17 October 2006

Land, Beauty, and Violence

Visit Colombia for a week and you'll understand all of the problems and know exactly how to solve them.

Visit Colombia for a month, and you'll still see the problems, but you're not quite sure anymore how they're going to be solved.

Live in Colombia for years, and you don't even see the problems. You just see Colombia.
Last weekend a committee from the church traveled to the towns of Sincelejo and Cartagena in order to visit with communities and to host workshops, and Traci and I went along for the ride. Getting out of the city, spending time with different folks, and visiting new parts of Colombia opened my eyes in unexpected ways and I still find myself processing the experience.

Although I’ve been here in Barranquilla for seven weeks, until now the violence has seemed invisible to me, rather distant from my own daily reality and from the lives of the folks I know. I’ve heard stories of displacement and I see the newspaper headlines, but in many ways it’s hard for me to connect realities of the conflict between the state, the paramilitary, the guerrilla, to the Colombia that I’ve come to know. I don’t recognize guerrilla members or paramilitary leaders when I’m out in the community, I’ve never felt personally threatened, and as I concentrate on enjoying my friendships and practicing spanish, I often forget that this civil war carries on throughout the country every single day. Unfortunately, the violence was made visible to me in a small way this weekend.

On Saturday morning at 4:45am, we were waiting inside our gate for our friends to pick us up for the ride to Sincelejo. Across the street from the campus there is a fairly large city park, somewhat ironically called La Plaza de la Paz (The Plaza of Peace). As we sleepily waited in the darkness for our ride, I was startled to hear shouting across the street and to witness a police officer on foot and another riding a motorcycle chasing a shirtless, shoeless man through the park. They caught up with him on the street corner nearest our campus and proceeded to beat the man with their nightsticks. It was horrifying, and lasted several long minutes, long after the man stopped struggling. I’m not sure what I would do in this situation in the United States, but I knew that the safest thing for me to do in Colombia was to stay far away.

The ride to Sincelejo was full of contrasting emotions for me. I still felt a tightness in my chest thinking of that scene of police brutality, but the landscape in that part of Colombia is so breathtakingly gorgeous that I couldn’t help but feel joyful about the majesty of nature. We passed through la sabana (savannah), full of clouds and trees and cows grazing, winding streams and the rolling foothills of the central cord of the Andes. We drove through towns full of modest houses dotting the hillsides and small shops selling colorful hammocks. Fields of corn, yucca, and other crops were scattered throughout the landscape, and these patches of brilliant greens and deep browns proclaimed the lushness and richness of this land.

At one crossroads, my slack-jawed appreciation for the landscape was interrupted when a road sign pointing in the direction of several towns prompted one friend to tell me, “This is guerrilla territory. See that town name? There was a massacre there a few years ago. And see this land? It’s all owned by the paramilitary now.”

I’ve been hearing stories for months now about all the land stolen from Colombia’s three million internally displaced campesinos. I’ve been building relationships with so many displaced folks here in the city, but this was really the first time that I understood the link between these gorgeous fields of greens and browns and the stories of displacement, in which horrific violence is perpetrated by the armed groups seeking profit, control, and dominance. This is my friends' land, I realized.

The overarching lesson for me, and one I’m still continuing to dissect, relates to the senselessness of poverty in a country so rich with resources and fertility. A few weeks ago, one displaced organizer was describing to me the richness of Colombian soil and she said, “If every Colombian had land, there would be no hunger.” Another astute observer pointed out that Colombia really has everything it needs – fruit trees, rivers, rainforest, oil, emeralds, and fertile lands. The problem in Colombia is that these resources are constantly being stolen and concentrated in the hands of the most powerful, including the armed groups, the wealthy elites, and, in some cases, international actors. What this leaves is a growing population of folks ripped from their livelihoods, their histories, their communities, now struggling for justice and survival on the outskirts of cities like Barranquilla, Bogotá, Cartagena, and elsewhere in Colombia.

There’s so much to say about this situation, but for now I’ll leave you with a question one pastor posed during the weekend’s workshop. He was describing the culture of consumption and individualism that is rapidly spreading throughout the world, which distances us from our obligations to each other and which, on the national and international level, contributes to violence and power-seeking. He asked:

¿Qué tiene que ver con la vida digna? (What does this have to do with a dignified life?)


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