Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Celebrating new lives and a life passed

I became a godmother the other day (to the left is me with my new goddaughter, Karin Juliet, during the baptism mass, and below with my teammate Chris - the godfather - and the Karin's parents). During the joint baptism-Christmas mass, celebrated in the open-air community kiosko (gathering space), the priest described the particular advantage the 7 babies being baptised have over most other newly-baptised babies: while through baptism children are welcomed into the Christian community, these 7 babies are already part of an extraordinary community that exemplifies many of the best parts of Christianity: solidarity, mutual care, cooperation.

I do see many of those values embodied here. In preparation for the 24th (Christmas Eve is the big day of celebration in Colombia, as opposed to the 25th in the U.S.), community members collaborated to prepare huge vats of the traditional Christmas food for the entire community – sancocho de res (a traditional stew made with a community-owned cow), natilla and buñuelos. And of course organizing the requisite baile (dance). I am proud to report I danced until 5am, though I was still bested by the strong few who danced until 7:30am! (I have earned a reputation as one of the top 2 or 3 dancers among FOR volunteers, which I find hilarious since at home I didn’t do much dancing, and when I did it was certainly not until dawn!)

Talking with the priest before the mass, he mentioned how he comes to the community several times a year to perform baptisms. “I have to,” he said, “because this community produces so many babies. That’s how we know this community won’t be defeated, won’t be killed off: they keep reproducing!” he joked. And it's true: this morning the newest baby girl was born, just a few days ago my next-door neighbor gave birth to a little girl, and possible twins are expected in a couple of weeks – not to mention my goddaughter and the four other baby girls born in the last few months. A veritable baby boom!

The priest’s comments became especially poignant when, early Saturday morning, an older – though not elderly by any means – member of the community had a stroke and died. As I understand it, Perucho had been sick and in a lot of pain for a while, so some consolation can be taken in the fact that he’s no longer in pain. His body was lain out in the kiosko and community members took turns staying with his body night and day – drinking coffee and playing dominoes to stay awake – until his funeral yesterday morning.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Christmas card from Colombia

Happy Holidays from Colombia!

My Christmas this year will be quite a change from the christmas-cookie-eating, presents-under-a-decorated-fir-tree Christmases to which I'm accustomed in the States. Instead, I'll be spending the holiday season eating natilla (a sweet corn pudding made with milk, cinnamon, cheese, and often coconut) and buñuelos (cheesy balls of fried dough), and dancing the nights away to vallenato (accordian-based Colombian pop music). As much as I'm already enjoying the start of those festivities, my teammates and I remain on alert. December tends to be one of the most violent months in this region: members of the legal and illegal armed groups are anxious and on edge because they'd rather be home with their families, and the attention of human rights offices of the government and other such agencies is often elsewhere as folks head off on vacation for the holidays. So far things have been calm, however, and we hope that continues.

And some New Year news for you: not only will I be transitioning to FOR's office in Bogota in the late spring, but I have agreed to extend my contract with FOR through the end of November 2009 – and perhaps longer. It's crazy to think about not returning home until nearly 2010, but I'm excited to take on new and additional responsibilities and challenges, like training new accompaniers, leading delegations, meeting with embassy officials, etc. Also, I will be back in the States for a visit in June or July, so keep your calendars open!

Last but not least, during this season of giving, I ask you to consider supporting me and the work I am doing in Colombia by donating to the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Your tax-deductible contribution would help pay for travel, insurance, living expenses, communication, and office support for me and my teammates, as well as supporting our work to provide support and visibility for the Peace Community.

I send abrazos grandes (big hugs) all the way from Colombia, and wish you a very Happy Holidays.

With love and peace,


FOR under surveillance

Below is the text of an action alert issued today by FOR. As described, we have learned that our email accounts have been under surveillance. This is another example of the way the Uribe administration has created a climate of suspicion around the human rights community in Colombia, putting us and our work in danger. Please take action!

"Speak Truth to Power" takes on a new dimension when you realize you are under surveillance! That is exactly the position we at FOR find ourselves in once again. In 2005, we informed FOR supporters that more than 10,000 pages of FBI files had been released to us, documenting decades of surveillance of the organization. Now, we have just learned that for two full years - since December 2006 - our Latin America program has been targeted and monitored by state agents. Specifically, the e-mail messages intercepted include FOR communication in the US and with Colombia!

This covert action is a direct violation of our right to privacy as a humanitarian activist organization. FOR's e-mail account was among more than 150 e-mail accounts of human rights organizations, journalists, academics, and labor organizations that were targeted. We've also learned that the Colombian military paid for computer hard drives "of interest to intelligence" agencies. The June 2007 break-in and stealing of FOR's Bogotá office computers containing sensitive files on our work with members of Colombian peace communities may have been a direct result of this state-sanctioned surveillance.

FOR is meeting this attack on civil rights by calling on U.S. and Colombian officials for a full investigation, sanctioning of officials responsible, and the erasure of intercepts. Join us in exposing this militaristic intervention. Click here to write to the State Department's chief for human rights concerns.

We also hope you will take this opportunity to show the Colombian and U.S. regimes that you support democracy, privacy, and self-determination by making a donation reaffirming your commitment to FOR. We need your help. Whatever your gift, it is a sign of your commitment to justice. We say again: we will not be silenced!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Recruitment time!

Wondering how you can visit Colombia and learn about the armed conflict and movements for peace? Come on a delegation! (And I may even by leading your trip!) Or want to become a human rights accompanier like me? Here's how:

Upcoming Delegations to Colombia

  • March 27-April 6, 2009: Youth Arts and Action Delegation. Builds on the dynamic experience of the first youth arts and action delegation in 2008 and the groups of conscientious objectors in Medellín and Bogotá. This delegation will be the focus of a documentary film produced by two participants. $1000 from Bogotá. For information and an application, contact Liza Smith,
  • August 15-29, 2009: Delegation to San José Peace Community, Medellín and Eastern Antioquia. Witness the incredible commitment and experience of the Peace Community of San José and other Colombian grassroots initiatives. $1500 from Bogotá. For information and application, contact John Lindsay-Poland,

Training for New Field Team Applicants

March 17-22, San Francisco: Apply to be part of the FOR teams in Bogotá and San José de Apartadó in Colombia. Team members serve for 12 months or longer, must be 23 and fluent in Spanish. More information is at

you could be here

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A few things I've learned after 6 months

I recently returned from a week vacation, spent with my mom in Medellin. To be honest, we didn't do much besides eat, drink and relax, but for me it was perfect: what I really needed was a break from my rice-and-beans diet and from constantly thinking about men with guns. My mom had many questions for me about my life and work in Colombia, of course, so the subject was never far from my mind. At one point, as we discussed my life and work here, she posed a question that I had considered in the abstract, but never in concrete terms: what have I learned?
So, here I present a list of a some of the things I have learned over the past 6 months:
  • how to hike through a mud pit without getting stuck - and when stuck, how to dig out one's boot
  • how to live and work with someone without driving myself or the other person entirely crazy
  • how to differentiate the sounds of combat fire from random shots

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Manos de Resistencia: event in SF, Dec 7

Attending this event is a great way you can support me and my work in Colombia!

Manos de Resistencia: Women Peacemakers in Colombia
Sunday, December 7, 7 pm.
Women’s Building
3543 18th St. San Francisco

A Benefit Featuring:
Amanda Romero
is a leading Colombian human rights activist, co-author of the collection of Colombian women’s testimonies, “We Will Never Be Silenced.” She will speak about Colombian women, human rights and the need for international presence.

Aluna is a Bay Area multicultural ethnic and Colombian folkloric band that features traditional Colombian music styles such as Cumbia, Puya, Bullerengue, Curruláo and Mapalé, as well as original music.

, Poetry by Maria Mercedes Carranza, raffle drawing, and honoring Bay Peace.

$12-20 donation. No one turned away.

This event is raising funds for the human rights accompaniment work of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Colombia. FOR’s teams live with the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó and other grassroots initiatives, in order to dissuade political violence and ensure their rights to stay on their lands and continue their nonviolent work. See for more information.

Co-sponsors: Global Fund for Women, American Friends Service Committee Pacific Mountain Region, Fund for Nonviolence, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom San Francisco Chapter, Peacemakers. Information: 720-296-6429

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Please act now to stem paramilitary threats to the peace community

Below is an alert FOR issued in response to increasing paramilitary threats (that I mentioned in a recent post) and the resultant displacement of civilians from their homes in the past week. Please take action!

Paramilitary forces are making increasingly violent threats against members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó and other peasant families in the area, with no apparent action by the Colombian government. Immediate action is needed by US Ambassador William Brownfield to leverage Washington's enormous influence and prevent further violence against the community and area's civilian population.

On the morning of November 7, in the Playa Larga vereda (settlement) of San José, some 50 rifle-wielding paramilitaries in camouflage gear and identifying armbands detained resident Jairo Berrio Arango, according to a community statement. He was forced to undress as the gunmen held a rifle to his head and threatened to kill him on the spot. When his father arrived on the scene and pleaded with them, they said they wouldn't kill him now-but that they had six San José community members targeted for death, and that they should flee immediately to avoid being killed. They said the army was cooperating with them. On November 7, five families fled the vereda of La Esperanza, where Berrio Arango's family is from, and local sources reported to FOR that between nine and 30 families had displaced from La Esperanza and Playa Larga as of November 10.

On November 1, the Peace Community's legal representative, Jesús Emilio Tuberquia, was threatened at gunpoint at an Internet café in the town of Apartadó, the local municipal seat,the community reported. Two known paramilitaries surrounded him at the café, while one held a pistol to his head and said, "I'm going to kill you." He pushed the man's arm away, fled into the café and was able to flee unharmed, though the gunmen grabbed his bag, which had fallen in the scuffle.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Interviewed on KPFA radio

Yesterday, KPFA radio in Berkeley aired a phone interview with me about my work in Colombia and the pilgrimage I accompanied in early October. My piece starts at minute 70:30. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Paramilitary resurgence demonstrates that the conflict continues

On October 15th, all the FOR Colombia staff had settled into our seats for a long-awaited full-program retreat to discuss all the ins-and-outs of our work in Colombia. We had gotten maybe an hour into our packed agenda when the phone rang to inform us that paramilitaries had launched a paro armado, effectively shut down several cities in Urabá, the region where we work. That included Apartadó, the nearest (albeit quite small) city to the Peace Community, and through which one must travel in order to get to the Community.  

After phone calls to other organizations and contacts, we learned that the previous night a warning to not open businesses nor run public transit had been spread throughout the area, propaganda leaflets had been distributed and all kinds of surfaces spray-painted with the initials AGC, for the name the group was using to refer to itself. The name – Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – was clearly a reference to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, the large and ruthless paramilitary organization that operated in Colombia for years. The Gaitanista addition was a bit puzzling, though, since Gaitán was a presidential candidate from the Liberal Party who was assassinated in 1948, and the paramilitaries have tended to align with conservativism. 

In any case, the next day as we traveled through Apartadó on our way back to the Community, we could hardly tell that anything had happened; shops all seemed open, people seemed to be running their usual errands. Most of the graffiti, even, had been painted over already, apparently by police who had gone out with paint and brushes the very afternoon of the paro

Plenty of fear was still lingering, of course, and lots of questions. For us and the Community, the main questions were (and still are) how to analyze the situation and how to respond. Our analysis has had to recognize that this wasn’t just an isolated incident. In the last several months there has been an alarmingly large increase in paramilitary forces in the rural areas of the region, moving in numbers not seen in years. Unlike the AGC’s who staged the paro and whose statement of purpose in the distributed leaflets was quite general, these paramilitaries in the rural areas, who refer to themselves under the old and fear-inducing moniker AUC, have directly threatened the Peace Community.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Orange Sweatpants from a Secret Friend

September is the month of amor y amistad (love and friendship) In Colombia, punctuated on September 20th with el día de amor y amistad. That day is kind of like our Valentine’s Day in the States (which is not celebrated here), except that, as far as I understand, there’s an equal (or perhaps near-equal) focus on amistad as well as amor. Or maybe I just think that because I didn’t have an amor here to celebrate with. ;)

One thing that those of us without amores get to participate in is Amigos Secretos (Secret Friends), a game kind of like Secret Santa in the States: all the women who are playing pick out of a hat the name of a man who is playing, and that man is then the woman’s amigo secreto. The men do the same in order to pick their amiga secreta. Throughout the month (or more, in our case), one is supposed to gift one’s amigo secreto with little packages of dulces (sweets). The game culminates in the descubrimiento (discovery) in which everyone gathers and tries to guess who their amigo secreto is, and then the no-longer-secret amigo gives the final, big gift, which is often clothing, like a nice shirt or a pair of jeans. Each person gets a couple of chances to guess, but for those who don’t guess correctly, there is a penetencia (penance) to pay – literally. Penetencias range from singing a silly song, dancing with a cup of water balanced in each hand, tying a pencil with string to your back belt loop and trying to place it into a bottle, and other silly and embarrassing craziness in front of everyone. Often (or at least here in the Community), there’s a party/dance afterwards, which of course lasts until all hours of the night.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Will Walk for Peace

I recently returned from 6 days of hiking through piles of mud and up mountains, accompanying a pilgrimage of almost 200 Peace Community members, members of Tamera, an intentional community in Portugal, representatives of various indigenous communities around Colombia, and other friends and supporters of the Peace Community from various regions and countries. It was, needless to say, an adventure.

The Peace Community and Tamera organized this pilgrimage, as it was called, in order to visit and honor different sites pertaining to the Peace Community that are significant both historically and currently, as well as to demonstrate the strong presence and support of internationals for the Community. Over the six days my teammate Julia and I accompanied the participants as they prayed and sang near the headquarters of the 17th Brigade (the army unit that operates in this area and that has participated in many of the deaths of Community members); hiked eleven hours to Mulatos, the site of the 2005 massacre I described in a recent post (normally, the hike takes 4-5 hours, but with that many people, many of whom are unaccustomed to walking in these conditions, it took waaay longer); hiked to La Esperanza, another area where many community members used to live and are just now returning to after having been displaced for several years; swam in the rapids of a river that traverses the region; and hiked back to La Union (where FOR has our house) to dance the night away.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Action Alert: No guns for army commander implicated in death squads

Send a fax to Congress to put a hold on military material

In my last post I described US funding of the Colombian military, and expressed frustration that the State Department had certified the next round of funding. It seems some in Congress may have a bit of sense, because it is considering withholding $72 million of the $180 million certified by the State Department, because of cases like the one below. Continue reading for more info, and take action!

A witness testified that Colombian Army commander General Mario Montoya delivered weapons to a paramilitary death squad when he was a commander in Medellín, and the Colombian attorney general has opened an investigation into the charges, the Washington Post revealed on September 17.

"Gen. Mario Montoya has for years been a trusted caretaker of the sizable aid package Washington provides Colombia's army," the Post noted. Yet US officials have brushed off this and previous reports of the general's collaboration with death squads, saying, "Our experience with Montoya is a good one. He is a great field commander." When similar reports, based on a CIA document, surfaced last year, the State Department simply said it couldn't verify them. But Colombian prosecutors said the witness in this case has "a high degree of credibility."

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Certifying Impunity

There are plenty of arguments that one could (and I would) make for ending all U.S. military aid to Colombia, many of which are based upon human rights concerns. Given the unlikelihood of that in the near future, however, folks like me concerned about the involvement of U.S. policy in human rights abuses and continued violence in Colombia sometimes make use of a provision of U.S. law that does attempt, at least in part, to link the release of a portion of U.S. military funding to human rights protection. Unfortunately, it doesn't work all that well.

The Leahy Amendment, as the law is known, is a 1997 law that makes foreign military aid contingent on human rights conditions; if performance on the various human rights conditions is deemed satisfactory, the funds are certified for release. Sounds great, right? But the certification process leaves much to be desired, including the fact that the State Department does the certifying. Particularly with an administration in the White House like the one we have, the stamp of approval for aid to Colombia gets handed out way too easily.

On July 29th, the Bush administration certified the release of more that $180 million in military funding for the Colombia armed forces, money to be used for everything from helicopters to training. To those of us living, be it temporarily or permanently, in this country renowned for the impunity of human rights violations committed by the military, that's a whole lot of cash that just might mean the death of a neighbor or family member. In this case, the 130-page certification document highlights improvements, for example reductions in impunity via prosecutions of military personnel for human rights abuses (like the ongoing prosecutions I described in a recent post). 

But is prosecuting a few soldiers enough to warrant to release of $18 million in military aid? Consider the following: 17 out of 955 extrajudicial killings by the army have been prosecuted to a criminal conviction and sentence – an impunity rate of 98.2%. This is, granted, an improvement from the 99.2% impunity rate from the last round of certification, but, really, are either of those numbers, or the barely-noticeable improvement rate, enough to warrant the release of $180 million?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A much-needed vacation, with photos

I've received many inquires from my faithful blog readers about why I haven't posted in over two weeks. My excuse, dear readers, is a visitor from the States and vacation. Not much time was left to post, I have to admit!

It meant a lot to be able to share my life here with someone from my life before I came to Colombia: to show him just how muddy the trail to our village is, how sweet the coffee is, how gorgeous the sunsets over the mountains are. We then spent a week traveling on Colombia's gorgeous Caribbean coast, lying on white sand beaches, eating arepas de queso (the best street food ever, I think), exploring the beautiful walled Spanish-colonial city of Cartagena...

So, for your viewing pleasure, are some photos of my recent travels; perhaps they will serve to entice you to visit as well!
a typically colorful Cartagena block

me amidst the bouganvilla in Cartagena

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Reaffirmations, and a bit of history

We had a delegation here a few days ago. These 5 folks from the U.S. came to Colombia to learn about the situation in the current situation in the country and efforts peaceful resistance, like the Peace Community. They spent 4 days with us in the Peace Community; 4 tiring days, to be sure, but it was actually really wonderful for me because it opened my eyes to some truths about my life here and my role in this work.

My first time in Colombia – and the start of my work with FOR – was on a delegation like this one exactly two years ago. Sitting in a meeting the other night with the delegation and some of the Community leaders, I realized how far I’ve come since the similar meeting I attended while on my delegation. Two years ago I was struggling to understand how the Community worked, what FOR’s role was, etc. Now I am here living it. I have relationships with the community members, I eat meals and joke with them, I know the intimate details of the Community-FOR relationship.

I am also happier here than I think I realized until the the delegates arrived. At the start of the meeting the other night, we went around the circle introducing ourselves, and many of the delegates mentioned how happy they were to be here. I was the last to speak, and with a huge grin on my face, said I was also very happy to be here – and of course the implication was different for me than for the delegates, since they were leaving the next day. One of the community leaders, sitting next to me, turned to me and said softly, “sí, se nota que está contenta, se nota” (yes, it’s obvious you are happy to be here). That was a moment of much joy for me, both because it struck me that I really am contenta here, and also because it seems that Community members are noticing my happiness – both because it really must be true if they can tell just by looking at me, and because I do want them all to know that it is a joy and an honor to be here among such incredible people.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Some hope for the living and the dead

Last week I held in my arms the newest member of the Peace Community, just an hour after she was born. She was sleepy, happy, and beautiful, with some very big baby feet. They let me feed her – with a bottle, of course – and after a few moments she got the hang of it and began happily sucking away, continuing when only a bit of milky foam remained in the bottle. I feel quite honored that the family let me share in those first few moments of her life.

Since that day last week, I can’t help thinking with mixed feelings about a comment I heard as I sat with several community members as I sat waiting for news of the baby’s birth. “Here’s a new community member to make up for all those we’ve lost,” someone said, referring, I’m sure, to the more than 180 Peace Community members who have been killed since the Community’s founding. Of course, even a birth, while a wondrous occasion to celebrate, can’t actually make up for the theft of another life, particularly one taken so violently. Nonetheless, it seems that Community members draw a lot of hope from this and other births. In violent situations like this one, hope has to come from someone, and the birth of a beautiful baby girl is a wonderful reason to celebrate with hope. 

This week, the community has another reason to celebrate and hope: it appears that, 3 long years later, the first army official implicated in a brutal massacre committed against the Community in 2005 may finally by punished.

Friday, July 25, 2008

From Vegetarian to Wild Boar…

It was just a taste! But yes, folks, Moira the vegetarian ate not just meat, but a piece of wild boar. Tatabra is what it’s called around here, and from time to time the men go hunting with their dogs, most often when they are in some of the more remote veredas (see my last post for an explanation of veredas). At the right is one of the hunters dressing the very same tatabra that I tried (I think I had a piece of a leg). Also popular for hunting is guagua – a Rodent of Unusual Size for Princess Bride fans. Don’t think I’ll be trying that one, though! Neither do I want to try tatabra again – the piece I had was tough and chewy, kind of like jerky I thought, and did not excite me nearly as much as it did my meat-loving teammate Chris.

I have to confess that the tatabra was not the first bite of meat I’ve eaten since arriving in the Community. I have been able to (mostly) maintain my vegetarianism because we do most of our own cooking here. However, when visiting with our neighbors we are invariably offered food, and often it involves, besides the ubiquitous rice and beans, a big hunk of meat. Preceding FOR volunteers have been vegetarians, or even vegans, so a precedent has been set for refusing the meat, but sometimes, as those of you who have traveled in meat-centered countries know, declining a plate of food is not always a viable option. I admit to you all that I have succumbed a couple times.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Where threatening graffiti and mud baths are all part of a day’s work

AUC”. The letters were very clearly drawn on the wall of the house in charcoal from a cooking fire. The clear, sharp outline of the letters was a clear indication that the writer or writers just recently left their mark. Perhaps the same individuals had been the ones who scratched “AUC 14” into the cement stove of the house we had just visited. Concern was evident in the faces and voices of the community members we were with: The intention to threaten and intimidate Peace Community members was clear: “AUC” stands for Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or United Self-defense Forces of Colombia - the principal paramilitary organization in the country, and the houses, though empty at the time, belong to Peace Community members, who stay there when tending the farms some of them maintain in the area, called Las Nieves.

We were passing through the vereda of Las Nieves (a vereda is kind of like a rural township; see * below for more explanation), on our way home from the vereda of La Esperanza. Our job was to accompany a couple of Community leaders to a meeting with Peace Community members in La Esperanza, hang out while the meeting was happening, then go back with the leaders. We don’t always accompany community leaders on trips to other settlements of the community, but there had been combat recently in the area and the military was maintaining a strong presence, so leaders were worried for their safety and asked for our accompaniment. In hindsight, the graffiti we discovered was another good reason for our presence.

Friday, July 11, 2008

On the Hostage Rescue

I've been both very busy in the last week and a half and not near internet, so haven't had time to post here, but given all the questions I've been getting about the rescue of the 15 hostages from the FARC, I thought it would be good to check in and make a few comments.

First, I am fine and we are not all that worried that the rescue will have negative repercussions for us and our work. Thanks for your concern!

Second, some comments on the rescue:
It is absolutely fantastic that the 15 hostages were freed and are back at home with their families, and I am so glad that their suffering at the hands of the FARC is over. However, like I did with my last post about Uribe, I'd like to mention a few related items that aren't getting as much attention.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Uribe: I haven't seen the 80% approval

The other day my dad sent me an article about Colombian president Álvaro Uribe in the Wall Street Journal (text of article is copied below since the Journal has subscriber-only access) by Mary Anastasia O’Grady and asked for some feedback. Though the article overflowed with praise for Uribe, I could hardly contain my disgust. Granted, I didn’t like Uribe all that much before I read the article, but the uncompromising praise that the author lavished upon him motivated me to write a rebuttal last week. 

Now, given the recent hostage rescue, Uribe will surely appear frequently in US and world news in the coming days, and I bet that most mentions will be quite glowing. Here, therefore, I offer you some grains of salt to take with all the sweet words most media outlets are using in reference to the Colombian president.

Even without such Uribe tends to make regular appearances in US news, for several reasons: he’s the primary Bush administration ally in Latin America, a free trade agreement between Colombia and the US is pending, and Uribe is currently toying with the idea of changing the constitution for a second time to run for a second reelection (all other Colombian presidents have only been allowed to serve just one term). 

First, O'Grady compares Uribe to Reagan as if that's a good thing, with which I would certainly not agree. I'm guessing that most of you are with me in thinking that Reagan's policies did much more harm that good in the U.S., though correct me if I'm wrong, and we can have a little debate.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Storms and Gardens-To-Be

Funny how in traveling to rural Colombia I found one of the things I missed most from growing up in Michigan: thunderstorms.

Days here in San José alternate between cloudy and sunny, really hot and just plain hot, but come evening a thunderstorm is nearly guaranteed. Soon after sunset - which happens at essentially the same hour all year, since we're so close to the equator - lightening begins to break in they darkened sky. Soon after, the rumblings of thunder can be heard in the distance, and the wind picks up just a bit. After maybe half an hour, the rain starts pegging our tin roof, and at times doesn’t let up until dawn. It ebbs and flows, however, so if we’re out visiting a neighbor, we can wait for an ebb in order to race home without getting too soaked. Hopefully we remember to put on our botas – rubber boots – before leaving the house, so as not to get stuck in one of the many mud puddles the rain invariably creates.

Rain like this means we’re in winter right now. Using the term “winter" here, when the tempature seldom drops below 85, is a bit laughable to a Michigander like myself. What is even more amusing, however, is that winter is a season that lasts most of the year – at least 9 of twelve months. Basically, it rains here all the time. If by chance there are a few days without rain, people start talking about it being “summer.” This kind of summer never lasts more than a few days, though; soon, it’s raining yet again.

Rain like this also means things grow like crazy here. That’s a big part of the reason this region has long been the banana-growing center of Colombia, as I discussed in my last post, and why this land is so hotly contested between armed groups and the civilians who simply want to farm here. It’s also why I’ve been so excited to get a garden started in our backyard.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Organic Solidarity

Riding one of the chiveros (open-air jeeps - the picture at right is taken from the top of one) out of the town of Apartadó into the veredas, or villages, towards the Peace Community, I find myself surrounded by various kinds of banana trees. It seems about every day that someone brings us some kind of banana – the bananas we’re used to eating in the States, baby bananas, plantains, or the extra-sweet and squat manzanos. Cacao is a close second, and other crops grow quite well in the fertile soil, but it’s the banana that has dominated production and politics in this region.

Massive banana production began here in the 1960s, and in the 1970s Urubá, as this region is called, became the center of banana-worker organizing in the country. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when paramilitaries began to exert their power, they collaborated with the military to destroy the banana worker unions, along with their usual tactics of mass displacement and civilian killings. One of the two primary blocs of the AUC (the primary paramilitary organization until the recent demobilizations that I discussed two posts ago) that operated in the area called themselves the Bloque Bananero. These days, paramilitary groups control all the major banana buyers. If campesinos sell their bananas to these buyers, they are not only indirectly supporting paramilitarism but also locked into a production system that also obliges them to purchase inputs like pesticides from these same paramilitary-controlled companies.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Bitter Papayas and Swinging Hammocks: Settling In

As I mentioned in my recent post about arriving in Colombia, in some ways not much of what I´ve done since I arrived feels very strange, in part because I’ve been to most of these places before and met many of these people. Much is still new, of course. Having arrived several days ago in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, I immediately have hadto use usted, the formal version of “you” always used here in el campo (the countryside), as opposed to the less formal I previously learned to use most often. I have discovered that papaya has a grayish, bitter goo that oozes out when you cut it, so it’s best to slice a few slits down the side of the fruit just before it’s ripe so the goo can seep out and the fruit can finish ripening without bitterness. And I´ve learned to call the place pictured at right my home!

With only a week under my belt, I continue to be confounded by all the names and familial relationships I have to learn, and amused by efforts to pronounce my own difficult name. I’ve taken to telling folks, if they have particular trouble with my name, that they can call me Mora (blackberry) or Mayra Mona (the blond Mayra, to distinguish me from the dark-haired Mayra who spent several months here in the community and is now on the FOR team in Bogotá).

Despite all the learning, life here so far is very chill (though it´s still strange to think about being here for a year). I called my mom a couple days ago (on a cell phone connected to an antenna on the roof of our house - the only way to get reception), and upon hearing my description of our calm, relaxed days here, she teased me that it sounds more like a vacation than anything else: reading, swinging in hammocks, yoga every morning, chatting with neighbors, etc. Life won´t always be like this: we´ll soon be taking, for example, mtultiple-day hikes through the muddy mountains to outlying areas of the Community. Nonethless, calm and quiet is exactly what we want, because it means the community is safe and we’re being most effective as accompaniers. With all this calm I might feel a bit useless, but the many times in just the few days I´ve been here that people have expressed their utmost gratitude for us just being here to accompany them reminds me that I am doing my job, even when for the moment I’m swinging in a hammock reading Barbara Kingsolver.

Recent Extraditions: The human rights implications

(with help from teammate Chris)

Though we don’t have reliable internet access here, I know that before I left US news was covering the extradition of 14 paramilitaries to the US to be tried for drug trafficking, so I thought I’d give a little a little perspective probably not heard there.

Colombian president Álvaro Uribe said he OK’d the extradition of these individuals because they were still running their drug trade business from jail, and the only way to stop that was to get them out of the country. US authorities had requested the extraditions as part of the United States’ War on Drugs (more on the failure of that later), which requests the extradition of traffickers to stand trial in US courts on drug-related charges.

However, those extradited were not only involved in drug trafficking, but also countless assassinations and human rights abuses. By extraditing these men, the Colombian government avoids receiving testimonies regarding their crimes, many committed together with Colombian politicians and members of the armed services.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Long-Awaited Arrival and a Quick Departure

Wow. Well I`m finally in Colombia, 18 hours later than I was originally supposed to arrive. Some of you know of my unbelievably terrible luck with airlines, and that luck once again reared its ugly head. But I got through it and I'm here, albeit a bit late. The thing I think was particularly difficult about all my delays was the weird state of limbo in which I felt caught: I had said all my goodbyes and packed up all my things, and was still feeling plenty of sadness from that, but didn't yet get to experience the excitement and distraction of a new place and people and language. It feels good to be in a real world again, not in an airport!

Don't think that my waiting stopped when I arrived in Bogotá, however. Immediately upon arrival at the airport I was whisked by my more seasoned coworkers to the office of DAS, which is kind of like ICE (Immigration, Customs and Enforcement) in the U.S. Because I have a visa for longer than 6 months, I have to get a cedula, which is the photo ID card that every Colombian (and aliens like me) must carry at all times. Apparently you're not allowed to smile for the ID photos - let me tell you, mine is not pretty, particularly since it was taken outside against a blue sheet hung on a wall. But whatever.

In some ways, being here in Bogotá feels rather familiar: I've been here before, even to this very apartment in which I'm staying, and I spent a week in training with the other volunteers also here, so I already know them a bit. We`ll see how that changes when I'm having to settle in San José, which will happen quite soon: Julia, the other new volunteer who arrived two days ago, and I leave Saturday! As much as I might like to spend a few days hanging out and getting familiar with Bogotá, I´m looking forward to starting the next little phase of my life there....

Thursday, May 8, 2008

What am I doing going to Colombia?

I am about to leave a great life in San Francisco to spend a year in a country most people associate with drugs or guns. I imagine you might have a few questions about that, so below are answers to a few of those:

What will I be doing, and what’s the point?
To begin, a definition: I'll be volunteering as an "International Human Rights Accompanier." There's a good bit of scholarly theory on the purpose of accompaniment, but, in short, international accompaniment reduces risk of attack both because of the immediate shaming and intimidating effects of the presence of a “high-status” outsider and because of the political pressure that the volunteer, connected to an international network, can bring to bear against the aggressor. Accompaniment is also an encouragement and a show of solidarity with the community.

I’ll be working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an interfaith, multi-issue, pacifist organization. Its Colombia Peace Presence project has two teams in Colombia. The first consists of three volunteers living in the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó, a community actively working for peace. Volunteers are witnesses to their life in the village and through their presence deter the armed groups in Colombia’s civil war from violating the human rights of the community members. There is also a team of two volunteers in Bogota, from where FOR reports to the international community about the Peace Community, as well as works with other Colombian efforts to achieve peace, such as peasant and conscientious objection movements.

I fully acknowledge that accompaniment presents a bit of a paradox: my privilege, based on a system of racial and cultural hierarchy that I disavow, helps keep me safe, even while I am taking on a role of solidarity. I do wrestle with this contradiction, and will like write more about it as I carry out my work in Colombia. For the time being, I will say that the role of the accompanier is not to enter people’s lives with an agenda – a way to change, educate, or “help” the community. We come with humility; the community members are the ones who are doing something amazing and we are there simply to support them in their project.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Moira's leaving - let's party!

I'm leaving San Francisco on May 31st to spend (at least) a year in Colombia as a Human Rights Accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. (That's Colombia the country, not the university. And they are spelled differently, too!)

There will be three - count em, three! - going-away events for your (and my) enjoyment. A lot of partying, you might think? Perhaps, but they're all a bit different and spaced throughout the month of May, so I'm hoping you can come to more than one! If you can only make one, though, I hope it's the one on May 12th, because that will give you the best sense of what exactly it is I'll be doing in Colombia and why I'm going.

And without further ado, the details:

May 12 - Film screening and bar hangout
@ Make-Out Room
3225 22nd St. (between Mission & Valencia), SF
I'll be screening "Hasta la ultima piedra," a great film about the community where I'll be spending a good bit of my time in Colombia (don't worry, there are English subtitles), and then answering questions/talking a bit more about my work. I'll also be asking for donations to FOR and the work I'll be doing.
There'll be a bit of food, plus happy hour specials 'til 8! This is open to the public, so if you have folks you think might be interested (or just want a drink at the MakeOut room), bring 'em!

May 17 - East Bay BBQ
@ the Blue House
3208 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley
The typical backyard bbq thing. Please bring items for grilling and brews for drinking. Kids, dogs, etc. welcome!

May 30 - Final Night Bash (and garage sale - see below for details)
@ my house (at least until the next day!)
1578 Treat Ave, SF
sale: 6pm
party: 8pm-?? (though you know me, I'm not great at staying up until the wee hours)
I leave the next day, so this is the final deal, folks.
About the garage sale: I have to fit all the stuff I'm not bringing to Colombia in a few boxes, so lots of things (clothing, bike stuff, etc.) have got to go! Prices will be low, with proceeds going to Fellowship of Reconciliation, the organization I'll be working with in Colombia. Come early if you want the good stuff!