by Camilo Castellanos
Thousands of Colombian campesinos have been forced into makeshift communities in larger cities to escape violence perpetrated by the army, paramilitary groups, and guerillas in conflict.
The majority of displaced persons, however, end up in the village of Pavarandó. Pregnant women and nursing women, the elderly, the disabled, young boys and girls, all walk through the jungle for almost a month to get to the closest road where they join the procession of refugees heading for Pavarandó.
Almost without warning, Pavarandó's population of 600 mushroomed eightfold by September 1997. Like a chronic disease, a maze of plastic tents grows next to Pavarandó's only dirt road, and a sewer and an emergency aqueduct twist through its narrow passages. Destiny has forced these campesinos to live like animals.
Paradoxically, though, this subhuman condition has engendered something positive: it has forced the people to organize themselves to confront the disaster together. This is possible because a few years ago the Claretians from Ríosucio created community councils that have pressured the Colombian government to recognize titles to the ancestral lands that the people had possessed for centuries without titles or borders. This has given the people some hope.
The truth is that Pavarandó has ended up like a school for the displaced. There, thinking about their disgrace, displaced people started to understand how senseless their destiny was: in a war in which all the parties claim to be fighting for the benefit of the simple people, all, without exception, made these very people their victims.
This situation forced the displaced people of Pavarandó to act. On October 19, 1997, they created the Comunidad de Paz (peace community) de San Francisco de Asís in a ceremony attended by representatives from the diplomatic corps, regional religious authorities, and national and international nongovernmental organizations.
One member of the peace community in Pavarandó who has suffered in this struggle is a venerable older man we will call Alemán. He knows that where he is now is not his land; his land waits for him elsewhere like an abandoned bride.
"I miss my land and my land misses me," he says with the passion of a lover. All of Alemán's people share the feeling that he articulates, and Alemán has become the soul of the organization of the displaced and of the negotiation of their return with the authorities.
"Comunidad de Paz means rejecting ties with all of the armed groups," Alemán explains. "It means being a messenger for no one, demanding respect from whatever armed group comes your way, getting used to feeling the suffering of our neighbor as our own, respecting each other, loving each another, sharing everything."
The Colombian government has signed an agreement with the campesinos promising to secure minimal conditions for their return, including tools, transportation and communication equipment, and electrical plants. Reality, however, is far away from promises; only a few weeks after the agreement the armed men who had displaced the campesinos set fire to entire villages.
In spite of this tough situation, 700 men, women, and children, all displaced campesinos, returned to their villages this past January; they have been compensated for their year of suffering with the great happiness of returning home.
CINEP, together with the local dioceses, has been very much a part of this process. Together they have channeled much of the humanitarian aid, stimulated reflection about causes of and possible solutions to many problems, organized communities, and advised the people in their negotiations with the authorities.
Our country will achieve peace only by building a collective agreement on the kind of country we want. This agreement will commit the upper level of power in the country to work for peace and a rebirth of our society. But it will also make all citizens and their organizations, such as the Comunidades de Paz, into vital actors in the process. The best interest of everyone is, after all, the well-being of all of Colombia.
Author Camilo Castellanos is a lawyer who has been working as a researcher with CINEP for ten years.
The Slave of Slaves
Hundreds of black slaves in the New World found an advocate, friend, and servant in St. Peter Claver. Born in Spain in 1580, Claver joined the Jesuits at the age of 24. His spiritual mentor, St. Alphonsus Rodríguez, inspired him to journey to the New World as a missionary. In 1610 he arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, where he spent the rest of his life working with black slaves transported from Africa to work in Colombia, declaring himself to be a "slave of the slaves forever." He died in 1654 and was canonized in 1888.
by Carlos H. Parra-Pirela