We are calling to tell you we are free.
I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about this:
At my church I sit on one side of the long white plastic tables; our guests sit on the other. I ask their names and if they’re traveling with anyone, how old their kids are. I write down their contact’s name and city and then dial their phone number and pass the phone across the table. “If you want to say hello to your relative, tell them how you are, then I can explain how they can buy the tickets for you to arrive to their place.”
People mostly nod, take the phone, and talk with their cousins or brothers-in-law or family friends or whoever it is who will offer them a safe place to stay while they fight for asylum. I try not to listen. Our guests have very little privacy, and it feels like the least I can do is try to give the impression their conversations are their own.
On Wednesday there were three people doing this intake work, while I managed paperwork and made connections. I wasn’t working so hard not to listen. Maybe that’s why I heard it, over and over - we are calling to tell you we are free.
“Hola, tía! Estamos llamando a decir que estamos libre.”
“Cuñado, habla María. Estamos libre.”
“Oye, hermano - estamos en Tucson, Arizona, estamos libre.”
We’re free. We’re free. We’re free.
I’ve been free my whole life and I’ve never once called someone to tell them I’m free.
This is the second in a series of less-than-obsessively-edited posts about my recent experience on delegation in Colombia with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. The first post in the series is here. My goals are to share the stories I heard and to more fully process the experience. Thanks for reading (goal #1!) and I hope you’ll leave thoughts or questions in the comments below to join this community of process (goal #2!).
Today was my third guitar lesson. My teacher, generous human being that she is, greets me each time with a print out of a song she has selected just for me and the YAV sing-alongs I will someday lead. This week it was Woody Guthrie. You know, “this land is your land, this land is my land,” and “this land was made for you and me.” I immediately thought of Colombia.
The Colombian conflict is all about land.
That’s it, that’s the whole message. If you understand that, you understand the whole thing.
Of course, there’s a chance you don’t understand it, not fully. I certainly didn’t. Not until I sat in a circle with a whole community driven off their land, not until I heard ex-combatant members of the FARC talk about land with their own voices, did I understand a fraction of what it really means. It’s possible I still don’t.
I have a theory that it’s nearly impossible for someone brought up in my circumstances to really understand what land means to a campesino. I’ll go through the identity markers again - white, U.S. passport, middle class, highly educated - and throw in a few more: raised in the suburbs, only distantly related to farmers (I don’t think my grandpa’s dog breeding place counts), nearly always have bought my groceries from a supermarket, lived in four different states.
If you share some or all of those labels, my theory is that you can’t understand the deep relationship a person has with land that they rely on to sustain their life, either. Or the deep trauma of displacement and loss of that land. Maybe it’s a U.S./Majority World disconnect.
Issues of land reform motivated the campesinos who would become the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to take up arms in the 60s. Land reform is one of the six major pillars of the Peace Accords. Issues of land reform motivate ex-combatant members of the FARC into active political life today. Issues of land reform impact the daily life and plans for the future of thousands of Colombians.
One woman in Currulao estimates that 60% of all Colombia has been displaced. Documented percentages vary - the UNHCR counts 7.7 million people displaced within Colombia, about 21% of Colombia’s total population - but 60% rings true to her, from her experience. In 1991, three of her brothers-in-law were killed by armed groups. When the armed groups came back, her family was forced to leave their land. In 2000 or 2002, her family was forced to sign a paper that said they voluntarily sold their land.
Her pastor interjects - “The government says land will go back to those who lost it, but that’s mostly not true. A few have returned to their lands, but most won’t.” He adds, “Recently, maybe last year, they killed two campesino leaders who were working to get land back.”
Unpicking the complex violations of land ownership in Colombia is a nightmare, one that millions of people are living out. Some people have been displaced off their land and forced to sign false sale documents, making it extremely difficult to prove they were forcibly displaced and difficult to have their land restituted. Some people have been displaced off of land that was subsequently planted with African oil palm, which eats up the soil and leaves it dead. Some people have been displaced off of land that was then sold to multinational corporations for palm oil or bananas or other export crops -- good luck getting the land back from a powerful MNC with governmental pull. Some people were displaced from land that is still occupied by armed groups. Some people were displaced from land where they had lived for generations without formal deeds, so they can’t prove the lands were theirs to begin with.
And land is everything. Land is food, land is a dignified living, land is heritage, land is self-sufficiency, land is life, land is the essence of being a campesino.
Occasionally I have the chance to facilitate this thing called “The Great Free Trade Skit.” It’s a participatory simulation of the implementation of NAFTA and its effects in the U.S. and Mexico. Two or three participants are asked to play Mexican campesinos, and they start with government subsidies, seeds-- and land. Half-way through the skit, as the facilitator, I take their land away. “Move to the city,” I suggest, playing the forces of the “free market,” “you can get a job there in the factory.” The young people who are playing the campesinos groan, usually, or make sad faces, but quickly acquiesce and the skit moves on.
I know it’s just a simulation. I know it’s about campesinos in Southern Mexico, not campesinos in Colombia. But after this delegation, I believe that if the people playing campesinos in this skit were to accurately simulate this loss of land, they would throw themselves to the ground and weep.
They would fight the loss of their land and lives with everything they had, until there was nothing left.
This is what campesinos in Colombia are doing, even as social leaders advocating land reform are assassinated at nauseating rates. This is what keeps FARC ex-combatants engaged in the political process. This is what we have to try to understand, what we have to get out of our intellectualization and into the experiences of real people to fully know, if we seek to understand the Colombian conflict.
It’s all about land.
This is the first in a series of less-than-obsessively-edited posts about my recent experience on delegation in Colombia with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. My goals are to share the stories I heard and to more fully process the experience. Thanks for reading (goal #1!) and I hope you’ll leave thoughts or questions in the comments below to join this community of process (goal #2!).
On our third of ten days in Colombia, one of the delegation leaders asked us all to share how we had been feeling about what we had heard so far. Just saying I was “tired” wouldn’t cut it -- although it was accurate. This trip with the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship was organized on a punishing schedule. We had already visited four towns, spending more than 15 hours on a bus, and were preparing ourselves to keep up the pace for a full week more. Our opportunities to process together were scarce, and all the more precious when they came up.
Sitting there in the Presbyterian Church in Apartadó, I closed my eyes to try to identify some deep feelings in the midst of a host of complicated sensations.
I felt gratitude and humility at being invited into intimate spaces. Over the course of the delegation I sat in church sanctuaries and on living room couches, shared meals with two groups of disarmed guerrilla members, accepted cups of coffee in a school chapel and an United Nations boardroom. One woman said, “many people have a mental barrier and don’t want to talk about the past, want to just be in the present.” But over and over, people broke open their past experiences without us asking.
I felt, feel, completely inadequate. My social location - white, U.S. passport-holder, heavy participant in institutionalized education, worker in the non-profit industrial complex - have taught me that leveraging the right grant will change the world. This is both a) not true and b) a deeply unhelpful lens, particularly in the context of this delegation. I continue to struggle to understand that the way I’ve been trained to approach the world is wrong, or at least incomplete. There is no grant, no intervention, no SMART goal that will “fix” Colombia. I don’t have the answers.
And, even more importantly, “fixing” is not my place (c.f. colonialism and Christian mission). My place is to listen, bear witness, and respond only as requested. I encountered how I have internalized U.S. imperialism in my desire to focus on ways that the U.S. has “caused” the situation in Colombia. Wanting to ascribe all violence to the actions of the U.S. is a form of paternalism and, perversely, doesn’t acknowledge the personhood, independence, and agency of Colombians as people and Colombia as a nation.
I felt discomfort at bearing witness with nothing to do (c.f. culture of white supremacy) and at trying to confront all of these things inside my own life while trying to understand and empathize with and respect the experiences of others. I still feel the discomfort in my body, the struggle of trying to articulate how I felt and what I am thinking. I still feel sad, about the personal experiences we heard and the ways that more than sixty years of violence have impacted the whole of Colombia; I still feel angry, at my own impotence, my own ignorance, and the lack of political will in the U.S. and Colombia to fully realize peace; I still feel - oh, fine, I’ll say it - tired.
I’ll be writing more over the next week about what I saw, heard, and experienced, trying to make meaning out of the complexity and honor the gifts of stories I received. I am of a society and a generation that wants the sound-bite, the tweet, the instant solution. Those don’t exist here. I aim to immerse myself in the complexity, the contradiction, the questions. Join me, won’t you?
Author, Alison Wood
queer, white, cisgender, U.S. passport-holding, Presbyterian, church-employed, challenged by faith, imagining something better.
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