Julia Duranti, Colombia Team
“Good morning, how did you sleep?” “Great and you?” “Very well. Do you drink coffee? Come on in and we’ll have one together.”
I sit sipping a coffee with Don Miguel on my last morning in Caño Manso, listening to the campo symphony of chickens, cows, and vallenato music wafting over from a neighbor’s battery-powered radio. Several bursts of rain brought a welcome respite from the heavy tropical air to which my Pacific Northwest gringa body is so unaccustomed, and the bug bites that appeared overnight despite our tent defenses have mercifully stopped itching. The past few days have been a blur of sensory experiences wrapped up in campesino generosity—of swimming in rivers, coconut rice, sleeping on the floor of a house to which a pig, rabbit, chickens, enterprising neighborhood dogs, and a rogue cockroach had just as much claim as I; of rubber boots squelching through mud; of coffee campo style; of going to bed at seven pm because the lack of electricity means keeping the same hours as the sun; of barefoot soccer; bumpy rides in Soviet 4x4s; of all of us getting asked to dance by all the zona’s youth—and what else?
On our way out from the town of Mutatá to the Camelias humanitarian zone we hadn’t traveled 15 minutes down the winding dirt road when we were stopped by an accident between a motorcycle and a truck. Suddenly the funeral procession we had seen crossing town a few minutes earlier made sense. Apparently an ambulance had been through to deal with the accident’s victims, but the crashed vehicles were still blocking the road and there were a lot of people standing around waiting for something to happen, including a few members of the Colombian military who couldn’t have been older than eighteen or nineteen years old. One with braces on his teeth tried to make pleasant conversation with us about the weather as everyone respectfully avoided altering the scene for the report that may never get filed.
Christmas Day we visited a neighboring humanitarian zone of Caracoli, and just when we arrived we encountered a dozen police officers trying to support a wealthy “landowner’s” encroachment on the community’s territory, us twentysomething gringas in our blue vests accompanying a Colombian nun and a few campesinos. Never mind that the whole area is collective territory and thus an individual title to the land is impossible, and that the community has a right to be there under ILO Convention 169 on indigenous peoples. Colombia ratified the convention and it became the national laws of Law 70 for Afro-descendants and Law 21 for indigenous people, plus grandfather provisions for anyone living in traditional lands prior to 1996. But true land reform has been illusive, as multinationals, Colombian companies and other private interests often defended by paramilitaries or public security forces persist in trying to wrest control of lucrative natural resources away from subsistence farmers. For a day, at least, in one tiny corner of northwestern Colombia, they were delayed. “No tenemos miedo de esos gringos hijos de puta—we’re not afraid of those foreign bitches,” we heard as the police retreated. The community residents had stood their ground, insisting that the police and their neighbor had no right to enter, and then immediately demanded a cell phone to report the incident. Resistance.
We saw the memory houses that each humanitarian zone has created to preserve their histories and tell the stories of their displacements, and heard stories of their land and their livelihood. Learned how just last year an organizer in their community was lured into Mutatá, accompanied by his 15-year-old son, by a false text message on a government-issued phone promising him money. Police attempted to arrest him upon his arrival, and another NGO intervened, arguing that he had protected status as a community leader and could not be arrested. (Other such “protective measures” the Colombian State has instituted for vulnerable community leaders include handing out expired bulletproof vests and government cell phones that are consistently wiretapped.) On the leader’s ride back to his community, the 4×4 he and his son were traveling in was stopped on a bridge by a member of a paramilitary group. Another accomplice got out from the vehicle. Working together, the two paramilitaries tortured and killed the organizer and his son, and disposed of the bodies in the river. There was no response from the government. Two NGOs had to lead the search for the bodies.
Visiting a nearby biodiversity zone for a meeting with the residents, we were surprised to find six soldiers already there, laughing and joking with the family. The biodiversity zones have no bans on the entrance of armed actors, and the family likely faced significant pressure from the soldiers’ constant patrols on their road and patronage of their tiny store. We spent an uncomfortable hour or so waiting for them to leave. During that time, one of the soldiers showed me pictures of his family in Bogotá and talked about how excited he was to spend time with them after “six years losing my life here; six years lost. Lost? Shortly after another soldier complimented my coworker’s eyes was when we decided to leave and just come back later. Military service in Colombia is obligatory for all young, healthy males, and as in so many places, the poor bear the brunt of that. What’s more, all the soldiers I have encountered in my brief time here are overwhelmingly young. If I make any judgments, I try to hold onto what Barbara Deming writes about judging actions, not people, as we struggle to answer the living question of how we can change our lives and the violence of the status quo.
In the agreeable company of Don Miguel, I stare out over the lush and varied greens of plants I can’t identify, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that in 24 hours, I’ll be back in the urban chaos of Bogotá—Bogotá with its high-rises, shopping malls, international restaurants, iPhones, and middle-class families out for Sunday strolls on the parkway with their dogs on leashes. The Colombian State’s crackdown on crime pushed the most visible effects of the 50-year conflict out into rural areas and onto the backs of the people with whom we just spent a week. I do not want to conflate the contexts of different conflicts, but I also acknowledge how these dynamics are global in nature. In our hosts, I saw the faces of immigrants I worked with in Oregon, of campesinos and indigenous people driven away from their livelihoods to live in urban poverty in the United States—those that couldn’t stay in resistance. I remembered my frustration at the endless mini-crises and daily challenges, my rage at how stressed-out nonprofit workers hardened by too many years of grinding work for which they were never compensated fairly grew dismissive of folks that didn’t understand urban social institutions and impatient with those asking—just asking—for the help for which they could not qualify without papers, the perceived burden of providing translators for people still struggling to learn English after many years in the U.S. I remembered how people were seen as fundamentally vulnerable, despite our efforts to use the language of survivors, not victims, and clients, not recipients. Larger challenges overshadowed the strength these immigrants embodied. I’m ashamed that I wasn’t always immune to that. I let vicarious trauma shape my perceptions of the possibilities for a better future.
The flip side of vicarious trauma is vicarious resilience: the notion that the strength of people in struggle and their relentless ability to keep going in the spite of unimaginable hardship can be transferable. In the campo, that strength and the daily lived experience of land and conflict–in the words of Roque Dalton, of “those who struggle for life, love, little things, landscape and bread,”–is a force to be reckoned with, and it slapped me (nonviolently) in the face. As much as I talk about the need for humility, for a second I let it slip away, cruising in on the energy of having made it through an intensely competitive application process to be here, wanting to ask only the “right” questions, and feeling like I shouldn’t have problems understanding. This was the reality check of reality checks. Campesinos organizing to defend their rights and refusing to be driven into the cities to sell arms, drugs, and as the nun from Camelias put it, their souls, are happy to have visitors to help spread their struggle globally, but our presence as foreigners is secondary to their own efforts. What can we do? Listen and bear witness. Provide the same guiding, interpreting, and access to grassroots groups that multinationals and politicians enjoy. Sit and share a coffee and stories.
The motorcycles that would carry us down the trench-filled road inaccessible by regular car arrived, and it was time to say our goodbyes. We exchanged hugs and kisses all around, and Don Miguel opened the gate for us. “Gracias por estar aquí con nosotros. Uno se siente muy contento tener visitas, Thanks for being here with us. One feels so happy to have visitors.” he said, echoing many of our other hosts: contento. Contenta. Happy to have us, but in that moment not asking anything more.