Colombia: January 2008 (Micoahumado)

Report of CPT Delegation to Colombia, January 16- 29, 2008

Una voz para las mujeres, Una voz para Colombia
A Voice for women, a voice for Colombia
By Mary Benson and Doris Braley, Delegates

Our Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) delegation arrived in Bogotá January 16, 2008. Six of us met in Atlanta and flew to Bogotá together. We enjoyed meeting each other and discussed our apprehension about going through Customs in Bogotá and receiving the correct visas. Fortunately there were no serious problems and we walked out of the airport to find Rachel and Jonathan – the in-country CPT coordinators - waiting for us. The next morning we met our seventh teammate from the UK. Our delegation included one person from Canada, one from the UK and five from the US in addition to Rachel and Jonathan. We would be traveling companions on an exciting journey for the next two weeks.
The delegation began in Bogotá with three days of meetings with a variety of organizations. We learned about the history of the country; how an average of three people die every day from land mines; the tragic consequences of a forty-year war; the stories of demobilized guerrillas and paramilitaries; the effects of Plan Colombia and how the Free Trade Agreement has affected the rich and poor in very different ways. We heard of continuing violence, displacements of entire communities, torture and assassinations. We learned about the suffering of women and children and how few rights women have. It was striking to hear how many women were putting there lives on the line to improve the future for their families and we wondered if we would ever be able to act so courageously in the face of such overwhelming odds.
We visited Rincón del lago in Cazuca, a new community on the south side of Bogotá, made up of displaced families. The community is growing rapidly as more displaced individuals and families arrive all the time. Here we visited Creciendo Juntos, a program started by the Mennonites that works with families in crisis. Over 100 families including 250 children are involved. The area is controlled by the paramilitary and a Colombian military base sits on a hill over looking the community. We talked with Marta, the social coordinator, and Yamile, who tutors in English as well as reading for dyslexic children. Marta spoke of the problems in the area: young men have a 6 pm curfew so they won’t be abducted by the paramilitary, children are being murdered, there is forced recruitment of youth by the paramilitary, there is sexual abuse and incest involving young girls, and they are forced to pay the paramilitary for security.
The community has challenges in dealing with poverty, lack of clean water and sewage disposal, education and living in a paramilitary controlled area. Yet with all of this we could feel how much the children in the community meant to them. The center tutors children in all subjects, has a variety of workshops, and teaches nonviolence conscientious objector classes. They continue to hope that some if not all of the children involved can be changed forever through the work of this organization. What an impact these two women have made in their community.
Next we flew to Barrancabermeja, (Barranca) where CPT is located. Barranca is a large city located on the Magdalena River and is the center of oil production in an oil rich country. On the first morning we met with a women’s rights group – the Organización Femenina Popular (Popular Women’s Organization) or OFP Northeast. Yolanda Becerra, President of OFP, was assaulted in her home the night of November 4, 2007 and members of her family have been harassed and threatened. Yolanda has left the city but the women of OFP are as determined as ever to work for women’s rights.
We spent a lot of time with OFP exploring their programs and their objectives. Their stated mission is as follows: "We are looking for the whole development of the community through the organization, social economy, education, health and culture and to defend life and women’s rights through our participative social process.”
They also stated their vision: "We hope that the reconstruction of the social fabric in the working classes can be a reality.”
OFP has nine areas of work – administration and organizational, social economy, nutrition program, decent housing conditions, holistic health, legal, youth movement, communication, researching education and forced displacement.
The Nutrition Program feeds a large number of people every day at several locations. We shared a meal with people of all ages during our visit.
Many of the social problems stem from the priorities of the Colombian government as expressed in their budget: military spending receives 65% while humanitarian assistance gets only 5%. Among the many problems faced by the country are privatization of resources, closing of medical facilities, lack of education, malnutrition, continued violence and the reconstitution of the illegal paramilitaries as the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) in Barrancabermeja.
We listened as the women of OFP spoke: “We didn’t raise our children for war”; “Walk away from violence and death”; ”Let’s make love to fear” and “We put our fears together and turned them into strength”. These are very strong committed women and they are dedicating their lives to brighten the future of their families and their country.
We visited with Maria Socorro, who is displaced with her children. She is the president of ASODESAMUBA, a 19-year-old association for displaced persons settled in Barrancabermeja. There have been 30 members of the organization assassinated. She said officially there are three million displaced persons in Colombia but since many do not register as displaced, the actual number could be up to eight million. The people are primarily displaced by military and paramilitary violence. According to Socorro there are an estimated 20,000 displaced families in Barranca. They receive no help from the National government because many Human Rights organizations are no longer recognized. “We must get all of our help from the International Community. Our strong efforts allow us to work with many other Organizations of Resistance. We meet every week and offer solidarity to our community and we know that we CAN say No to Violence.”
Socorro talked about Plan Colombia and how the fumigation of coca is contaminating their land, water and people. “Then the government sends the army to kill us. This is causing more social inequality and that is what is destroying us. Free Trade is impoverishing the already poor and only helps the capitalist. Small and middle size business people are not helped at all and the peasant farmers can’t compete. We will live hungrier and in more misery in the future than we do now.” Because of her views Socorro has a bodyguard during the day but lives in fear at night.
Each delegation takes a trip outside of Barrancabermeja. We took a three-hour ride in a water taxi on the Rio Magdalena to Morales. Next we rode in the back of a truck for two hours on a bumpy, winding road until we reached the gold mining community of Micoahumado. We listened to the people tell us about the years of fighting and displacement. Through solidarity within the local community and International Community, including CPT, the roads are now de-mined so they can travel again. Also, the guerrillas, paramilitary and military are not allowed in their community. We walked through their community including a hospital, a school and a cooperative that sells beans and coffee. The community wanted our delegation to have a fiesta to celebrate the four years CPT has been accompanying them. The next morning families and our delegation climbed in the back of a truck for another very winding bumpy road. We traveled to a river where the families can have outings. We had a great day playing in the river, listening to the leaders and enjoying a meal of sancocho, a Colombian soup. These were all activities they could not have done without the combined efforts of local and international organizations. We were told they had heard over the radio that the area would be fumigated in February or March. This last happened in October 2007. Now back home when we hear a plane fly over we wonder, “Is this their day”. Will their crops be destroyed, water contaminated and our new friends made sick? We are asking the US to stop the fumigation started with Plan Colombia.
An important aspect of each CPT delegation is the planning and performance of a public action. As we traveled and spent time listening to various speakers, we began to reflect on a possible issue for this event. After much discussion, it was a consensus of the group to focus on women in Colombia, with specific support of the Popular Women’s Organization. Using the theme “Una Voz para las Mujeres, Una Voz para Colombia,” (A Voice for women, a voice for Colombia) we gathered in a central park in Barranca for our action. The delegation members, team leaders, and long-term CPT members worked together to convey this theme to those gathered. We walked and sang, circling the perimeter of the park, carrying a cloth banner with the words of our theme painted on it, as well as other signs conveying our message of solidarity and support for the women of Colombia and the OFP. While members of our delegation sang and juggled, those gathered were encouraged to sign the banner with a note of support and encouragement. It was exciting to see how many stepped forward, accepted a marker, and knelt down to write on the banner. (This banner was later given to the OFP). As this was happening, other members of our delegation walked through the park and into the intersections to distribute bookmarks we had made that indicated that we, as members of the international community, stood in solidarity with women of Colombia and with the work of the OFP. The public action ended with a speech by the vice president of OFP, Jacqueline Rojas. While we know that those in the park witnessed our action, we are pleased that the message was further spread through a radio interview and television coverage.
Our delegation flew back to Bogóta and then on to our homes. We bring with us many voices and their stories. We also realized our media and our governments are not telling the citizens of the world what is happening in Colombia. We believe the voice of the women will be heard around the world. A voice for the women is a voice for Colombia.