COLOMBIA: Keeping vigils

29 October 2008
COLOMBIA: Keeping vigils

 by Carol Tyx

It wasn’t what I had expected.  That seems to be the theme of my work this year in Colombia.  My teammates Pierre and Sallie Ann had just left for an accompaniment trip, the delegation had taken off for the mining zone, Sarah was headed for Bogota to meet a new teammate at the airport, another teammate was on vacation.  This left Sandra and I here in Barranca what I thought would be a couple of quiet days, catching up on e-mail, cleaning the patio, chatting with neighbors, maybe starting a novel.

But a phone call sent us in a different direction. The past weekend, six people had died in an ongoing string of murders in Barrancabermeja.  While on the surface the murders appeared to be unrelated, they are part of a troubling increase in local violence.  Local human rights workers, including many of CPT’s partners, have received a communiqué threatening organizations that support human rights in Barranca.  “We will drench the city in fire and blood,” the message—from a paramilitary group calling themselves “Heroes of Castaño”—concluded.

In response, a coalition of social organizations including women’s groups, the diocese, labor organizations, community leaders, CPT, Peace Brigades, and others, were organizing vigils at the site of the murders.  

At the planning session, people talk and talk, but by the time of the vigil, I’m still unclear about some of the details.  It takes us a while to find the neighborhood, a new shantytown on the edge of Barranca, where two of the murders occurred.  The houses are pieced together with bare wood planks.  Our entourage—several carloads—causes a stir in the dirt streets.  Eventually relatives of those who were killed, as well as friends and neighbors, join us to commemorate a young couple whose lives were ended abruptly by violence.  As a symbolic action, we spray-paint an outline of large candles at the actual spot of the murders.  The mother of one of the victims kneels at the site and sobs; other women form a circle around her.  We then light a candle and invite people to burn slips of paper with the actions they want to end in their community:  violence, hatred, revenge, and fear go up in flames.  

At the next murder site we paint another candle, joining another neighborhood in its mourning for a young man claimed by violence.  A nun reads from the gospel:  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

A few days later, we hear news of another murder, this time the president of a local neighborhood association.  We will continue to sing, pray, and commit ourselves to keeping the light of love burning in our hearts in the midst of this darkness.