When I told my parents that I wanted to work in Colombia with Christian Peacemaker Teams, an international accompaniment organization, it was no surprise to me that they weren’t excited about the idea. Perhaps that is an understatement – my mom later told me that my dad threatened to withdraw all financial support in an attempt to get me to stay in Canada. I can’t say that I blame them for their concern. After all, what do we in Canada and the United States really know about Colombia? What do you really know about Colombia?
I’d be willing to bet that if I asked the average Joe what they knew about this country I spent the last 5 months visiting, these are the three main points they would respond with.
- It is the main exporter of drugs, and specifically of cocaine.
- Colombia has been torn apart by a long running civil war with the government pitted against guerrilla groups such as the FARC or ELN (any guesses what those acronyms stand for?)
- Lots of political kidnappings and assassinations happen in Colombia. It is therefore unsafe for tourist travel.
These are some basic facts about the country I was about to fly to, and one really can’t blame my parents for being a little uncomfortable with the idea. The reality of life in Colombia is uncomfortable. But I promise you that it is more uncomfortable for its civilians than anyone else.
Colombia is home to the world’s longest running internal armed conflict. As a result, the government has registered more than 7 million official victims, including a population 6 million displaced peoples – the second largest group of displaced populations in the world. In other words, things in Colombia are very, very bad, particularly for the regular people like you and me, who make up the majority of the country’s population.
Those were the people I worked with during my brief time on the ground. Mostly farming communities on prime riverside land who have been displaced by the violence but returned despite everything to the land of their ancestors. And the ones who didn’t leave – who held strong through the worst of it and never walked away from the earth that is as much a part of their being as their own blood.
What’s more, though the physical violence in Colombia subsided over time, their fight is far from over. Bureaucratic, institutional and systematic violence has taken over. The same people who waited out the military, guerrilla and paramilitary forces to stay on their land and continue farming now face a legal battle to prove their right to remain. In the confusion following the violence, multi-national corporations took advantage of the opportunity to seize the rich, fertile soil along the river. After all, who can really say who owns what these days? So much was lost in the violence, and in some cases documentation never existed to begin with.
So what do you do, if you’re a subsistence farmer in rural Colombia, with little access to legal aid, limited ability to read and write, and a family that depends on the fields you sow to eat and survive? The situation could feel hopeless. It could make you want to give up, unless…
Unless you really, truly, love the land you were raised on. The land your mother and father lived on. Unless you experienced the violence and turned the trauma into conviction that this should never happen again, that the world must change. Unless you kept hope alive every day and never stopped looking for a way to resist, to challenge the violence with love, and to be unmoved. Unless you knew that you were not alone, and that many other communities were living the experience with you, and ready to add their strength to yours. Unless.
These were the people I met when I was in Colombia. Erik, who found time to crack jokes while leading his community that had faced eviction back to the land they had lost so they could watch over it at night and replant the crops that had been destroyed.
Don Efrain, who composes music to share the story of his struggle, sends his grandchildren on an hour long walk to their school in the nearest town. They will not move closer because being on the land secures the family claim to it.
Jose and his wife Maria, whose newborn baby will grow up watching the men hired by the palm oil company Aportes San Isidro trespass on their land and harass his father, and then see his parents stand strong and convicted in the face of five armed men on horses even when their only support is miles away in the town of Buenos Aires.
They have never ceased their efforts for peace, and will never stop asking. They know that in order to receive, you start by asking and working. And this weekend, they are asking that you join your voice to theirs through a campaign called Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia.
Ask for peace. On Sunday, May 17, they ask you to pray for them. Add them to your prayers in church, send your thoughts out to the universe and ask for peace. And on Monday, May 18, they ask you to act. Sign this petition asking the U.S. government to step away from contributing military aid to Colombia and support proposals from Colombian civil society for a lasting peace. Create a banner supporting the peace process in Colombia and share it on social media with the hashtags #DOPA2015 and #PeaceforColombia. Let them know that they aren’t alone.
The peace of tomorrow begins today. It’s in your hands.