Rochester, NY: "In Colombia there are hundreds of Acteals"

May 26, 2001
Rochester, NY: "In Colombia there are hundreds of Acteals."

I arrived early at the Downtown United Presybterian Church to get a chance
to speak with Roberto, a Colombian Mennonite whom I had met during a CPT
exploratory delegation to Colombia in the spring of 2000. He was on a
speaking tour of the United States under the auspices of Witness for Peace
and by happy chance, Rochester, NY was on his itinerary.

I apologized for my poor Spanish and told him that I had more recently been
using my Arabic, which made it difficult to summon up even basic Spanish

┬│I remember you. You work in Palestine," he said. ┬│Listen, I've been
wanting to talk to you about accompaniment."

┬│For yourself?" I asked. Roberto has been receiving death threats because
of his human rights work for the last 26 years.

   ┬│No, no," he said. ┬│For the Embara Indians. They are near the
border with Panama, and there are Panamanian Embaras who are also
Mennonite." He told me that because the lands of the Embara are rich in
oil, they were facing the loss of these lands to multinational oil
companies, and those who were resisting the takeover of their lands were
living under threats of massacre.

I told him that CPT was desperately trying to find Spanish speakers for
Colombia, that most of the ones we had were tied up in Chiapas.

┬│In Chiapas, there was only one Acteal," he said in frustration, referring
to the 1997 massacre of Mayan pacifists by paramilitaries. ┬│In Colombia
we have hundreds of Acteals."

┬│I know," I said, ┬│almost every day. But it's a matter of breaking
faith with the people who invited us there."

We both lapsed into a depressed silence.

Roberto then spoke, with the help of a Witness for Peace translator, about
the history of the violence in Colombia, dating back to the 1940's. He
spoke of the 128 people massacred last month during Holy Week along the Naya
River, hacked to death with machetes by paramilitaries, their bodies
mutilated beyond recognition with chainsaws. The Afro-Colombians, Paez
indigenous and labor unionists killed had voted for a progressive political
party in their region. Their candidate had won the election, and the people
who elected him had to be taught a lesson.

He spoke of an April 2000 Op-ed written by Senator Coverdale of Georgia who
said the American people had to get behind Plan Colombia, because the U.S.
needed a military foothold to attack Venezuela, which had recently elected a
president who disagreed with U.S. policy in the region. Roberto said that
the U.S. had recently suspended loans to Panama, because it has refused to
allow U.S. troops to move in there as part of Plan Colombia.

As Roberto spoke of the need for Colombian Christians to seek ┬│faith in
the midst of terror," to stay in Colombia and resist rather than to go into
exile (as he himself did for a brief period several years ago), I wondered
if this was going to be the last time I saw him, whether some day, we would
get the news from the Colombian Mennonite Church that the death threats had
finally caught up with him and his family.

I was speaking at church the following Sunday on John's vision of the New
Jerusalem in Revelation. I think I understand better now the horror of
first century Christians as they faced the Roman Empire's Beast that had
slaughtered them and their loved ones because of their faith.

And I wonder if the Christians of Colombia dream of a New Bogota, a new
Medellin, a new Cali, shining with the light of God, who will wipe every
tear from their eyes and tell them that Death is no more; mourning and
crying and pain are no more.

Because of the crisis in Colombia CPT is asking its constituent churches to
1) identify mature Spanish speakers they know and suggest they apply to
participate in CPT's January 2002 training 2) Request Mennonite Central
Committee's packet of information entitled, "Turning toward peace: Dollars
and Letters to Colombia." This packet contains background information on
the current political situation in Colombia and the Colombian Mennonite
Church. It also contains a request by the Colombian Mennonites that U.S.
Mennonites divert some of their tax money toward the work of the Mennonite
Church in Colombia and helpful suggestions regarding how this witness may be
accomplished. Contact MCC at or 717-859-3875. 3) Prepare
for more calls to action and prayer from Colombia.