Within the United States, the struggle in Colombia is too often brushed over or misunderstood. If the Colombian conflict is mentioned at all, news media often associates the war with issues of drug trafficking, guerrilla warfare, and paramilitary violence. In our classes, analysis and understanding of the Colombian conflict is limited to discussions of U.S. policy, through references to trade between the two countries or Plan Colombia. While academia may improve our factual knowledge of Colombia, such an atmosphere lacks a certain element of humanity.
This, in part, is why we chose to lead a delegation of American University students to Urabá, a subregion of the Chocó Department in northwestern Colombia, to meet with displaced Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities this past March.
In a class, we discussed the plight of the internally displaced for hours without fully realizing the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis currently happening in Colombia. For decades the Colombian conflict has been characterized as a war with some of the highest levels of violence in the Western hemisphere. Nearly five million people have been displaced as a result of this violence and in our trip; we visited numerous humanitarian zones, comprised of courageous communities committed to peacefully reclaiming their lands. Their level of organization, grassroots leadership and advocacy, and unending enthusiasm renewed our faith in the power of the individual. We were continuously awestruck by their ability to remain optimistic about the possibility of a brighter, more equitable future in the face of such violence, persecution, and governmental silence.
When asked what we could do for them, community leaders continuously urged us to “tell everyone what you witnessed here,” “talk to anyone who will listen,” and to “carry our stories with you.” In Colombia, we and our fellow students found human faces living the realities of what we had studied. With our participation in campaigns such as Witness for Peace’s Days of Prayer & Action for Colombia, we hope to bring others in our classes, communities, and social circles face-to-face with the people we encountered on our delegation.
You can read about suffering and injustice and simply close the book at the end, but personal interactions make this pain a reality. They motivate us to move beyond thought and theory to action and advocacy. It is time that we all understood the human cost of U.S. policy in Colombia.