The learning curve has been steep this last month in Colombia. I have shaken the dust off vocabulary for self-protection, for legal process, for courteous letters to officials. Once tricky names now roll off the tongue- for community leaders (former acquaintances, now fast friends), a host of government agencies and maximum security prisons. I have pulled out countless names and stories from the two years I spent talking and living with folks in the mountains to piece together the story we are currently living. I have remembered with them, and watched their faces as they wish they could forget so many things. I have learned the deep, lasting value of the Colombian two-minute check-in phone call- the call you give when you get home at night, and to check in to see that a friend woke up in good spirits.
It has been so hard to walk with the community leaders through this. On Sept. 3rd, written death threats for many of the nonviolent march leaders were distributed on public roads, in the towns where they live, in communities they trust. Six days later, a dear friend- who we have called family for at least the past year of intense organization, reflection, accompaniment, struggle, and triumph, was arrested. He is sleeping tonight on a bare cement floor in a maximum security prison. I wish I could say it more gently, but one thing we have all learned is the blank feeling of helplessness that we often have when we think about him. We can’t fly him a mattress, so we are reduced to using all the minutes on our phones and hours in our days calling into the wind, hoping that the competent authorities, wherever they are hiding, hear something.
The onslaught of meetings, phone calls, negotiations, and lists haven’t stop. I sat stunned through a meeting on Friday as I listened to the layers of pain and anger that this has brought to the surface for my friends, and again yesterday, as they steadied themselves for six hours of passionate, mature negotiation with government officials. Too many days, I have sat down with them at the end of a meeting to update them on the case and watch them cry for a minute with exhaustion and worry, then set their faces, pull out their notebooks, and write a list of people to talk to or letters to send.
The words “human rights defender” no longer invoke long documents, but faces and a gut-wrenching feeling of pride and outrage. I see our friend’s wife, who had to tell their four year old daughter that her dad was in prison for the second time in her short life on false and fabricated charges of pertaining to a guerrilla group, speaking in righteous anger to over 600 of her own, who shelled out their own money to gather under rainy skies and remind us that they, as campesin@s, are not from the guerrilla, that they have been publically and transparently committed to nonviolence from the start, and that they are, under no circumstances, going to go home, shut their doors, and stop claiming their rights and dignity in a just and reasonable way. I see my friend who consistently invites his enemies to sit down at the table because, as he said yesterday, enough violence is enough. I see my friend who bent to wash my muddy foot, who reminded me that dignity is made up of that recognition of the spirit in one another.
We have all learned, for me it has not been many, but for others as many times as grains of sand, that the armed conflict is simply not over. As delicately as the news can be written, it is distorted. I wondered how hundreds of times in the last two years- how can a community so battered so little time ago exist so calmly? I heard echoes of unresolved issues, but the Montes de Maria were completely safe, we were told. Government officials were busy implementing the Entity for Attention to Victims, Committees of Transitional Justice, and reparations for victims of the armed conflict, which had since been resolved. We are part of a Consolidated territory.
The amazing resilience of the campesin@s with whom I have the great privilege of working means several things- one, that they can laugh about just about anything, two, that they saw through the bullshit all along, and three, that they still have faith that things will get better. They knew that Consolidated was the neat U.S. government word for “bulldozed with a military offensive” that stews together legal and illegal armed groups, rips up some illegal armed groups at the surface, leaves the roots and carries a huge amount of innocents in its wake. They knew that they were born to open their mouths to defend their communities and their rights, and that at some point that meant they were going to face the powers that lurk below the surface, but hopefully this time with greater inner strength and more friends standing beside them. They know that they are innocent, and that, as our jailed friend wrote: in life you often have to suffer, especially if you are poor like me. And they keep on. Our friend says: above all, do not let the process fail. I have faith in heaven and earth that they won’t stop fighting for their beloved mountains, for their right to walk and laugh freely, for life over death.
Today they laughed at the idea of transitional justice. They said- we are living in the middle of an armed conflict. We cannot ignore that, as we sit down to negotiate with the government, the same is holding our friend captive. The government Entity for Attention to Victims has championed this process, and now has to fight to free one of the leaders. We have had to do too much damage control in the last month, in a scenario we had hoped was ready for healing. How do you propose reparations for victims and then continue to arrest them? How do you open spaces for dialogue and truth telling, as people are accused of pertaining to one armed groups or another based on what they say? How do you move on when the government’s plan for protection are bodyguards and bulletproof vests, not challenging impunity? How do you have negotiations, when people won’t speak because of who is in the room?
We have learned much of what is out there, and we know that we are not yet in a space of transitional justice. There is still not much breathing room. This is a time for active resistance. It is time to network, love each other, laugh when we can, cry when we can’t, send care packages and letters, and stare all this down. It is time to accompany, to shoulder the load, to steel ourselves against the reality, and to have faith. We will keep walking, nonviolently, like my friends have done their whole lives, and we will not let the great work of justice fall.