Monday, June 1, 2009

A stranger in our midst

The arrival the other day of a stranger to the caserío of La Unión reminded me of how much this conflict distorts human relations and making people suspicious and fearful of each other.

As usual, those of us in the FOR house (read: the gringos) hadn’t even noticed that a stranger had been hanging around since 10am until two of the community’s internal council members came to the house in the afternoon requesting accompaniment to go speak with the man. (Our obliviousness was likely due to two things: we don’t know each and every family member or long-lost neighbor in this area, so it’s not uncommon for someone who is a stranger to us to pass through, and, despite our training as accompaniers, we aren’t as finely attuned to the subtle daily changes around here.)

Around here, everyone pretty much knows everyone, and this isn’t exactly and easily accessible place (see my post on my commute!), so strangers don’t just tend to wander by. The stranger’s presence here soon raised alarm bells, and a few particularly threatened individuals event went so far as to hide in their beds under the blankets. By the afternoon when he still hadn’t left – in fact, he had been wandering around a bit, raising even more suspicion – the council members asked us to accompany them to talk to him in the kiosko (central community meeting space, covered by a round palm-thatched roof), where he had been hanging out for the previous hour or so. The community members with whom we discussed the incident before heading to the kiosko were quite worried and very visibly shaken up.

Why was everyone so afraid? Colombians are known to be friendly, welcoming folk, and the stereotype about country folk is the same. Here in Urabá, however, the conflict has destroyed people’s ability to trust strangers and unexpected occurrences. Around here, one never knows if a stranger is a government official doing intelligence in order to launch a montaje (false evidence, see a recent blog post for more), a paramilitary paving the way for a massacre, or a guerrilla with some sinister motive. One can never be too sure, because experience here has shown that if your guard is down, then you or your family members might not wake up alive tomorrow morning. In the discussion before going to talk to the stranger, one community member even – somewhat jokingly – suggested tying the guy up and carrying him out of town, so great was the fear that the man might try something.

Because of the unknown and potentially dangerous identity of the man and the community’s commitment not to collaborate with any armed actor, the council decided that the only option was the ask the man to leave. It was quite difficult for me to have to sit there as they kicked the guy out, even though they attempted to be nice and explain their reasoning; it didn’t help that he was afro-Colombian, and so may have felt like he was being kicked out because these campesinos don’t want a black man around.

In the end, we all left with the suspicion that the man was, in fact, up to something. Earlier in the day he had told a community member that he was a bananero (banana-plantation worker) from Apartadó, and that since they’re on strike, he came up here looking for work. Later, when the group of us went to speak with him in the kiosko, he again said he was a bananero, but claimed that he came up here de paseo, as a tourist. Not only had his story changed, but no one comes here as a tourist, particularly if they don’t know anyone who lives around here. This is not a touristy area by any means, and any normal bananero would have heard the rumors about the movement of armed actors in these parts and thought twice about heading here all alone. Regardless of what the man was really up to, I walked away from the kiosko saddened by how the conflict promotes and reinforces the assumption that strangers are enemies rather than friends, and not to be trusted.

1 comment:

ianecca said...

Yes indeed Moira that a person be considered suspisious for no reason in particular is a grand shame.