In this case, people in some rural fishing and farming communities who had been displaced from their lands because of fighting between the various armed groups involved in the conflict there wanted to return to their homes but felt unsafe so they asked for help from a local priest in the nearby city of Barrancabermeja, a city about the size of Gainesville, Florida.
Barranca was a rebel city for decades with the ubiquitous red star portraits of Che Guevara painted on buildings all over town. So famous was this guerilla-controlled town that Carlos Castena, leader of the largest right-wing paramilitary group in the country boasted of drinking coffee there by Christmas of 2000 and after intense fighting and so many number of “guerrillas” killed, he did.
I arrived in Colombia three years later. The Catholic priest had in had asked some contacts of his in a Mennonite church in Bogota who knew of this group based out of Toronto who sent teams of international observers to conflict zones around the world in order to bear witness to any war crimes by either side and to remind the armed groups, when encountered, of their obligations under international law. CPT was invited to provide unarmed accompaniment to civilians in this area as they returned home to their farms along the river.
The paramilitaries maintained a strict control that weighed heavily on the city, unspoken but ever-present. Every day the papers headlined the latest murder victim –literally. I cannot remember a day when we didn’t read about a murder in the news.
I worked down there from 2003 to 2004. During that time we provided a zone accompaniment in the region by running boats up and down the river, stopping to visit families, playing with the children, attending community soccer matches and when we encountered the armed groups we reminded them of their obligations under international law to to respect non-combatants and let them know that we would document and report any human rights violations.
My time in Colombia had a profound effect on me. I’ll never forget all the activists, mothers, churchworkers, children, farmers and vendedores I met down there. I know how much you struggle for peace and an end to violence in your communities and I’m proud to have gotten to support you for a little while.