"He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves."
-Florentino Ariza in Love in the Time of Cholera
It has been over a month since I walked down the mountain for the final time, leaving the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. In many ways it feels like I am simply on an extended vacation. The rare moments in which I’ve realized that my time in Colombia has ended I feel a catch in my throat combined with, if I’m being perfectly honest, a sense of relief, of release. The constant on-call situation wears one down. But the daily worries in no way overshadowed the unreal privilege of being draw into the community. Faces flash through my mind without warning and the warm and still-fresh memory paralyzes me. This was no meaningful but fleeting immersion trip of my past. This was deep inclusion in a community process that works to create peace amidst undeniable violence, one that leaves me unable to eloquently speak its truth. I seem to totally lack digestible summary preciseness. But most questions are more about Colombian food and other safe topics. I haven’t been forced to think and feel my way through the soul-searching questions of lessons learned, perspectives gained.
Even this blog has been winning the stare down. Maybe it would be most appropriate not to have a last entry as I want this experience to stay with me, to feel without end. A tidy ending to these reflections might feel too sterile. But I’m a closure girl and have wanted to write it a hundred times over even though the words won’t come. I find myself struggling to bring the documentation of my time in the Peace Community to some appropriate conclusion.
Thinking about what to write only conjured up the changes I’ve experienced since arriving home: hot showers feel ridiculously luxurious; I can’t stop throwing used toilet paper in the wastebasket instead of the toilet, I still feel compelled to talk in code about certain ideas when in public, my eyes readily scan the sky for helicopters and my ears remain finely tuned for any threatening sound. I keep saying "chau" when parting ways with people.
I thought I could write about the connection between my departure from Colombia and the near next-day killing of FARC commander “Raul Reyes” in Ecuadorian territory that sparked aggression between Ecuador, Colombia and, predictably, Venezuela. Ambassadors were pulled, troops were sent to the borders and war seemed inevitable until the leaders hugged it out at a summit of Latin American countries hosted by the Dominican Republic. Clearly, my presence was keeping diplomacy intact if upon my departure war nearly broke out. I followed these events as best I could from hostels in Panama and then Costa Rica. I missed being expected to generate a contextual analysis of unfolding events. I missed the instant feedback from our friends and neighbors in La Unión. I missed my teammates – together picking apart the situation to make sense of what we understood and the more that we did not. I attempted discussing it with fellow travelers but mostly found the expected “I love Uncle Hugo and whatever he does must be in the name of Right and Revolution”. I had barely left Colombia, but there she was, calling my attention to all I was missing.
In Costa Rica I went to the cloud forest reserve of Monteverde – a place I had hoped to visit for years. The well-protected green was indeed breathtaking, especially as I sped through on zip lines, but it was rather commonplace after so much time in the true-rain-green of the district of San José de Apartadó. I thought of our mountain after the rain as it dripped greens all over. I pictured it as the sun set over the not-so-distant gulf, painting the sky with its pallet as the mountains bounced the warm glow back and forth down the valleys.
Over the holidays, one of my “moms” back home, Elaine Lahm, was sharing stores about “Thin Places”, a Celtic designation that is given to locations where the boundary between heaven and earth is indistinguishable. The Community, for me, is a Thin Place. But it seems to be a confluence of more than just heaven and earth; there meets life and death, peace and war, cultivation and destruction, tradition and progress, heaven and hell. Mountains give way to ocean – peaceful fallows give way to mined fields – and if the Community continues to expand and flourish, the hope is that war and violence will eventually give way to peace and communal spirit. My pastor father would say that these contradictions all speak of the resurrection and I would have to agree, the Community seeks to build resistance through the memory of those who have been martyred in her founding and growth. Life out of death. I myself felt recreated many times over during my experience with the Community.
The day I walked down the mountain, my face was bathed in tears and I promised to return. Repeating to myself that I would continue to work in whatever way possible to support this and other processes of non-violent resistance in Colombia and elsewhere. I also left completely convinced that I would turn my main focus back to the States: The domestic challenges of drug addiction and drug violence, disproportional imprisonment, our government’s obsession with global hegemonic control, and the population’s acquiescence to the domination of the military industrial complex and its dependence on waging war. All of which absolutely feed the conflict in Colombia and places the world over. I feel a responsibility to tackle these problems from the source – especially as a privileged, white, educated US citizen. I am slowly developing a more complete understanding of every activist’s favorite buzzword – solidarity.
Solidarity is absolutely going and experiencing and learning from a culture, a people, a movement outside of your normal comfort zone. But I think what truly brings us into solidarity are the ways in which we use that experience upon our return. How deeply do we allow ourselves to be affected? Are we called to lasting action? How integrated do we allow our experience of the other to become in our daily lives? How do we balance a serious commitment to change with the levity needed for our everyday lives? How do we encourage action in others without copping a holier-than-thou stance?
Gabo once wrote: “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”
What I do know is that I am desperate to see a change in this country’s leadership and then to see that change reverberate through the nation. If Barack Obama’s speech on race in America is a good measure of the man, then I look forward to moving President Obama to a more nuanced stance on US aid to Colombia. I, perhaps naively, hope that with pressure we could push his administration to oppose Free Trade Agreements, stop the absurd "drug war", appropriately fund public education, shift focus away from incarceration and to rehabilitation and jobs programs, and to end aggression as the default US response to uncertainty abroad.
After some time filled with constant news of violence and repression, I am grateful to delight in the giddy indulgence of hope.
I am also so very grateful to all of you who have read along as I have been changed and shaped by this experience. Your support has meant a great deal to me. I hope you will continue to be informed about the Colombian organizations and communities engaged in active, non-violent resistance to the war. Links on this page will help you to do so. For those of you who know me, I ask that you help me to keep my time in Colombia at the forefront of my life. Already I am more viscerally concerned with the NCAA tournament than the latest happenings in Colombia and the Community. Distance does funny things to urgency and while perhaps some time is now needed to readjust, I’ve made too many flowery and assured promises in this blog alone to allow myself to so easily forget.
I’ll close with one of my favorite moments of my time in the Community. About a year ago I was responsible for some US reporters visiting the Peace Community. This meant that I was present for interviews and most times acting as an interpreter. During one interview, one of the Community leaders was being pressed on the communal response to the 2005 massacre. This leader’s young sister was murdered with a machete by members of the Colombian army. The reporter was trying to understand why this leader wouldn’t break with the Community’s decision to protect the witness from government interrogation as doing so would surely ensure that his sister’s killers be met with justice. The Community believes, based on precedence, that the government would torture and likely eliminate a witness to the crimes of the Colombian army against the civilian population. And, if the other over 180 extra-judicial killings have gone without prosecution why would this case be any different?
My friend, the leader, said that giving up the witness would gravely endanger both the witness and the community. And while he has a great desire to see his sister’s killer brought to justice, he has a greater commitment to the brothers and sisters of the Peace Community. He has a greater desire to see that no more civilians are massacred, assassinated, disappeared or displaced. His family runs wider and deeper than his blood. Perhaps another testament to the “thinness” of the Community – the boundary between neighbor and family does not exist. They are all bound up together in death and new life, in planting and reeping, in resistance and struggle. They live together with the memory of those who have given their lives and with the hope that their peaceful and powerful resistance will one day break down the machinations of war giving way to a peace that is lasting and boundless in its scope.
Thanks so much for reading.