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.
From the faces, comments, and bandage-wrapped feet of the visiting internationals, I know that the pilgrimage was both emotionally and physically grueling for them. They considered this a true pilgrimage, a “long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance”. The journey was certainly long – the 11 hour hike through mud, rain, raging rivers and jungle to Mulatos is a prime example – and Padre Javier Gildardo, a Jesuit priest who has been a supporter and advisor for the Peace Community since it founded in 1997, helped participants focus on the moral significance of our journey. Before we left Mulatos early in the morning on the third day, Padre Javier led us in a prayer service at the site where Luis Eduardo, Bellanira and Deiner were killed on February 21, 2005, 3 of the 8 victims of a paramilitary-military massacre committed against the Community.
While I too found myself with blisters by the end of the 6 days, I did not find the experience nearly as exhausting as most of the visitors. For one, I’m used to hiking in these mountains, so still had plenty of energy to dance nearly every dance when we arrived in La Unión at the end of day 6 (I’m sure it helped that I got to throw my backpack on a bestia - horse or mule – rather than have to carry it). (I rode a bestia for about a third of the trip back to LU because I was feeling a bit sick) I also have spent the last four months steeped in the faces and voices of the Peace Community members and their often heart-wrenching stories – not to mention climbed the mountains a few times. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t touched by the experience, however. In fact, I ended the trip more in love with the community and my life/work here than ever. Moments like almost getting swept away by the rushing river as a community member tried to help me across in the pitch dark; laughing (in retrospect) about my teammate Julia’s temporarily lost backpack (the bestia it was riding on disappeared one night!); or searching out orange trees with the kids have solidified my relationships with community members (and my teammate Julia), and I now know parts of the community terrain I had before only heard about in stories.
Parts of the pilgrimage felt like summer camp, to be honest. We slung up hammocks where we could find space, there was no electricity, and our meals were served from gigantic pots of food. We even sat around a campfire and told off-color jokes one night. I probably wouldn’t have thought to analyze the campfire moments, but someone from Tamera privately noted surprise at all the jokes and fun we had that night. It seems many of the Tamera folks were overwhelmed by the stories of massacres and displacements, and by the evidence of poverty around them, and to see the fun and happiness exhibited by people who are dealing with some very extreme difficulties.
While the pilgrimage is now complete, related activities are still ongoing. Most participants in the pilgrimage, plus many other Colombians from other communities, are currently participating in the Universidad de Resistencia (University of Resitance). Several years ago, the Peace Community and other comunidades en resistencia (communities in resistance) decided formed this educational program to share knowledge and practical expertise on topics such as nutritional self-sustainability, alternative health, law and rights, and alternative education. The folks from Tamera are also participating, and workshops are being held on medicinal plants, solar ovens, alternative education in practice, and more. The shame about being an accompanier is it’s not my job to participate! But I’m observing as much as possible. ;)