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.
Will I be safe?
Thanks for your concern! However, as an international, I will face very low risk to my personal safety. Accompaniment is usually effective and safe for the volunteer, which is why FOR and other organizations continue to provide it. For a bit more piece of mind, know that everyone who has worked with FOR, or similar organizations like Peace Brigades International and Witness For Peace, in Colombia has returned home safely.
What do I mean by Peace Community?
The Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó, a community of approximately 1200 peasant farmers in Urabá, a region in the northwest near the border with Panama, that has suffered terribly from political violence such as threats, disappearances, killings, arbitrary detentions and food blockades, especially from paramilitary groups (many of which are supported by the Colombian army - see below). In 1997 San José de Apartadó declared itself a peace community, refusing to cooperate with any of the armed factions - guerrillas, paramilitaries, or military. The took this extraordinary stance of nonviolence in order to resist forced displacement, insisting on their rights as a civilian population to be left out of Colombia's internal conflict and be safe from the threat of massacre, kidnapping, disappearance, and the destruction of their crops.
To declare neutrality in a war zone is not a passive stance; they are under suspicion and threat from all the armed factions as a result. Nonetheless, the members of the Peace Community believe that pacifism and communal work are the only way they can keep their dignity and integrity and continue to live on their land.
In fear for their lives and of being displaced, in 2001 the Peace Community asked FOR to provide volunteers to accompany and protect them. During the time that the Peace Community has been accompanied there have been much fewer human rights violations. The community members requested continued accompaniment because they believe that it makes them safer.
Wait, why is it so unsafe for the Community?
In Urabá, the guerrillas maintain control in the mountains, and the paramilitaries in the cities and on the roads. The paramilitaries (and, in large part, the military) believe that for the guerrillas to survive they must have civilian support. The idea is known as “fish out of water;” in other words, “the guerrilla is like the fish and the people are like the water. If you want to kill the fish you have to drain out all of the water.” Through this policy they justify torturing and killing civilians. The United States developed this military strategy in Vietnam and has since taught and funded it throughout Latin America. Of the human rights violations committed in Colombia an estimated seventy-five percent are committed by paramilitaries. The guerrilla groups also regularly commit atrocious human rights violations.
The brutality of the paramilitaries is even more disturbing knowing of their relationship to the official armed forces. Their close relationship is so apparent to Colombian citizens that they often refer to the two groups as the “army-paramilitary.” Renowned human rights organizations such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International regularly report on the links between the army and paramilitary groups. No one is sure exactly how far up the official chain of command connections to the paramilitaries go or how much autonomy individual paramilitary groups have, but it is clear that over the past ten years, the government has relied more and more on the paramilitaries to do its ‘dirty work.’ In this way the government can maintain a ‘clean’ human rights record, which gives access to U.S. aid. (Colombia is the third highest recipient in the world.) Further, as of 2007, testimonies given by paramilitaries themselves divulging their complicity with the Colombian armed forces, continuing to receive much media coverage in the so-called Para-Political Scandal.
Don’t worry; I’ll be providing much more info on all these issues in future posts! If you're anxious to learn more now, though, visit the FOR Colombia Program website. And don't forget to spell Colombia with TWO o's!