Thursday, December 15, 2011

three days of madness and inspiration

I have to write this down before the details slowly slip from my brain.  So, on the morning after the craziest four days so far in Colombia (in my life?!), I'm going to give you all a rough sketch of what we were doing, and what actually happened:

One of my fellow SEEDers, Anna Vogt, is accompanying the community of Mampujan in their process of return to the land they were displaced from 12 years ago.  Six years ago, Mampujan became the first and, to date, only, community in Colombia to receive a sentence under the Law of Justice and Peace.  The sentence delineated specific reparations that the community would receive- like the establishment of basic services (electricity, a health clinic) in their now deserted town.  There has been no follow-through, and the community is losing patience with the government's reluctance to admit wrong and give them what is rightfully theirs.  So, they decided to march non-violently from the community to Cartagena (the capital of the department and the seat of the governor) to demand their complete reparation- not just bags of flour or a  new house- but a dignified return to their land.

I came to participate and support Anna, and also to help out with the logistics, as the complexity of helping over 400 men, women, and children walk 72 kilometers (and feeding them for three days) was huge, and also handled by a team of about 10 people, mostly from SembrandoPaz, my partner organization.  Here is where the craziness started, and here is where I begin listing things, because it's too much for details.

Pre-march day:

wake up afraid that I won't be able to leave the community because of the massive rainstorm the day before and the deteriorating road, but a truck and two buses later, I arrive in Mampujan
realization that most of the logistics were finally organized THAT MORNING
two hour search for firewood and pots for cooking
hugs for the highly stressed Anna and Jes, who have been working on this for weeks already
hugs for the incredible community leaders, who are handling a thousand details
distributing of food for 400 between 12 cooks for dinner the next day
discovery that we don't have nearly enough water for everyone
search for hammock (which I had forgotten to bring)
sleep at 11

Day 1:
up at 3:15 to load the cargo trucks that will come with us- with food, cooking pots, firewood, water and the bags/mattresses/hammocks of the marchers
distribution of signs and wristbands
marchers depart at 4am, walking on one side of the road, accompanied by police traffic control in front and behind
we depart at 5, after tying a thousand last minute loose ends
catch up with the marchers, walk until breakfast at nine, trying to keep people walking at the same pace so they don't spread out along a long stretch of road (impossible)
are joined by the Guardia Indigena de la Pista (an indigenous group that provides an alternative to the traditional police force in non-violent crowd control, organization, and security for the march for the next few days.  seriously the most amazing group I've ever worked with- ceaselessly calm, uncomplaining, hardworking, motivated, and fiercely proud of their identity)
arrive for breakfast (packed and carried by the marchers) in the parking lot of a gas station, joined by members of other communities also affected by the sentence
joined by several hippie NGO workers
sun comes out- HOT! not enough water!
people start to lose patience and either walk way faster or slower than their counterparts- we get super spread out, try to reunite, basically impossible
it starts to rain, rains for an hour while we walk
(I'm marching but in the meantime, the other SEEDers (3 of them) and Jes are running around like crazy people getting dinner set up and organizing the break stop)
1:30: break stop under a bridge, passing out scalding plastic cups of coffee and bread to 400 people who do not want to make a line
more walking
3:00: finally arrive, way behind schedule although we have been walking quickly, at lunch stop, exhausted after 11 hours of walking
decide to bus folks to the night rest stop (after realizing that it would be another 5 hours of walking)
arrive to see 12 cooks spread out in courtyard, cooking massive amounts of food over wood fires, applaud them
frantically run to buy more water (water in school not potable)
don't sit down for the next five hours running errands
usher people to the nurse for Band-aids and pain reliever pills
Guardia has a mediation session with the bus driver after he tells them that he won't let them sleep in the bus like he said he would- he relents
I eat two bites of dinner and then the donation from the mayor of Cartagena arrives- a THOUSAND small but heavy bags of food (tuna, spaghetti, flour, cornmeal...)
move all the bags from one truck to another
run frantically to buy more water, buy the store out
brush my teeth and wash my face
hang hammocks at 11, eaten by bugs for the next 3.5 hours while we try to sleep

Day 2:
2:30: up to wake up cooks to start breakfast at 3
divide breakfast supplies
unload and unpack 350 of the bags of food received yesterday, repack some of the food into portions for lunch and dinner the next day
manage 30 children who are helping (and doing a tremendous job)
finish at 6, load heavy bags back in truck
frantically look for more water for the cooks
drink a very deserved and delicious cafe con leche
cooks wash all of their enormous cooking pots (seriously, these ladies are impressive)
simultaneously load bags, cooking pots, and bricks used to hold pots over fire (still hot!) onto trucks, usher people into the road to start marching, pick up huge amounts of trash / sweep (one of the community leaders single-handedly cleans the over-used bathrooms), load a huge amount of bags of water into another truck, run up and down line of people giving out water, help cooks onto another bus that will take them to the next site to cook lunch...
MOVE OUT! to march on Cartagena
wave to news crews
cooks revolt, decide to stay with march instead of going to cook early- we are excited that they want to march but worried about lunch timing- decide to march with them for an hour
singing!  chanting!  provoking huge traffic jams!
buses of passing people curiously read our signs and give us the thumbs up
hop on bus to take cooks to lunch site- sure enough, we barely get lunch done on time
500-600 people arrive exhausted, eat lunch, then re-mobilize to march to the center city
we turn around lunch cleanup to dinner prep in an hour, find replacements for two cooks who have decided not to cook anymore
run to center city to catch up with marchers
cry upon seeing the long lines of farmers, laborers, victims, rural folks, Afro-Colombians with aching feet... entering rich Cartagena with its white tourists and designer stores
cry upon seeing Afro-Colombians still demanding rights and liberation as they walk past the site where the slave trade used to take place, where their ancestors were sold centuries ago
shout with triumph and exhaustion- quienes somos? desplazados! que exigimos? reparacion! ("who are we?" "displaced people!" "what do we demand?" "reparation!") as we walk along the sea walls to the central plaza
stand yelling in central plaza until they come out to talk
governor addresses crowd on balcony, calls meeting with 10 community leaders
we wait until the end of the meeting, in which they establish that there will be a public panel dialogue the next morning to talk about demands
bus people back to rest site, eat two bites of dinner while running errands (try to ignore blisters and swollen feet)
realize that the bread and milk tentatively promised from one NGO will not arrive for breakfast
run to store to buy milk, refuse to pay too much to a taxi to take us back, carry milk, drop milk, another taxi driver is compassionate and takes us for less money
11pm: nowhere to hang hammock, sleep on cement floor until...

Day 3!
4am: up for breakfast organizing
5am: leave to try to buy a thousand rolls/pieces of bread from nearby bakeries.  they are surprised, we buy about 300 and head back while others keep searching
6:30am: breakfast- mad rush for bread, no lines, nowhere near enough
7:30: more bread arrives, no lines, not quite enough because some people took way more than they should have, some people are very angry about not getting bread, we secretly buy more and pass it to them individually.  we eat one egg and three bites of bread each for breakfast.
folks leave on buses for plaza
we figure out lunch supplies (also what to do because three cooks are now missing, but the other wonderful ladies decide to chip in and cook their portions)
run to central plaza to join march
pay way too much for a very necessary coffee
realize that the governor is now both reluctant to have a public meeting and to show his face to the waiting people
waiting people become angry after governor only offers to let 100 people into the meeting, refuses to go
we plan a potential storming of the offices, idea is nixed by our boss because it isn't legal/non-violent
finally, they agree to let the whole community in
meeting begins, but we are all so exhausted that the community leaders have some trouble finding focus, many are waiting outside, and Anna and I cry frequently
in the first statement of the meeting, one of the community leaders starts crying at the enormity of what they have accomplished and the enormity of their need for justice, and the whole crowd follows him into tears and encourages him to keep going
Governor shows up really late, but agrees to the community demand of establishing a working group to nail down a detailed plan to address the specific demands of the reparation- first meeting is planned in Mampujan for next Friday. meeting adjourned
3:00pm: utterly exhausted, we wait for the last bus, while the other folks go ahead of us to organize lunch and transport back- by the time we arrive, there is scarcely any lunch left, so I do damage control with the frustrated folks and find them enough to eat
three hours of madness- packing, cleaning, carrying food, finding band-aids, trying to organize the extra buses that the governor has agreed to pay for, passing out the packs of food donated by the mayor's office, people wait on the buses (voluntarily), getting hotter and more frustrated by the half-hour
some of the funding hasn't been transferred through bank accounts yet so we all empty all of our accounts (it still isn't enough to completely pay the bus drivers)
buses finally arrive
6:30pm: finally leave as it starts to rain (have not planned dinner)
8:30pm: arrive in Mampujan, unload the mountain of leftover food and all the bags, congratulate all the folks that are so relieved to be home and proud of their work....head out!

BUT, that isn't the end.  Half an hour down the road, we hit a donkey, crack the radiator, are stranded on the side of the road for two hours (with some nice policemen), literally so tired that we are falling down, find a car, are towed to the next town, sleep for three hours in a hotel, I find out that I am unable to get back to my village today, and thus end up in Sincelejo at 8:30 in the morning.  I shower, and am finally able to relax.  I'll head to my real house at 4 tomorrow morning.  Wow.

That's the story.  I hope that you can understand some of the madness and all of the beauty that made it all worth it- blisters, dehydration, stress and exhaustion.  Learning about organization.  Walking for rights with the displaced community of Mampujan. Demanding to been seen, listened to, treated with dignity.  What an incredible experience.  I hope you are as inspired as I am, and not nearly as exhausted.