment we entered. Our motorista kept the outboard’s propeller mostly free of entanglements while I concentrated on the herons and egrets, bitterns and sandpipers, raptors and warblers and flycatchers and kingfishers and you name it along the way. A birdwatcher’s paradise! Bright swatches of color, along with shrieks and trills and howlings (monkeys?), flashed by and surrounded us as we motored through jungle and high grasslands toward open water ahead. When we finally came to the Cienega it was almost a relief from the stimulation of the mile-long entryway, but that gave way as we crossed to the paramilitary-dominated community of fishermen and women on the other side…
One reliable family of friends welcomed us, but others gave an unusually cool reception compared to the mostly wide-open warmth of the families upriver who originally invited CPT two years ago. In spite of the raised level of anxiety some here feel about the potential for open warfare again between the armed groups on the right and the left, I can pretty well count on smiles and waves from the river banks on the part of those who are total strangers to this gringo. But things are different on this Cienega a few short kms. away. While we waited there for a lunch of boiled fish and vegetables to cook on an open fire, my team companion was being grilled by a young paramilitary who among others things was professing his undying love for her, this while admitting he’d kept us all under close surveillance during the past weeks. Not a great way to win friends, let alone a girlfriend. Either because he’d grown up locally, or because he was a threat (we remain unsure), our host family refused to acknowledge what he made no effort to hide—that he was a para, and that he had been both an ELN and FARC guerrilla in the past. It happens that the AUC (paramilitaries) are paying considerably higher salaries at the moment…
Our return through the cano provided the delightful spectacle of hundreds of barn swallows swooping in and out just ahead of our launch. I imagined some of them being those that build spring nests in Pat’s barn at Mt. Sally homestead below my cabin. That reassuring image comes back to me now as I recall Carol Spring (team member taking a needed break from the work here for this next while) going into greater detail about the most recent and closest act of violence CPT here has witnessed since the new year. Along that same stretch of waterway in January, the weekly passenger “line” was held up by three alleged guerrillas, one woman and two men, and the driver taken off, shot five times, and left for dead. Remaining passengers terrorized, boat left adrift, valuable motor stolen. The team arrived as he was being taken by another boat into Barranca; word has it that he has survived, but has had to go into hiding while continuing recovery. He is one of many who in the horrible and complex reality lived out here, is accused of collaboration with one side or the other, and must “displace,” as the spanish verb so commonly puts it. He had some warning, as many do, but did not heed it. He was fortunate to keep his life. It is the frequency of that displacement, however, that CPT has been invited here to help reduce, as well as the level of violence on all fronts.
On a more positive note, I want to tell you an earlier story from my second evening in the campo, first trip out. Charles and I were starting to relax in the early-arriving darkness when four shadowy figures came toward our supper hosts’ thatched-roofed home where we sat outside near the river bank. I sensed Charles’ anxiety and quickly prepared for a confrontation, but the story that emerged through gasps for air on the part of four elderly neighbors was of a perceived death threat hours before, and a warning to leave the area. It took us some time to put most of their story together and come up with a plan to accompany them two miles back home upriver in a neighbor’s boat and ours. With flashlights shining on our white CPT flag at the helm, and with the additional help of a full moon overhead, our driver pulled us up to the bank at the first man’s property. What would await us here, I wondered? Our plan was to quickly pack up his belongings and move on to the next place. Even in the heightened tension of the moment, I felt sadness at the end result of his being forced to leave, many belongings and a cat with kittens left behind. A half hour later, the elderly neighbors having experienced a period of accompaniment and security, they decided to spend the night huddled together; we returned to our overnight place with the man who would make his final exodus early the next morning.
I led up to this story hinting at a hopeful ending. The gist of it is that two days later, Sandra (Colombian teammate) and I stopped in at the place Charles and I had left the older folks; now in this visit we were hoping for the best. We received it. They greeted us with effusive warmth, grateful for the late night assistance earlier, but incredibly relieved at what had transpired just that morning. Anxiety had once again sent them off to a safer haven for the night, but on return to their corn-planting in the morning three guerrillas awaited them with—miracle of miracles—an apology. A gesture that had been taken as a threat two days before had been misunderstood, and the neighbor’s reputation vouched for. He, they said, was free to return…And they, the neighbors, reported Maria Eugenia with a huge smile, had been protected for two days by a “battalion of angels”, these peacemaking gringos apparently figuring prominently among them.
If all stories with potential for sadder outcomes end this well in my three months here, I’ll count my lucky stars and thank God for all of our universal “accompaniment.” In the meantime, I continue to thank you all for your prayers and healing energies sent this way. May we all seek strength and comfort from those we love, and find reinforced conviction to stand boldly for what is right in these often difficult days.
In peace, Bruce
CPT Colombia: installment #2 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24 Mar 2003
Like many of you, my attention today is split between tasks that I need and want to do on an otherwise Sunday off, and the war. Some of you may be aware that among the many internationals present in Baghdad in solidarity with the people of Iraq are six CPTers, including Lisa, Scott and Stewart (formerly from the Colombia team); Betty (who I trained with in Chicago in January); and Cliff (who’s wife Arlene types away beside me in the office here in Barrancabermeja). They are divided between a tent outside a pediatric hospital, another tent alongside a water treatment plant, and their communications base at the Al Dahr hotel which remarkably at this hour still has electricity, and from which their cell phones are still operating to stay in touch with Chicago and each other. I worry about their safety and waffle between the faith in and acceptance of their calling, and imagining what I would be experiencing in their place (and that of millions of Iraqis): the pounding horror of bombs and missiles, the trembling vulnerability of your loved ones, the wondering in this moment how much worse it can become, as of course it well may… They reported the sad, tearful , and sometimes hopeless conversations with Iraqi friends before the onslaught (“What will become of us?), and currently testify to the precariousness of all their existence. Will the electronic precision of Shock and Awe spare their lives? Will the ground war and occupation of Baghdad leave life intact amid the rubble?
I wonder again about myself in their shoes… How strong is my faith, my commitment to stand alongside suffering and condemn injustice, my embrace of hope and joy? And I pray for my friends and all of us that this war be over soon, that casualties of soldiers and civilians on both sides somehow be limited, that we might somehow take another step toward learning that violence can not be a useful answer to violence. It seems a feeble prayer. It’s what I can do.
As for Barrancabermeja, Colombia and the Cienaga region of the Rio Opon, I’m experiencing the old adage that it seems I could have written a book after two weeks, maybe only a chapter then after a month here, and now after six weeks on site, I’ve begun to feel I’m not even good for a paragraph. But let’s see where this goes.
The first thing to tell you is that things are relatively calm at the moment and holding. It’s been a couple of weeks since the guerrillas have seemingly ended a subtle (and not-so) campaign of harassment of numerous individuals along the river, claiming knowledge of an informer or collaborator, and making threats of what they would do if they found him. Seems to have also been an effort to enlist an informer for their side. Hopefully that effort has failed, as civilians stuck to their position of neutrality. In the meantime a week-long federal army presence on the Cienaga has dissipated into nothing after they’d indicated a permanent post would be built next door to the already-installed paramilitaries. And finally, the army crossed into the Opon River region on foot from an area miles away on the Magdalena River where we’d heard bombing and gunfire over several days. After several hours of interviewing civilians about guerrilla activity they, too, left the area. All of this armed activity notwithstanding, the three communities have finally contracted teachers to come out, and the several small (poorly equipped) schools in the area will re-open this week-- six weeks late, but bringing the optimism and sense of stability that education of their children has to offer the campesinos up and down the river.
What comes to mind next is a unique conversation I was able to have last week with two FARC guerrillas on a chance encounter along a path behind a civilian’s house. This armed group avoids us even more than the AUC (paramilitary right). Their patrols take them routinely through more than half the area we accompany, but since our outboard motor approaching is recognizable from a distance, and our presence makes them uncomfortable, they easily become scarce when we are near. Mark and I were sitting visiting with a sick old man in a hammock as they came around the house; all of us registered mild surprise that there was no avoiding at least an acknowledgment the other was there. This will be interesting, I thought. “Hello, I’m Bruce. I’m new in these parts with CPT. How are you guys doing?” So-so, came the response; but along with that, no seeming great urgency to move on. The one in charge, with radio and rifle, set a tone of cautious but friendly response to my questions; the younger, only in his teens, relaxed even more to tell me how much they often long for hot food. “You guys probably have met some of the earlier team out here, right?” Yeah, we’ve talked with Scott a bit last year, and met Lisa, too. “Maybe you’ll be interested to know they’re in Iraq right now, since they couldn’t get their visas renewed here...” The conversation was maybe ten minutes in all, and I thought later of how much more I wanted to say. But what was shared in those few moments sticks with me now a week later. Their concern for my friends and dismay about the imminent attacks on Baghdad were real. We agreed that Saddam was a dictator, that my U.S. government was a bully, that control of oil was a factor, that innocent people get killed. These guys, I thought, are caught in this awful cycle of violence as well. In a forty year-old civil war, that cycle is very hard to break. I’d like to think they’d lay down their weapons in a minute if peace talks were sincere and brought concessions. Naďve, probably. But what other reality has the young recruit, either of them probably, ever known? I wished them well, that they and the other armed group stay clear of each other. We said maybe we’d see each other again.
On the flora and fauna front, there are several things to report. One that made me feel as much of a hero as I get opportunity to of late involved a great blue heron with its wing deeply penetrated by two large fish hooks on a heavy line secured to an unattended pole. The bird flailed and flailed as we motored past, its energy obviously waning. As we pulled alongside I was afraid it would break its wing in the effort to get free. I reached over to hold it with one arm while trying to get the hooks out with my other hand. Remarkably, the bird seemed to recognize a kindly effort. It relaxed perceptibly in the while it took to remove the barbs from torn flesh, then half-hopped, half-flew into the undergrowth with my “may you be well” trailing after.
On a not-so-positive note for us, “winter” rains have begun, and mosquitoes are flourishing accordingly. This rainy season follows the slash-and-burn preparation for corn planting in the previous two months, and brings maybe a five degree average temperature drop, but with higher humidity; thus it feels just as hot but you have thousands of mosquitoes, day and night. The Opon River has demonstrated its remarkable ability to go from previously unknown shallow levels making travel tedious, to filling up to almost over-flowing in the course of a short day or two (we’re talking an eight foot rise here). I try to remember that rain falling on us and into the river arrives in Barranca in an hour, but this system is draining hundreds of square miles of mountains in the department of Santander, and it’s impossible to know in this season where a three inch rainfall is happening in a given moment. A flood can appear in the middle of an otherwise sunny day, and disappear during a rainstorm.
There are still plenty of birds about, but I believe many of you are welcoming in early migration some of those I’m saying good-bye to here. I have to say (and this will surprise no one) that one of the major joys of my days upriver comes in the form of these communities’ delightful children, and one of the many who greet us from the riverbank as we go up and down is seven year-old Alicita, my budding birding apprentice. She’s just barely getting two permanent teeth in that endearing gap in her bright smile, and as I climb up the river bank she’s already naming the birds she’s identified in the days since I was last here. Mom and Dad seem to tolerate well her persistent questions of “what’s that one called,” and she’s already got my binoculars around her neck before I’m up and over the riverbank. Hers is one of the numerous families we rely on for hospitality (we bring a meal or two of food for ourselves and them, they cook for us…), and in this case Bruce is learning from them how to throw an “ataralla” or fish net, and cook bagre (catfish) in coconut sauce in exchange for sharing his birding enthusiasms.
The last thing I’ll report in this edition will also let me end on a positive note. Though we haven’t yet celebrated it as well as we ought, our first year-long visa in nearly that same period of time was granted this week. Scott Albrecht from Ontario, who was here short-term when I was on delegation in October, will be able to come sometime early next month, we’re told. It remains a mystery just how this has happened (seems on one hand to be pure fluke, or possibly a limited concession) since a highly placed source had just reported to us how intransigent the Ministry of Exterior Relations was admitted to be as regards CPT and visas (too friendly with the guerrilla left is one version; another that we have been too publicly critical of the federal army’s collaboration in this region with the paras). But we’ll take what we can and pray that more might follow. Scott’s arrival will help me to anticipate leaving in early May with more ease. Somewhere in the first week of April we will be down to a team of three for a short while (and around about then I’ll be in serious need of a vacation), but numbers should grow a bit through the month, and then a delegation of twelve Colombians will join us during Holy Week.
That, in more than a paragraph after all, is the report a long time in coming. Thank you all again for your support, and may the Spirit of love, justice, reconciliation and great hopefulness be with you and us all.
CPT Colombia: installment #3 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 Apr 2003
I've taken a few moments to look over e-mail this evening and found this letter from Voices in the Wilderness and Kathy Kelly, whom many of you know, or know of. Sorry if it's a duplicate to some. It's very well worth reading. In the same batch of newly-arrived stuff comes word from CPT that long-termers Scott Kerr and Stewart Vriesinga had gotten back into Iraq and were on their way back to Baghdad. (A neighbor friend here asked about Scott a couple hours ago; he remains a very beloved guy both on this street and upriver on the Opon.) I'm appalled to think of 250 U.S. military advisors and civilian consultants becoming the occupation government and decision-makers for millions of Iraquis, as thankful as I am that the bombing at least has ended for now. It is important that independent ears and eyes be on hand to witness life as it carries on there, so I hope friends like Kathy and Scott and Stewart and others can sustain their presence.
As for life here in Barrancabermeja, I can give a brief report and still promise another longer letter before leaving in a couple weeks. I'm in the city resting for a couple days while a 12-member delegation of Colombians from Bogota (with half of our team) represent us out in the Opon. They've been an energetic bunch and have endured meeting after meeting with human rights NGO's and church workers here in the city; on sending them off this afternoon my principle hope was that they would be able to endure the mosquitos as well (late-breaking news flash: each group just made radio contact on schedule and reported a heart-warming reception by host campesino families, and fewer than usual mosquitoes in mid-Holy Week. May that remain the case...)
The guerrillas and AUC paramilitaries continue their movements through the Opon region. We CPT'ers experience more of the para presence: a co-worker and I had an unsettling encounter with 16 heavily-armed soldiers camped out at the home of a family of good friends last week. Individuals in the communities still get harassed by FARC soldiers looking for para collaborators, though we ourselves encounter this armed group only by occasional chance on paths along the river bank we walk as a break from river patrols. Our constant fear, and that of the civilians, is that an attack on one group by the other could take place at one of the homes where a patrol on maneuvers has set up camp. Pray with us that that not happen. Pray as well for the less likely event that all armed actors turn in their weapons of violence for tools of sustenance and return home to their own loved ones...
I'm having a restoring evening here at "home," and am in good health and spirits. Thank you as always for your prayers and support, financial and otherwise. And I wish for all of you a peaceful and deeply meaningful Easter holy/holiday, one filled with joy and reassurance that life springs anew, and eternally renewed, from circumstances that can sometimes appear less than hopeful. Enjoy that Spring for me, please, those of you who live where the peepers are beginning their cacophonous chorus, and trilliums triumph among the wildflowers in the Wisconsin woods. It's a special season to behold.
love to you,
Dear Friends, It was with great relief that we received an update from Kathy today. Only through unreliable satellite connection have we received sporadic word from our team still in Baghdad. We think Kathy's letter which follows, speaks volumes to the current tragedy playing itself out on the streets of Baghdad and undoubtedly, throughout Iraq.
Please bear with us as we discern next steps, not just with our team in Iraq but here at home as well. As government and media pundits alike insist that this war is "ending," we urge the doubling of efforts to call attention to the fact that war doesn't end for those who have lost limbs, loved ones, homes, and precious sense of security to blind greed.
Hello Friends, April 10, 2003
Early this morning, Umm Zainab sat quietly in the Al Fanar lobby staring at the parade of tanks, APCs and Humvees that slowly rolled into position along Abu Nuwas Street. Tears streamed down her face. "I am very sad," she told me. "Never I thought this would happen to my country. Now, I think, my sadness will never go away." Wanting to give Umm Zainab some quiet time, I took her two toddlers, Zainab and Miladh, outside to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air. Several soldiers stood guard not far from me and the children. I wanted to bring the children over to them, to let them behold these tiny beauties. But, no, too much of a risk-what if it would add to Umm Zaineb's pain? Eun Ha Yoo, our Korean Peace Team friend, unrolled a huge artwork created by a Korean artist, Chae Pyong Doh, and sweetly laid it out in the intersection just outside the Al Fanar. As I write, Neville Watson and Cathy Breen are taking their turns sitting in the middle of it. A map of the world covers the top third; grieving victims of war fill the middle third; piles of ugly weapons with various flags scattered over them bulge out of the bottom third. Neville has set up his prayer stool and a small wooden cross where he sits. Cathy is wearing her "War Is Not The Answer" t-shirt. At least a dozen soldiers have stopped to talk with us since we began the vigil at 3 this afternoon. "OK, can you tell us your side of the story?" asked one young man. "Can I sit there with you for awhile?" asked another. Each of them has assured us that they didn't want to kill anyone. One young man said he was desperate for financial aid to care for his wife and child while struggling to complete college studies and work full time. He felt he could gain some respect in this world and also help his family by joining the Marines. He's relieved that he was stationed at the rear of a line coming up from the south. His role was to guard prisoners. He didn't shoot anyone. But he saw US soldiers shoot at a civilian car with three passengers as it approached. The child in the car survived - both of his parents were immediately killed. "They could have shot the tires," said the soldier. "Some just want to kill." One soldier offered earnest concern for us, saying "You're sitting in a dangerous place." We smiled. "Thanks," I said, "But we've been in a dangerous place for the past three weeks." He was puzzled. "What do they mean," said a soldier standing next to him, "is that they've been here all through three weeks of bombing." "Do you try to put yourselves in our shoes?" asked one soldier after he'd respectfully listened to me explain major contradictions between US rhetoric and practice regarding Iraq. "Well, yes," I said, "We try. We're taking the same risk as you by being here, and perhaps an even greater risk since we're unarmed and unprotected. Actually, just now we're lucky not to be burdened by all that heavy gear." "Yeah," said the soldier, "It's really hot. I don't have much of an appetite. I just give away most of my rations, - give 'em to these people." Hassan, one of the shoeshine boys, came over to join us, carrying a ration packet. He opened it, came across processed apple spread, and a few other curious items, then decided to donate it to us. Now the flies have discovered it. It looks like we're on "lock-down" for a while longer. Iraqi minders are gone, --US soldiers are here. They're uncoiling barbed wire at the intersection. Anyone wanting to walk across the street is stopped, questioned and searched. Since I began this letter, there have been four huge explosions nearby. Looting and burning continue, here in Baghdad. I'm sick of war-disgusted to the point of nausea. I think all of us at this intersection, residents of the Al Fanar, journalists in the Palestine Hotel next door, and soldiers on patrol, share the same queasy ill feeling. The line, "War is the health of the state" makes no sense whatsoever here.
We hope Kathy's words have moved you as much as they have us. There is
not a single person who partakes in or experiences this war, these acts of
violence, who is not profoundly effected, be they a soldier or a civilian.
War, and all the misery that it brings, is truly our common enemy.
Peace and hope,
Stephanie Schaudel, for Voices in the Wilderness
[Bruce returned to Wisconsin in May 2003.]
Return to Colombia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Fri, 06 Feb 2004
Greetings, dear friends,
I am writing you while preparing to leave for Colombia with Christian Peacemakers Team to spend another two and a half months as a human rights volunteer in Barrancabermeja and the Opon river Valley. Some of you are well acquainted with the accompaniment work we have been invited to do there over the last several years; for others this will be newer information.
I returned last May from my first three-month stay in a region of Colombia which is hot in two distinct senses: at this time of year the daily high hovers around 100 degrees at mid-day; and like too many places in that country, violence is again on the increase. The Middle Magdalena River valley is home to frequent attacks between armed groups: the paramilitary AUC, the guerrilla FARC and ELN, and the various federal army, navy and police forces. Colombia remains enmeshed in a forty year long civil war; civilians are often targeted as collaborators with one extremist faction or are caught in the crossfire between them.
Christian Peacemakers Team is one of several international groups that came to this area in l999 at the request of regional human rights and religious organizations as well as civilian communities to be witnesses, to accompany civilians and help insure safety, to denounce abuses when necessary, to promote violence-reduction.
In my volunteer work with CPT I will undertake these tasks in various ways. The team currently consists of six to eight full and part-time staff from the U.S., Canada, and Colombia. We maintain an office in the paramilitary-controlled industrial city of Barrancabermeja (pop. 300,000) from which CPT hosts delegations, conducts vigils, and stays constantly in contact with many local groups and individuals at peril for their stance of non-alignment and unwillingness to accept violent solutions to the region's many disputes. In the U.S. and Canada, through e-mail, phone, fax, lobbying (and not in the least -- prayer ), CPT also helps to bring important attention to a human rights situation that can deteriorate quickly for lack of the wider world's attention.
Several members of the team remain in the city at all times while others are dispersed in "accompaniment" roles, primarily among four communities of one hundred total families in a remote region two hours by motor canoe up the Magdalena and Opon Rivers from Barranca. There, at the request of these small land-holders, we maintain a near-constant presence. "Without you dear friends," they tell us with frequency, "some of us would die; we would have to leave our land. We could not remain here."
In many respects day to day life looks normal in the neighborhood of the CPT office in the city and in the more remote environment of the communities upriver. People go to work, maintain shops, plant and harvest crops, visit and eat together. Underneath, however, the potential of violence is constant. Our own team and internationals in general have not been targeted, but religious and union workers, young people active in the local Catholic parish, even an evangelical pastor who refused to pay a tax to the right-wing paramilitaries, have been kidnapped and tortured, or murdered outright. In the weeks before Christmas the CPT team had to assist in the location and recovery of six bodies from the Opon River. A community farmworker remains disappeared. It has been a trying and difficult period for all, full of grief and despair on the local residents' part who questioned if they could risk remaining. But they have found the strength to do so, and with a faith in God's presence, we remain with them. At present, a lull in the violence again prevails. (Articles from that period can be found at www.cpt.org.)
I know from previous experiences that, of course, hope remains. The flora and fauna of the Opon region are awe-inspiring. A dear seven-year-old friend sings songs of peace with her father in their hammock nightly before her bedtime. Last year a young paramilitary commander was moved at great risk to leave his battalion and inspire several other recruits to do the same: this after a long discussion with CPT team members about the futility of seeking violent solutions in this decades-old war. We who come from the outside must be open to receiving encouragement, as well as disposed to giving it. But I admit to struggling to find those answers and inspiration at times.
So I write to you to request the support of your thoughts and prayers. While it is with a sense of privilege that I go back to Colombia and the warm welcome that I experience among people of such great commitment and faith, I also return very much aware of my own limitations. I need the strength I can get from my own faith and yours that the power of love can transcend and transform difficult circumstances. In no small way I need physical energy and endurance for temperature extremes, voracious mosquitoes, and nights sleeping on the ground. Mostly I need the sense that I am also "accompanied" -- by God's spirit and your own, you my friends and support community who excel at lifting and holding each other up for the tasks we are all called to in undertaking to make this world a better place.
Thank you for that.
Bruce Miller in Colombia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sat, 06 Mar 2004
Thanks for your response of a month ago and interest in photos. ...[If] you would have interest, the cpt.org web site has a link to recent photo selections from the team work here in Colombia, and a delegation just leaving for home again will post some very good ones within a week or so of an inspiring time we had in organizing a day-long event in the remote river region at the site where FARC guerrilas in Dec. attacked a gasoline barge, killing 4 and dumping thousands of gallons of combustibles into the Opon River, the communities' only drinking water source. Sixty people gathered and created banners and told stories and made a huge potluck sancocho soup where just two months ago that act of terror took a considerable toll on their spirit.
The festive and reflective day of gathering at the site also helped inspire the communities in their pursuit of maintaining neutrality and a nonviolent posture in relation to the different armed groups. They hope to have a mtg soon with yet another of the right-wing paramilitary factions to say among other things that they stand firm against accusations of collaboration with the other side and will resist efforts to restrict their free movement and commerce on the river.
I find their courageous spirit and clear and strengthening vision to be quite moving under the circumstances, really under any circumstances. Here where recrimination of displacement and even death are commonplace, theirs is a remarkable faith and organizing energy to behold...Have to say I feel privileged to be with and nearby them in this while.
Hope to have a more thorough update your way in the next week or so.
Thanks for your concern and support.
Peace to you,
Bruce Miller Colombia CPT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Thu, 25 Mar 2004
Dear family and friends,
Though I'd promised more frequent communication with you all, it’s obviously not happening, so I hope that you who know me well have gotten wind that I'm alive and doing fine. (Those who don't I guess didn't know I've been out of touch). Maybe that's the first thing to assure, and reflect on a bit: that in this beautiful country, and in this long and difficult period in its history where its own people know so little economic and physical security, we internationals here generally have an almost embarrassingly large quantity of both.
Not to say that CPT-ers should take either for granted. But since coming in early February I haven’t felt any threat of physical harm. Am I naive, or oblivious, or what? Is it that the paramilitary or the guerrillas don’t choose to target us because it wouldn’t look good to shoot a gringo? Is it that these (mostly) men who carry weapons around in the campo are people we have occasional conversations with and sometimes know by name? Of course, there’s that reason: to the extent that anyone puts a face on the adversary, we are all more human and less the adversary. At the same time we have to bear in mind that for our Colombian teammates there is no such immunity. The U.S. and Canadian embassies that would answer, with reluctance, to the fallout on our behalf if we were injured, don’t have any investment whatever in another Colombian victim of this 40 yr-long civil war. It’s something we talk about frequently, and weigh seriously.
The Opon area is right now going through another cycle of threat and potential of violence as the visible paramilitary right of this region have pulled out of the city and look to locate in the surrounding rural area instead, while their leaders negotiate with the Uribe administration for amnesty. For reasons hard to know, the area we accompany becomes a focal point again for them and the FARC and ELN guerrillas to show their strength, with the civilian population caught in the middle.
For the struggling farmers and fishers in the rural areas, for the human rights workers we accompany in the city, for the many folks we socialize with in the neighborhood around our house and encounter on the streets of Barrancabermeja, most of life is insecure in a way we generally can't fathom from our experience as Americans of the northern variety. A normally stoic mother of five on the river choked back tears last week when I asked about the one child her family has been able to support in middle school in the city a few hours away: his 6th grade education now costs nearly as much as the sustenance of the entire rest of the family. But on the positive side, after fear that the two one-room elemetary schools out here would remain closed because a teacher couldn’t be contracted to such a hardship location, both have opened their new school year, the one with just three students, the other now welcoming a happy troop of a dozen who walk up to two miles to begin their day.
A week can pass when we can literally feel the weight of stress lift from friends we see on an almost daily basis. That weight then returns with the threat of assassination or forced eviction of a family member or neighbor. The paras will have stopped for a moment aggressively checking food transport that they insist is going to the guerrilla; the guerrilla will let a few days go by that they don't insist on fingering someone as an army or paramilitary snitch or collaborator. We'll take a walk in an early evening after supper and feel relief in the air as we're invited to join a game of dominoes or parcheesi on a crudely constructed table lit by a smoky diesel torch.
I've come to physically welcome that relief. I thank God. I even breathe a prayer of blessing on the trio of camouflage-clad and heavily armed guerrillas who willingly approach us earlier in the day to initiate a short talk. "You do realize we're on the side of the campesino," their commander asks, "right?" Under no circumstances do I wish these guys or anyone else harm. But take away the guns and grenades, I think, and you guys are as vulnerable as the next person. Can't you see this isn’t the solution? Why not return to your own wife and two kids you haven’t seen in a year? Don't you mourn the education taken from you when you were forcibly conscripted at 14? Is there any way you can see that this violent path has done nothing to end a conflict now going into its fourth generation?
Our CPT team has just come off a two-day retreat, the first I've experienced in my two stays here, but an important thing to have added, however reluctantly, to the calendar. December was particularly hard on a team that anticipated, and then experienced, the awful effects of a guerrilla attack on a barge of gas and diesel fuel on the upper river, and the murder and disappearances of a total of six men by the two different armed groups in just a few weeks. Several of the teammates I'm with on this retreat found bodies ravaged by vultures and days adrift in the water. Some still struggle significantly with the stress they went through in that while and the toll it took on team relations. In some ways I give thanks to have not had to experience that, while at the same time recognize that something equally traumatic or moreso, could be around the next corner (on the Opon river, literally). I do question why I’ve been spared that particular grief. Am I weaker than I think? Or not ready yet for the test?
These couple of days at a diocesan retreat center are a welcome time away from the worries and pressures of normal daily life here. We have told some especially trusted friends in the accompaniment areas that we won’t be available for a few days, and with particular concern we realize one family under threat may be forced out in our absence. We pray for their safety. (And learn later that they have stayed put and are fine). We pray for tolerance and acceptance among ourselves. We pray for healing. With unaccustomed attention to each other and the presence of Spirit among us, we admit to pain and suffering. We play goofy games, eat better than usual, and catch up on sleep. On the last day of our retreat two psychologist friends facilitate a trauma workshop, and we begin with a humorous observation of "Welcome to accompaniers anonymous..."
In the case of the December deaths, remarkably, we knew only one victim personally, and him not well. We all fear the loss of closer friends who have struggled for years now on the Opon to clarify vision and build solidarity, a united front of standing firm against all armed actors in saying "Let us live in peace. We don't believe in your war. Don't intrude it on our community. If you must wage it, do it elsewhere."
I’m thankful overall to be with a CPT team in this while that has grown in numbers and maturity through incredibly trying circumstances in its almost three years here. Last winter I feel I barely made it through three months with a too-small team with too-few experienced members and too much urgent work to respond to. This team now has four long-termers, an ongoing core around which a number of "reservists" like myself can bring our supplemental energies and come and go. The work is stimulating and I do find hope in it. The people we accompany are strong and growing moreso in knowing what they want and what appears to be possible. If that’s the case the team here in Barranca might before long be out of a job, exactly what the original vision for this violence reduction work is about.
Unfortunately, though, there will be still be plenty of other places in Colombia to go.
With much appreciation for your support and prayers,