Colombia: Grieving and Giving Thanks


by Sarah MacDonald

November 27 was U.S. Thanksgiving, a day I usually associate with festive meals and family gatherings.  Here in Barrancabermeja, however, our day unfolded differently.

At midday, two strangers entered a house in our neighborhood and shot a man as he sat eating lunch.  This murder adds to the wave of assassinations-at least 100 so far this year-in Barrancabermeja.  Because this particular killing occurred just down the street, the violence feels both shocking and frighteningly mundane.

In the evening, our team joined a vigil in front of the murdered man's house.  Neighbors crowded the patio and spilled into the street.  We sang songs, lit candles and listened to community leaders insist, "Enough!  We cannot tolerate any more assassinations in Barrancabermeja.  The death of one of us diminishes us all."

A similar spirit pervaded the previous weekend, when my teammate Gladys and I attended a workshop to help labor union leaders and their families recover from and resist systemic anti-union violence.  Workshop sponsors-Corpora-tion AVRE, an organization offering psychosocial and mental health care to victims of political violence, and the Sisters of St. John the Evangelist, a religious order devoted to helping workers-requested CPT accompaniment for security purposes.  Violence against union organizers and members in Colombia has killed forty people in 2008 alone, and over 4000 in the last twenty years. These statistics illustrate both the need for the workshop and the risks for those gathering.

Widows and children of assassinated union leaders were present, as were union leaders worried about their families.  One woman recalled her husband's murder in 2002 and the challenge of raising four children on her own: "We don't miss him less as time goes by.  We miss him more."  Another expressed anxiety for her adolescent son, who has already lost an uncle and two other friends to assassinations.  This woman, a community leader and activist, knows well the dangers to herself and her partner, also a union leader.  But the fears and hopes she shared are for her children.  "We can only go on as a family," she said, weeping, "in the power of love."

Other moments that weekend were joyful.  Two actors from a theatrical group, Har­lequin and the Jugglers, led us in playful movement exercises and improvisational songs.  They recited poems, performed a puppet show and organized a costumed, wake-up serenade on Sunday morning.  "Art is an important means of resisting violence," they reminded us, as workshop participants designed posters, acted out skits and created a memorial to assassinated family members.

Throughout the weekend gathering, prevailing themes were the strength of family and the gift of gratitude.  The warm family atmosphere embraced even Gladys and me, present as accompaniers.  I appreciated hearing many people express thanks: for the lives of family members they have lost, for the consolation they experienced through the workshop, for the hope they feel in solidarity.  

Such was my thanksgiving this year.