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Most people know that there is a brutal war going on in Colombia and that FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), is the biggest armed guerrilla group there. There is also the AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia), the network of paramilitary groups linked to the Colombian armed forces and large landowners. But few people have heard of the dozens of peasant Peace Communities that have formed around the country, the successes of indigenous communities in reclaiming their ancestral lands, or the young urban conscientious objectors and anti-militarist activists?
Recently I visited Colombia where I attended a six-day conference on ‘Active Nonviolence and Resistance to War’. I also spent two weeks visiting rural campesino and indigenous communities who are attempting to create space and respect for nonviolence in the midst of war.
youth leading the way
The conference on ‘Active Nonviolence and Resistance to War’ brought together over 150 anti-militarist, indigenous, Afro-Colombian, campesino, and human rights activists from all over Colombia, as well as from Europe and North America.
The conference was unusual in bringing together a wide range of grassroots Colombian activists who use nonviolent strategies to resist war and to create peace with social justice. It was organised by Red Juvenil (Youth Network), a group founded in Medellin in 1990. Red Juvenil members work with youth from poor barrios (neighbourhoods) to offer positive alternatives to joining gangs or the armed factions, or becoming sicarios (hired assassins). Red Juvenil uses art, theatre, and popular education to support human rights, self-empowerment, and community economic development. Many of the young men in Red Juvenil are conscientious objectors. They refuse to do the compulsory 20 months of national military service, despite the risk of prison time and the subsequent difficulties in obtaining work or attending college. Red Juvenil also organise anti-militarist demonstrations and nonviolent direct actions, often employing creative street theatre in the process.
The Red Juvenil activists show tremendous courage. An organiser told me about a time they went out to Comuna 13, a poor barrio of 100,000 people (many displaced from conflicted regions of the country) in the destitute heights of Medellin. Comuna 13 was targeted by the Colombian military in an attack called Operation Orion, ostensibly designed to clean out armed militia associated with the guerrilla groups. Three thousand troops with tanks, helicopter gunships and dozens of hooded civilian informants invaded the residential neighborhood, leaving 35 people dead and hundreds detained. The military took over the community health clinic as its operational HQ, and people were afraid to leave their homes. Red Juvenil organised a group that offered food and support to the residents, and walked openly in the streets to help in reclaiming the territory as a civilian area.
One of the groups at the conference I was most impressed by was Ruta Pacifica (Women’s Peaceful Path Against War), a feminist women’s peace coalition. Started by feminists in Medellin in 1995, they unite women across many barriers race, class, rural and urban. Ruta Pacifica’s first women’s march was in Apartado in the conflicted NW region of Uraba on November 25, 1996 International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. They marched to show solidarity with the suffering women of Uraba, to make visible the impact of the war on women, to speak out against the use of rape as a weapon, and to give women a voice. At that time a women’s march in a conflicted zone was seen as madness. But they went ahead nevertheless, and two thousand urban and campesino women showed up. Since then, they have held annual marches in support of women in different areas Bogota, Cartagena, Medellin, and Barrancabermeja. They also organised a huge march of 50,000 women in Bogota right before the inauguration of current right-wing President Alvaro Uribe to say no to war and to demand that women be included in peace negotiations. They also organised a peace caravan of more than 3,000 women to Putamayo to protest at the impact of aerial fumigation of coca, drug trafficking, warfare on women and their families and on the local economy.
Before the conference, I visited the campesino Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, in Uraba. This strategically important region has experienced intense armed conflict, with all three of the ‘armed actors’, as they call them in Colombia the military, paramilitary, and guerrilla groups - violating human rights and committing atrocities. Many thousands of campesinos have been displaced from their lands and have been forced to move to the cities, where they live in dire poverty in shantytowns around the outskirts. Colombia has one of the highest numbers of internally displaced people in the world: 2.9 million since 1985, a further million have fled the country since 1996.
The brave members of the Peace Community of San Jose decided that they were not going to let the armed actors force them from their lands. In 1997 they officially declared themselves a Peace Community. Key community principles are that they will not carry or use weapons, participate directly or indirectly in the war, or cooperate with any of the armed actors. They are trying to create a ‘zone of peace’ in the midst of the struggle, asking that the armed actors leave them alone and respect their right to life, to dignity, and to work their lands in peace.
They call their stance of nonviolent resistance ‘active neutrality’. They refuse to align themselves with any of the armed actors, and they speak out against human rights violations on all sides. This is a dangerous stance to take in a highly polarized conflict where ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ is applied with deadly force.
The Peace Community has managed to remain on its lands since 1997, and is well organised. It has not only formed a pacifist alternative in the face of war, but a successful economic alternative to individualism. Its members work the land collectively, and run several cooperative community enterprises. Everyone in the Community has enough to eat, and they take care of each other when old or sick. All this is quite a feat in a country where 66% of the population live in poverty, where the official unemployment rate is 20%, and over 300,000 people a year are driven from their homes.
But the success of their courageous stance has come at a high price. The ‘armed actors’ have targeted the Community for repression. 120 people in the Community (out of only 1300, many of them members of its leadership body), have been killed or disappeared in the last seven years, and the Community has 115 orphaned children to care for. While they have suffered from attacks by all the armed actors, the paramilitaries backed by the military have been responsible for most of the killings.
Nevertheless, the Community continues its quest for peace and the right to remain on their land. In September the San Jose community hosted a gathering of people from the 57 other communities around the country that have followed their example and declared themselves Communities of Peace. Several hundred people took the opportunity to analyze, share challenges and strategies, build community, and gain visibility.
I was struck by the power of the Peace Community’s clarity and unity. They agreed by consensus on their basic principles of collectivity, active neutrality, transparency, and nonviolence, and they stick to them with great determination. A leader in the Community said that the repression they have experienced has forced them to learn to deal with internal conflicts and differences nonviolently and democratically. For example, the Community has no jail, and they deal with transgressors by talking with them and finding out what was behind their negative acts. There are annual elections for the leadership Council, in which everyone over the age of 12 has a vote. They have a ban on alcohol, which they say cuts down greatly on violent incidents, and try to respect men and women equally all the women work in the fields, childcare is provided, and women are active in leadership roles. ‘Many women have had to learn to act as both mothers and father to their children because so many men have been killed or disappeared,’ said another leader.