Sunday, June 22, 2008

South America Log # 12

Dear Family and Friends and Assorted Peacemakers,

It took us a few months to notice the trend. Last September, the military arrested four leaders from a farmer's organization, and issued arrest warrants for 18 more of the organization's leaders. The leaders went into hiding, leaving the organization essentially dismantled. In January, armed men broke into the apartment of the director of a women's organization and threatened her life. She left Barrancabermeja for her own safety. In March the director of a local human rights organization moved his family to Bogotá for their safety. When we returned to Barranca in May, after 6 weeks of vacation in Minnesota, we learned that several development workers and priests from a rural area CPT accompanies had received written threats and had displaced from their communities.

As the media will report, and Colombian President Uribe and President Bush will boast, violence is down in Colombia. But, any human rights or development worker will tell you the threats continue, one by one, one by one. And, soon, numerous human rights workers are gone or threatened and the news media and global community hardly even noticed.

Sometimes the threat comes from the Colombian government itself. The government will arrest community leaders for "rebellion". Often the evidence is flimsy and the courts eventually release the person, but during their detention, the government has kept this person from organizing. Four of the leaders of the small farmers organization mentioned above were released after almost 6 months in prison when the government could not produce evidence against them. The leader of the small gold miners' organization was held for rebellion for over a week and then released for lack of evidence. An advocate for political prisoners was himself held for 18 months and then released before his trial date, again for lack of evidence.

When CPT first arrived in Barrancabermeja 7 years ago the physical violence of the conflict was evident. Our teammates attended funerals of people they had accompanied, they were present moments after people were killed, and they encountered dead bodies floating in the rivers where we frequently travel. Thankfully, it's been over a year since the physical violence of the conflict has touched our team that closely. The type of violence experienced by our partners has changed but the effects on human rights are not any less damaging.

So, the need for accompaniment continues in Barrancabermeja. This week Nils spent a day accompanying local elections in a nearby town where there are concerns that paramilitaries will intimidate people from voting. Michele spent 3 days with development workers who were leading a workshop on cooperative projects including buffalo and coffee.

Thank you to everyone who reads our writings, checks out our blog, takes action on an issue impacting Colombia, sends us an email, or donates to CPT in our name!

In hope,

Michele and Nils

You can read more about the tactics used against human rights workers in the Amnesty International report, Colombia: Fear and Intimidation: The dangers of human rights work.

To read about one aspect of economic oppression facing rural Colombians, Nils recently wrote a short essay on the likely impacts of the U.S. Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. Go to our blog ( for a link to the article and to see photos of Barrancabermeja.

If you have read this far, you might be one of our friends who has asked to hear some more of the personal details of our life in Colombia. Here they are:

Spanish – Nils came to Colombia with a decent level of Spanish having spent one year of high school in Venezuela. I had taken lots of evening Spanish classes but felt stuck at the intermediate level. When I came to Colombia I had high hopes of becoming fluent. In our 18 months in Colombia, the work of CPT has taken precedence over Spanish learning and at times it has been more important to get the work done than to do the work in Spanish. Our co-workers are from Canada, the U.S. and Colombia and the Colombians want to practice English as much as I want to practice Spanish. So, some days meetings are in Spanish, some days in English. When we go out to visit communities, I almost always travel with a teammate with stronger Spanish than me.

With less than 4 months left here I have decided to spend some more focused time on Spanish learning. I will go to Medellín (about 8 hours away) in July for 3 weeks of language classes in the morning, volunteering at a school in the afternoon and living with a family. I hope the time of traveling on my own and relying on my Spanish will do a lot for my Spanish skills and my confidence in my Spanish.

Friends – It has been difficult to make friends here for several reasons. The culture in Barranca is very much centered on family, so time outside of work and on holidays is usually spent with family. People have said so many hellos and good-byes to CPTers that they often do not want to take the risk again to get close to one of us. We often feel the same way, having made friends again and again with other international accompaniers only to learn on our second or third meeting that they will be leaving Barranca. I (Michele) did make a friend about a year ago on an accompaniment. Gladis is a grade school teacher who has to learn English because her school is going bilingual. Gladis and I get together almost every week. I enjoy the time spent talking with her family, sharing a meal and practicing Spanish. When she pulls out her English textbooks I also get to review my irregular verbs and the difference between a past and present participle.

Free time – Barranca is an industrial, working class city of about 300,000 people that offers few cultural activities. We ride bikes, swim at a hotel pool, do laps at an Olympic sized pool, rent movies, go out for pizza, walk downtown for ice cream or a beer, play board games and go dancing if we can stay awake until 11pm when people start going out. Only once have we ventured out for a game of minitejo. It's similar to horseshoes except you throw a small metal disk or tejo across the court and if it lands in the center it will explode a small packet of gunpowder. When our group of foreigners finished playing, the court owner got a real laugh when he discovered we had only managed to finish one game in the 3 hours we were there.

Food – tropical fruits would best define the cuisine here, along with cassava, plantain, rice, meat or fish, and arepas (round, flat bread made from corn flour). The only tortillas are imported from the U.S. and food is never spicy. Fresh fruit juice of every variety is commonplace – we will miss the passion fruit juice the most! We were told once that you could eat a different fruit every day for a year in Colombia. We began to believe this when our 28-year-old Colombia housemate was asked the name of a fruit and he said he had never seen it before.

Strange foods – although we still both prefer to eat vegetarian food we quickly realized that would not be realistic here, especially when we travel in rural areas and much of the food is brought in from a long distance. We eat what is served to us. We have eaten turtle (not recommended), every internal organ of a cow (especially not recommended, intestines – they might look like pasta but do not be fooled!) and several large rodents (Nils thinks the ponche is good with coconut milk). We hope to travel to southern Colombia and Ecuador before we leave, which might mean trying guinea pig.

In turn, Colombians tell us that our strange (and detestable) foods include peanut butter, olives, pickles and cranberry juice.

Now, if you have read this far, you owe us an email, even a short one, to tell us what you are up to!!

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