Colombia’s Heroes

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In January, I traveled to Colombia on a delegation with Witness for Peace to meet with communities resisting displacement in Northern Cauca and with communities of internally displaced people near Bogotá and Cali. Since I got back, I’ve viewed my work differently, and here’s why:

I realized that in our advocacy we talk so much about “victims,” when the word we really should be using is “heroes.”

I have never known anyone as brave as the people met in Colombia. From community to community, I heard the stories of the violence people had experienced, the threats they are facing now, and the struggles of their daily lives. Before visiting Colombia, I had read so many reports and articles about the problems they were talking about, but hearing them from the people themselves was completely different. I had been bracing myself for how sad it would be to hear their stories, to see their pain and to face up to the visceral reality of what displacement and violence means on a personal level. But what I didn’t expect was that along with every sad story from a living person’s lips came hope and determination to make a better world. When we talk about victims, we don’t tell these stories about their courageous commitment to living the way they think all humans deserve to live and to making their country a place where everyone has that right.

So, let me spin you a story about some of these heroes. Just like in the comics, most of these heroes are not born, but made—either when their communities are threatened or when they experience a trauma, like being forced off their land by armed actors or losing a loved one to violence. But unlike Batman, these heroes don’t have a secret identity or unlimited resources; they just have their courage and conviction about what is right and the solidarity of those involved in similar struggles across their war-torn country.

The view from Reguardo HondurasTake the communities that I visited in Northern Cauca who are resisting displacement. The people in the communities of La Toma, Resguardo Honduras, and Resguardo Cerro Tijeras have not just received threats but have seen them fulfilled, losing beloved community members. But they are committed to staying on the land that is rightfully theirs.

If we lived in a world where there was not such fierce competition for natural resources like land, water, or gold, they would not have been called to take up this struggle; they would just be living their lives as their ancestors lived for hundreds of years. But in these times, the incredibly beautiful and expansive land that they live on has caught the eye of everyone in Colombia and beyond looking to make a profit, and they will stop at nothing to get control of it.

From the electric company that created a dam that flooded the valley and displaced over 15,000 people, to the mining company that wants to gut out the land where the community of La Toma does environmentally-friendly artisanal mining, to guerrillas and paramilitaries who want the land to grow coca, sugar cane, or African palm, the number of villains our heroes must fend off is endless. The one catch for many of these villains is that our heroes not only live on this land, but also have the legal rights to it because of a progressive constitution and series of laws passed in the early 1990s. If anyone wants to “develop” the land, they are legally obligated to consult with these communities first. But of course, our villains don’t want to deal with that. So instead they use remobilized paramilitary groups like the Aguilas Negras or the Nueva Generacion to intimidate these communities into leaving with murders and death threats like this one sent on October 22nd, 2009.

La Toma's Artisanal MiningBut our heroes will not back down, not only because the land is essential to their culture, but also because they know that their presence is the only thing keeping one of the most beautiful places on this earth preserved and will die to protect it. And amazingly—whether it is the indigenous guards who arm themselves only with ancestral staffs and draw strength from standing together in a force of hundreds, or the minga that was created in 2008 when groups of indigenous, campesino, and Afro-Colombians came from all over the country to join together and brainstorm how to protect their land—they have decided that the only way they will fight this battle is through non-violent collective action.

In Bogotá and Cali, I met with a different group of heroes: communities of people who had been displaced from regions all over the country and ended up in shantytowns built on the edges of these big cities, which hold a large percentage of Colombia’s almost 5 million internally displaced persons. Often when we talk about IDPs, we use a narrative that casts them as victims—a statistic of millions of people with no ability to make their own decisions, forced off their land and into poverty, and needing something or someone to come save them. In reality, these people could use more solidarity and resources, but they’re not waiting for a savior. They wake up every day and take care of their families. They search for ways to laugh and dream. And many of them are working to improve the situation of their communities, to get more rights, and to change policies that are causing displacement and exacerbating the misery in the IDP settlements.

El ArbolIn Cali, I visited the community of El Arbol, named for the single tree that stood in the center of the hundreds of tin houses that made up the settlement. According to community legend, the tree, which stood alone on top of a barren dirt hill, used to be one in a forest, but one by one they were all chopped down. Now their community has two goals, to never let that tree fall and to never be displaced again. Even after going through all the horrible experiences that forced them off their land originally, then having to live in abject poverty, they still have the strength to organize for their rights.

On the day that we visited, they organized a meeting in the community space that they had built and explained the plan that they had created for the government. In this plan, they highlighted the lack of basic necessities in their community like access to education, health care, and land rights. And they made these demands even as the specter of displacement was upon them again. The city of Cali had recently bulldozed down a neighboring community called las Brisas de Navarro, violently displacing the thousands of people living there for the second time in their lives, and now it was threatening to do the same to El Arbol. It was inconceivable to me how they could have so much hope in their voices as they told me the story of El Arbol and shouted together that they would not be displaced again. But there they were.The meeting space at El Arbol fills with people.

In Bogota, I met with FUNDARTECP, the Foundation for Art and Culture of the Pacific, an organization that works to help displaced people newly arrived to the city. Its leaders were not relief workers, but people who had been internally displaced themselves. Even after seeing their communities torn apart, they devote themselves to helping others rebuild their lives and living every day with hope and joy.

One of their leaders, Daira Quiñones, sang us a song that her mother taught her. Singing always reminds her of her mother so she does it often, she said. We all smiled and enjoyed the music. After she finished, she informed us that her mother was raped and killed by armed actors in order to send a message to Daira that she and her community had to leave their resource-rich land.

I thought, I love music, but if were in her place, I don’t think I could keep singing. But Daira explained that she draws strength from it. “Singing makes me happy and it is a means of resistance. Music helps us understand things that war cannot take away from us. It is an opportunity to move people. I have seen women who have recently arrived to Bogotá, women who are utterly hopeless, desperate and in so much pain, be transformed by music. They end up laughing. It gives them the opportunity and the strength to rise up.” But it is also Daira who gives them the strength to rise up by deciding to move past her own sorrow and share these gifts with others. If this does not define a hero, I don’t know what does. Click here to watch Daira tell her story and sing a song of resistance.

Often in our work in the United States, the pace of change seems so slow, the government so difficult to work with, and our citizenry too busy to care. People look at statistics like 5 million IDPs or billions of dollars in military aid and wonder, “What can we really do?” It’s at those times that I hope that you will follow my lead and think about our Colombian heroes. If they’re not giving up the struggle, then there is no way we ever can.