“It’s the problem,” the pastor said, “of land.”
On an accompaniment visit to Apartadó, Colombia in August 2021, two of us from PPF had the chance to sit down with the Peace Commission of the Presbytery of Urabá. Sitting around a square of tables in the sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church in Apartadó, we listened deeply to the experiences, reflections, and observations of our Colombian colleagues. Writing this from my home, two months later, I’m still unpacking what was shared. For today, I am reflecting on what we heard about a new kind of displacement.
Rev Diego shared about one of the biggest phenomenons around land they’re seeing right now: land being sold multiple times and then the restitution law being used to take the land from the last owners — restoring the land to the “legitimate” owners, but ignoring displacement that has happened in between the “original” displacement and the most recent displacement. (If you’re as confused now as I was first hearing this, stick with me.) The folks in the IPC called this “the third displacement” – when legitimate owners of land are displaced through application of this law, even though they arrived on the land without violence.
The Victims and Land Restitution Law (Law 1448) was passed in 2011.This law “addresses issues around the rights of victims, including compensation and the return of land from which they were forcibly displaced.” (source) It is meant both to recognize the victims of violence and to facilitate the return of land to displaced persons. People trying to use this law to reclaim their land have to prove both ownership of the land and their victim status according to specified criteria.
I had trouble tracking this in the conversation, so I started thinking about this fully fictional example to try to make sense of it.
Imagine it this way: Family A has owned the land forever. They are forcibly displaced and Family B moves in. Perhaps the land is vacant for a while, and Family C moves in. At some point, Family C starts a sale of the land to Family D. But Family B goes to a judge and uses the Land Restitution Law to say, “hey, that’s our land, restore it to us.” The judge stops the sale of the land, leaving Family D without land and causing Family C to be displaced This leads to Family D not being able to buy the land, and causes Family C to be displaced, even though neither Family C or D was responsible for the original displacement, neither used violence to claim the land, and furthermore this process does not restore Family A to their land. The whole thing is messy and complicated.
A contributing challenge to this process is the state or lack of documentation. If land has been in your family for generations, perhaps since before there was an organized government, you might not have a legal deed or title to the land. So how do you prove it’s yours? If someone took your land with violence, but then organized the paperwork to show it belongs to them, how do you prove it doesn’t?
Our friends in the IPC have both witnessed and experienced this third kind of displacement. A pastor in Uraba shared the story of how they were trying to buy a parcel of land on which they could build housing for retired pastors: They talked about how they found the land for sale, got the money together, and when the sale was about to go through, a judge stopped the sale to “restore” the land to a previous owner. They are certain that the owner to whom the land has been restored is not the original owner, but the intermediary owner has the right paperwork to reclaim the land. So they’re back on the search, to try to find another parcel of land to buy – and hope that the process does not get disrupted again.
Another pastor told the story of a family with 19 years of living on a parcel – who, the Tuesday before our visit, had been evicted by a judge in a third displacement. He said, “This phenomenon is impacting all regions where the first displacements took place. There is such instability and insecurity – the rug can get pulled out from under people because they buy a house doing things the right way, and then a judge can suddenly say, “you have to hand over that house because it belongs to this person or that person.” Reflecting on the situation, the complications families are facing in trying to seek justice under the law, this pastor asked, “Is the law just the strong hand of the rich?”
It seems like the answer is yes. The IPC keeps pushing for peace with justice, and keeps accompanying the victims and survivors of violence. Our role is to keep listening, keep learning, and keep walking alongside the IPC as they raise these questions.
This post was first published on the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship blog.
Three months into pandemic I stood up from a Zoom meeting and headed to the back porch to take a sunshine break. Just outside the back door, I interrupted a man in the process of stealing my housemate’s bike. Locking eyes with him over the handlebars, we both froze. “Uh, can I help you?” I asked, my brain totally blank. He started talking to me, still holding onto the bike. In that moment, all I could think was oh crap – this is it – if I don’t support policing, I can’t call the police – what do I do? What do I do?
For white folks, this might sound familiar. Calling the police is the easy way to answer the persistent What do I do? that can echo in our heads in dangerous or uncertain circumstances. There are very few accessible institutional alternatives to policing in most places. White women like me often call the police because we’re uncomfortable and afraid. I know that calling the police does not actually make me safer (since police do not prevent harm, only respond to it), and the involvement of police actively harms my Black and Latinx neighbors.
Not having any idea what to do as an alternative to policing, I fell back on what I know: accompaniment. I used what I’ve learned in accompaniment training to calm my body and try to take action with my best self instead of my panicked lizard brain. I took deep breaths and focused on how my feet met the ground. Still talking to the man on my porch, I slowly pulled out my phone and called as many people as I could think of who I thought would be nearby, available, and understanding of why I was choosing to respond to this moment without police.
Accompaniment with PPF takes place in spaces where safety has been disrupted or destroyed. Our accompaniment partners in the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC) and Agua Prieta, Mexico have practiced keeping their own communities safe for decades (for some, generations). They know intimately what it costs to choose not to meet violence with violence. The leaders who allow us to accompany them have made commitments to nonviolence, to building peace both in the “what” of their work and how they carry out that work, building peace for the long term and refusing violence now. In building alternatives to policing in our own communities, and seeking to abolish the police in the United States, PPF has a chance to live up to their example.
It is clear that total system change is needed, to build a world in which many worlds fit. But what do we do in the meantime? What do we do in the now, on our back porches, while we’re working to compost the current world and grow something new?
I believe we can relearn old lessons from accompaniment to help us in this new purpose:
for human rights defenders on the US border in Mexico who ask for accompaniment to keep violence away from where they are freely giving abundant hospitality to people in transit and advocating for policy changes;
even for me, standing on my back porch in the first pandemic summer, committed to abolishing the police in favor of alternatives and needing help in the meantime.
Within ten minutes of making phone calls on that summer afternoon, three other people were standing with me on the back porch – accompanying me in an uncertain situation. I didn’t feel magically safer, or protected; my friends didn’t say much or stand between me and my visitor. Instead, I did most of the talking. Standing with other people helped me slow my breathing and stay present in the hardness. I felt supported in working through what was happening to a safe end for everyone.
The most important thing we can learn from accompaniment is the simplest: another way is possible. It is possible to manage uncertain, precarious-feeling situations without falling back on militarized responses (carried out by armed guards, perhaps, in our partners’ contexts – carried out by armed police or armed neighbors here in the US). It is possible to train ourselves to respond differently in a specific moment, to get a different kind of help, and to create a different world.
It is much easier, for a white person, just to call the police. Even in this magical accompaniment experience I’m writing about now, I kept thinking, Oh God, this is so hard. This is so hard. This is taking so long. How do we make this work? This is so hard. Some alternatives exist already (here’s a non-comprehensive list of things communities are trying); many many more will need to be created. We will need to practice staying in our bodies during discomfort, hanging in for the hard work of creating the world we want to live in. Accompaniment offers one way for us to live into that new world before it exists. To truly create safety for all, we must create a world in which it is easier not to call the police, in which the easy answers do not rely on violence.
This post was first published on the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship blog.
Recent spring, in Tucson. You were driving to a meeting when you saw crashed cars and flashing lights ahead. You stayed in the clear left lane, eased up on the gas, sipped coffee as you approached. A black pickup truck jerked up onto the righthand curb behind the firetruck. A man jumped out and hurtled toward the accident – an EMT, you thought, stopping to help on his day off. Mr. Rogers told you to look for the helpers.
This next part happened quickly, a flip-book you saw out of the corner of your eye, through the rolled-down car window. The man ran toward the crash. A paramedic stopped him, hand on his shoulder, asked, “Are you the father?”
You were past the accident, nearing your turn, coffee still in your throat, when you realized: that wasn’t heroism, but horror.
He was there to rush to the crash because someone had been looking for the father. Someone made a phone call, two phone calls, many phones calls. Someone broke the news. Someone was trained to find the father, trained to break the news.
You thought about this for weeks.
Years ago spring, in Blacksburg. You are a sophomore, in the marching band. You are watching the news in someone else’s dorm room. There is afternoon sunshine. If there was any moment of denial, it was in the blink of your eyes when the numbers changed. From 3 to 32 dead in the chyron, laughing girls climbing down from their lofted beds in the middle of jokes about blocking the windows in the cinderblock wall, dark humor trailing away in the reflection of this math.
You remember this vaguely. You still didn’t know, then, what it would mean.
Late at night, you are sitting on the edge of a bathtub, talking on a cell phone. On the other end of the line, somehow, a producer from “The Today Show” asks you questions about a particular friend. You answer dully, looking at the sink. You feel, below the fog, a tearing urgency to make sure everyone knows about this particular, wonderful friend.
In the living room, your dad plays video games with your marching bandmates and a college professor. You leave the bathroom, catch your father’s attention. You say, they’ll send a car at six a.m.
You don’t live in reality anymore.
There is a sea of satellite dishes in a parking lot. You stand next to a news anchor and speak toward a camera, a mic clipped onto the front of your hoodie. You are trying to do a good job. This is very important, talking about your friend, and you must do it well. You are operating through a fog. You listen to the person standing next to you answering questions about your friend. You think he is brave.
When the interview is over, you don’t wait for the sound people before you turn away from the camera, sobbing. You cling to the person standing next to you, or he clings to you, planting yourselves against a strong wave. The wave gets you anyway. Through your stranglehold on each other you can hear the impersonal clicking of dozens of cameras. They’re pointed at you.
Ten minutes later, the person standing next to you gets a text. Someone he knows in Indiana has just seen a picture of him on television, hugging a woman. He is asked if you are his girlfriend. You laugh for the first time since you left reality.
Ten minutes after that, you and the person standing next to you are walking together on the grass between a blocked-off road and a closed parking lot. The cameraman is recording b-roll. You learn the word “b-roll.” You tell the person standing next to you that you should hold hands while you walk, since you’re his girlfriend now. This is desperately funny. You both laugh again, walking on the grass next to the empty road. You are asked to stop smiling. You should know they can’t use b-roll of a smiling couple under the description of this massacre.
They call it a massacre, on television. You hate this. The word is salacious, and shocking. It is too weak and too strong, both at once. It is dislocated: massacres happen somewhere else.
This is happening to you.
You try to think of a better word. For years, you resort to calling it, the thing that happened. At first, it’s because you can’t say any other words. Your therapists don’t realize you mean the shots, and everything that came after. Later, it’s because when your spiritual director finds out where you went to college, she asks, “Were you there when that guy did that thing?”
You think this is desperately funny.
You were there when that guy did that thing.
You don’t see that spiritual director again. You practice saying, yes, I was there when the shooting happened. Yes, my friend died. Yes.
You are doing research, nine years later, on the construction of informal memorials as a tool for public grieving after mass tragedy. You know the title is too long. You don’t know how to say, the representation, it becomes the window to the thing itself. Your university is mentioned in peer-reviewed journals. You leave those articles out (you can’t bear the citations). You wonder bleakly if you could cite yourself, reflecting on how the thing unfolded. First-hand witness to what memorials mean. Primary accounts of where they bought the candles.
On the day you leave reality, you wake up to an email from the university. “A shooting happened in your friend’s dormitory. Proceed about your day, police have suspect in custody.” They really thought they did.
You are eating apple chips. You send an instant message to your friend, checking in. No reply is normal. You are late for class. You proceed about your day.
You don’t know who taped it, but you have a copy of that “Today Show” on VHS. You have never watched it. It’s in a file cabinet in your parents’ house, stuffed in with newspaper clippings and gifts and magazine articles. Ten years after, you go through the drawer. You let some things go.
People stop asking you about the massacre, mostly.
That day, after the hospital, you learn that if you are sobbing when you park in a No Parking zone, the security guard will walk the other way. You are picking up the people who have gathered. You are all crying.
You are not allowed, yet, to share the news with anyone who doesn’t already know. No one has found his mother. No one has shared the news. You pace a living room full of people who learned before they were meant to. You bake chocolate chip cookies. It’s a thing you can do.
You practice saying, When I was 19, a young man with a gun killed my friend and 31 other people. When you can say it without crying, it becomes a victory.
The young man with a gun recorded a videotape before he opened fire, and planned ahead enough to mail it between the beginning of the shooting and the end. It plays on television constantly, for a while. News anchors analyze it for reasons why.
You never watch it. You never say his name. It takes you three years to say the young man with a gun instead of the shooter.
You want to give him his humanity back. You want your humanity back.
On the day you leave reality, after the numbers on the television change, you call every hospital in the area. You ask for your friend by name. No one can give you any information. You don’t know if that’s because they don’t know anything, or because they’re not allowed.
You walk back to your own dormitory. Nearly there, you walk toward a young man wearing a hoodie who is walking toward you. He is pulling something out of his pocket. You wonder, for a moment, if he has a gun too.
There is police tape blocking access to your friend’s floor in your dormitory building. You make this mean nothing.
With the others who have gathered, you make a plan. You print pictures of your particular friend, you write his personal information below his smile. You drive to the hospital with the other person who volunteered in the passenger seat. You show your friend’s picture to the nurse at the front door. (You are sure she takes the print-out – but years later, you find that paper in a box. You add it to the file cabinet.)
You are directed to wait. You are pointed to an exterior door. You and the other person who volunteered walk into a space under construction, big and empty and echoing as a warehouse. There are many other people in the room. You do not think about why they are there. You and the other person who volunteered take two chairs next to a table covered in pizza and soda. You trade off calling the hotline. You check in with the others who had gathered. They still don’t know anything. There is no procedure for this. You close your eyes.
The other person who volunteered is talking to someone from one of his classes. The classmate asks who you are looking for. You say your friend’s name out loud. “Him?” she says, “Oh, he’s dead.”
Before the preacher started, she said, “Jesus tells us the moral to this story right up front. But I want you, as you’re listening, to write your own moral.”
The story goes like this:
One moral jumps out at me immediately: those in power will never do the right thing unless we make their lives too uncomfortable for them to let the status quo continue.
At a meeting I was at recently, an activist described the tactic of “birddogging” like this: When a person in power (elected official, judge, whoever) refuses to talk with you, you just show up wherever they are and ask your questions. You disrupt business as usual in order to pursue the justice you require.
During that meeting, it seemed like some folks were uncomfortable with this practice.
So, a second moral to this story, particularly for well-behaved white folks: If you ever think that a tactic that an impacted community, minoritized group, or vulnerable person is using is too disruptive, remember the widow and the unjust judge – and that Jesus approved of the widow’s tactics. (v 7)
This story is also about accompaniment, through its absence. How would it have been for the widow if someone with more power – in today’s terms, maybe a straight, cis, white man – had gone with her each time she petitioned the judge? Not to speak for her, her voice was strong. Not to impose, but at her request.
If the widow had been accompanied, she wouldn’t have had to face this struggle alone. More, the judge would have seen that she wasn’t alone, that she had friends with more power. Even more, the judge would have known that someone with power was seeing his injustice every time he turned down the widow’s request.
To be present, to be seen, to be a witness: the three essential tasks of accompaniment.
This gets to a third moral: look for the people who are fighting fights for survival in the face of injustice and ask if they want you to go along with them.
Because nothing will change if we all stay comfortable, and tactics that seem “disruptive” to you might mean survival to someone else. We’re all in this together.
From time to time, when meeting with my volunteers, we write flash blogs together: 10 minutes to get down our thoughts on a common prompt. We're practicing expressing ourselves and being less scared of blogging. I'm not going to exactly write to this prompt because I'm in a little bit different place than my YAVs in "mission service"
Here's what I think: Saying "mission service" is just a softer way to say "mission." It's what church progressives say instead of "mission," when we want not to associate ourselves with colonization and the extractive, destructive, imperialist history (and present) of church mission. We say "mission service" to maybe indicate that we recognize the power dynamics and that we're here to serve, not to impose, the word mission is in there because we're from a church but it's just, like, mission-adjacent.
Is mission service really a different thing? (Not unless we make it so?)
It's more important, I think, to wrestle with what mission has meant and what we want it to mean now. "Mission" has meant force, displacement, violence, erasure, charity, assimilation, empire, going-out-to-civilize. (Has there ever been a good mission?) To me, anyway, mission means well-intentioned (mostly white) people perpetuating global colonialist power dynamics. It's always "mission to."
In the best light, I'd like to think that mission service can at least point us at shifting into a "with" framing. "Service" to say being with people, working alongside (still problematic), entering with humility.
When I was "in mission service" myself, as a YAV, I told a group of mostly-white seminarians that they were my mission field, and that I was with them to proselytize a gospel of demilitarization and open borders. They didn't appreciate being the recipients (subjects) of my "mission service." I hope that discomfort stays with all of us, and we don't practice what we don't want practiced on us.
From time to time, when meeting with my volunteers, we write flash blogs together: 10 minutes to get down our thoughts on a common prompt. We're practicing expressing ourselves and being less scared of blogging.
Forget the borderlands. Think about liminal space.
Liminality, the quality of being on the edge of something. At the threshold.
The borderlands are two thresholds embracing, that space in the middle where you're not quite in one place and not quite the other. When the line between two things is wide enough, where are you when you stand on the line? Imaginary lines, intangible boundaries that fear makes tangible. The wall that hate built.
Gloria Anzaldua called the border "una herida abierta," an open wound. But it's not just about the border itself, the wound itself -- the borderlands are the tender place on either side.
The U.S./Mexico borderlands, a place I love. A place that is neither place. Here, in the Sonoran desert, partially in Mexico and partially in the U.S. Here, on colonized O'odham lands, which stretch across the border on either side, enduring past layers of forced separation. Here, in territory populated by javelina, chiltepin peppers, saguaro cactus, ocotillo, hummingbirds who migrate north and south above the border wall.
The Constitution-free zone, where the 4th Amendment doesn't protect you if Border Patrol decide to search you or your car at a check-point.
A low-intensity conflict zone, where helicopters, drones, ATVs, armed agents, surveillance towers, underground sensors, are all common.
Place of oversaturated sunsets. Of imposing geological formations. Of thorny plants that appear dead, until they leaf out suddenly in the rains.
Come and see.
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?
“You can talk about forced displacement or voluntary displacement, but if you move because your neighbors or family members were killed, is that really voluntary?” - Ledy
Gloria, in Caracolón, calls it “obligatory displacement” when she tells her story with the flattened emotion of 21 years of distance.
“In 1997 we were living in a different place. In November there were the massacres, with about 400 victims.
We had to leave with just what we had.
They burned our houses.
Nos obligaron displazar.”
They obligated us to displace.
Gloria’s community was caught between two armed groups in 1997. After the massacres and the obligatory - somehow “forced” is still not strong enough a word - displacement, people lived for four year in shelters in Dabeiba. During that time of poor conditions and little work, the community members organized themselves to put pressure on the government to give them a new place to live. They formed committees to govern their community’s health, labor, and memory - passing down memories from oldest to youngest of what they lost, and how.
The small piece of land that the Colombian government finally deigned to offer is much too small. 150 people are living and farming on just 250 hectares (a little more than 600 acres - less than 1 square mile). In contrast, Gloria remembers how they lived before, on the land to which they dream of returning:
“Everyone had enough, enough land that you could be one or two hours on horse or by foot from your neighbor. You were self-sufficient, with everything that you needed grown without chemicals, all organic, with agricultural and aquacultural production. You would go down once a month, maybe, to buy salt.”
What may seem to you like a pleasant fantasy of pastoral life is the essence, lo esencial, Gloria says, of who she is as a campesino. It is Gloria’s reality, and one she will not give up. “For this, we are insisting that we be allowed to return to our own land.”
In our conversation at Caracolón, Germán Zárate of the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia begins by saying, “When you return to the Promised Land…” and there are smiles and laughter in the circle where we sit. The Promised Land is both memory and prophecy for the community of Caracolón, one they are determined to claim.
Reaching the Promised Land will require the clearing of military barriers and landmines that now block access to Gloria’s land, and the decommissioning or other provision for a hydroelectric dam that is currently taking advantage of her land’s wealth of water. Despite the challenges, Gloria and the other members of Caracolón are strong in their determination. Sitting near the monument that their Memory Committee installed on their temporary territory, the one that records the names of those killed in the 1997 massacre, they are clear about the goal.
“It’s my best dream,” one of Gloria’s compañeras says, “I dream of walking back, walking back on the same road by which we left.”
Gloria and the families of Caracolón who hold tight to the Promised Land are calling on us to put pressure on our own government and the Colombian government to ensure the completion of the details of the 2016 Peace Accords, which promised that displaced people would be returned to their lands.
May there arrive a Moses to part the landmines, and a Joshua to blow a trumpet to knock down the hydroelectric dam built on stolen lands, and may we all answer the call to pressure both our governments to hold true to their covenant to build a new road home.
Author, Alison Wood
queer, white, cisgender, U.S. passport-holding, Presbyterian, church-employed, challenged by faith, imagining something better.
I'm Learning From...