"I ask you that we stop to ponder the grandeur to which we can still aspire if we dare to value life in another way. I ask that courage of us that situates us in the true dimension of the human being. All of us give in from time to time. But there is something that doesn't err, and that is the conviction that only the values of the spirit can save us from this earthquake that threatens the human condition."


La Resistencia, Ernesto Sábato, p. 12



Reflections on Returning to Colombia


by Adriana Arroyave


Moved to experience a Colombia that was new for me, I decided to go back after 13 years of living abroad. I went back for a diploma program in human rights and international humanitarian law, and, though it may seem silly, it was important for me to have had the opportunity to see and feel how people are living day to day in Colombia. Things as simple as riding a buseta to the University of Antioquia each day, and hearing vallenatos along the way; speaking with the man who sold me mangos at the corner of my house about what he thinks about the situation in Colombia; participating the last Tuesday of each month in the demonstration that women dressed in black hold at the Parque Berrío to protest all the violence; or simply hearing the professors at the university, people of great intellectual caliber, each specialized in different subjects. With them I learned the importance of knowing history, research skills, and the processes that have triggered this undeclared war. The first days were a sort of first take of what my stay would be like for the six months I spent in Colombia.

I studied the domestic law and international standards that should be taken into account in a country with so many conflicts as Colombia; these were useful for understanding not only the whole picture of destruction and pain that a war leaves in its wake, but also to see the work that civil society is doing so valiantly to build a social fabric with their voices, hands, projects, work, and tenderness; they are the face of the Colombian women and men who, with hope, struggle to keep from being dragged into the war, and who are seeking a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

It is known that Colombia is still a paradox when it comes to human rights, not only because it is one of the most stable democracies in Latin America, with a tradition of civilian, democratically-elected governments, but because behind that façade of stability hides a country with intense internal conflicts. The figures are chilling, with some 30,000 people a year dying from one or another of the forms of violence; most of those deaths, contrary to what is thought, are not caused by the political violence, but are the consequence of common crime and crime in the streets, but the political violence is fast worsening. Although successive governments have publicly committed to defending human rights, they have not done enough to afford citizens the minimal guarantees needed to be able to live in dignity.

And so the state is responsible when, by its omission, Colombian citizens are massacred, kidnapped, threatened, and displaced, without anyone to watch out for their interests, because in Colombia it is easy to perpetrate any of these crimes without the perpetrators being punished, for Colombia also has one of the highest rates of impunity in the world.

I was able to get a broader perspective on the different processes being built by citizens when I traveled to other regions, visiting their different experiences. For example, I went to Mogotes in Santander del Norte. This town has had a very interesting experience; its citizens formed a Constituent Assembly, with an operating team and an assembly of 250 community members accompanied by the diocese of San Gil, in Santander. Tired of the corruption of their mayors and since their last mayor was kidnapped by a guerrilla group, they decided to take control of the government. This process had to be monitored by the state and supported by the national and international community. In 1999, this led them to win the peace prize awarded in Colombia by a group of companies to acknowledge the efforts of people working for peace.

I also had an opportunity to accompany the Ruta Pacífica de Mujeres on a march to support the valiant work of the women of the Organización Femenina Popular (OFP) in the middle Magdalena region. The march set out from the city of Medellín to Barrancabermeja in Santander, 18 busses with approximately 800 women and men on an 8-hour journey to meet the women from other parts of the country who awaited us at the entry to the city to begin the march. When we arrived in the afternoon, the people were ready with their black dresses, representing the mourning and rejection of the different forms of violence besetting Colombia. Girls, boys, youths, women, men, with joyful music groups, colorful floats, and slogans that we shouted all along the way showed Barrancabermeja and the country that in Colombia civil society doesn't want more war, and is calling for a peaceful solution to the conflict, which takes an especially high toll on the civilian population.

The most difficult moment I experienced in Colombia was when I witnessed the forcible search by the Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciones (judicial police) of the Instituto Popular de Capacitación (IPC), sparked by a phone call they supposedly received stating that a kidnapping was taking place there, which was false. At the time I was working as a volunteer at the Secretariat of the Red de Hermanamiento. That day, in last August, five members of IPC's human rights office received death threats by members of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, and because of that an emergency meeting of the Red de Hermanamiento was taking place at the IPC when the state agents arrived. I felt so powerless and such anguish when I saw the members of the CTI pointing their weapons, from outside, at those of us inside. It was a moment of great confusion, which, fortunately, didn't result in any deaths, but which left the message of the harassment to which human rights defenders are victim.

After living in Colombia the last six months, I returned to the United States surprised and impressed by the work of civil society, which leads me to conclude that the Colombian people outstrip not only their rulers, but also the actors in the conflict, because they are the people who create life with new proposals, because they are capable of standing up and saying that they do not agree with the war and that they want to live in dignity. This is why it is essential for those of us Colombians who live abroad to take an active part supporting the processes that civil society is fostering in Colombia, and to call on the Colombian government to respect human rights and adopt policies conducive to social justice so that there can be a peaceful solution to the conflict.


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