Monday, July 13, 2009

Gunshots, explosions and fear

Dear friends,

We heard gunshots as we were having dinner in the community of Filipinas (Arauca) on June 25. FARC guerrillas were attacking the soldiers that had arrived in town that morning. I looked at my watch and noted that it was 5:12 P.M. – something concrete to focus on in order to avoid the fear that I was feeling.

The bursts of gunfire were becoming longer and the direction of the sound was changing. It seemed as though the shots were coming closer. There was a particularly long, and ugly, burst of automatic rifle fire. At one point, shots were fired in the plantain grove – 100 yards away.

We also heard explosions which could have been army mortars or guerrilla cylinder bombs. The guerrillas sometimes launch propane cylinders filled with shrapnel – deadly devices that often veer off course and miss their intended target.

A group of soldiers had set up camp in the neighboring house – 50 feet away. I was afraid that the explosions could have been cylinder bombs and that the guerrillas would attempt to hit the army encampment. I counted the explosions (something else to focus on) and noted 16.

“My God! My God!” cried the woman who had invited us for dinner. “Why don’t they just leave?” she said in relation to the soldiers. She was also afraid that their presence would draw bullets or bombs.

I motioned a few times to my friend Nidia and mouthed, “Let’s get on the ground!” but she and the others didn’t seem to think that was necessary. We heard some more shots and I finally said to everyone, “You can stay seated, but I’m going to get down on the ground.” I then laid down on the dirt underneath the table. The family puppy joined me and I nicknamed the two of us, “The Brave Ones.” The sight of the gringo and the puppy provided some comic relief and, at that point, the gunfire and explosions ended.

I dusted myself off and we walked to the center of the community. Gunfire sounded again while I was inside a small store. This time I didn’t hesitate – I immediately laid down on the floor. I looked at my watch and noted that it was 6:03 P.M.

A helicopter came and circled overhead five minutes later. A roar of machinegun fire came from the helicopter – the ugliest sound I’ve heard in my life. I looked behind me and saw Nidia crouched underneath a table with her son Brandon, who was crying. One of the bullet cases tore through the metal roof of a house fifty yards away and landed on the ground a few feet from a mother and child (see attached photos).

The following morning we learned that four soldiers had been seriously wounded in the attack. The troop commander came to talk with us and we expressed our sorrow for those soldiers. We stated our concern that the ongoing presence of soldiers in the community, and encamped in people’s homes, was putting the civilian population at risk. The guerrillas were also endangering civilians by attacking the soldiers inside the community.

We had traveled to Filipinas for a human rights workshop organized by the Arauca Peasant Association (ACA). The workshop was suspended because of the danger posed by the presence of the soldiers and guerrillas. The troop commander told Nidia, the workshop facilitator and me that we would have to leave the area. Before leaving, we went to the home of the ACA president – at least ten soldiers were encamped around the house.

Gunshots rang out again about half an hour after we left Filipinas. The ACA president’s horse was struck by one of the bullets and killed.

I’ve been experiencing a growing commitment to the non-violent struggle for justice. The actions of both the guerrillas and the soldiers put the children and adults in Filipinas at grave risk. Seeing their fear, and experiencing my own fear, has deepened my opposition to the blind hatred embodied in the barrel of a gun.

In love and solidarity,


Terror of the "people's army"

Dear friends,

The “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army” (FARC) guerrillas murdered two teachers here in the state of Arauca during the week of June 8. I traveled to Arauca City on June 12 for their wakes – which were held in the Arauca Teachers Union auditorium.

Pablo Rodriguez, of the Sikuani people, taught in the indigenous school in Marrero. He was murdered in his classroom by the FARC on June 9. Because of the difficult access to that community, his body wasn’t recovered until two days later. When I arrived in Arauca City, the wake had finished and the funeral procession was marching to the cemetery.

Humberto Echeverri taught for 18 years in the community of Los Colonos and he was with his students on June 11. The Social Pastorate program of the Catholic Church has a nutrition and community garden program in Los Colonos, and they were monitoring the weights of the children. FARC guerrillas came into the school and told Humberto they needed to speak with him. They led him away, prevented the people from following, and then killed him.

The wake for Humberto began shortly after I arrived at the union office. I heard a woman crying out and I followed her cries into the auditorium. Arelis, who is eight-months pregnant, was leaning over the coffin of her spouse. She was accompanied by their two children - Jorge and Andrea.

Jorge told me that he is six-and-a-half years old. “The FARC took him a long ways away,” he said. “There were three shots – one in the air and two at my papa. It’s sad.” Andrea said that she will turn ten this month and I could see the tears in her eyes.

Humberto was another victim of the war between the two guerrilla groups, FARC and ELN (“National Army of Liberation”), in Arauca. That war began in late 2005 and it appears to be escalating once again. The FARC and ELN both profess to be fighting for social justice but here in Arauca they’re acting just like the paramilitary death squads – threatening and killing civilians that they view as supporting the other side. Their war is solely about the control of territory and resources in Arauca.

More than 350 civilians have been killed as a result of that war and thousands of people have fled from their homes. The FARC and ELN have now caused more damage to the Arauca social movement than the military and their paramilitary allies were able to accomplish in two decades.

Teachers and other community leaders in Arauca are afraid for their lives. The FARC has threatened various teachers. The ELN also threatened people prior to the murders of Pablo and Humberto – stating that if the FARC killed anyone, the ELN would respond by killing two or more people that they view as supporting the FARC.

The mid-year school vacation began on June 12 and extends until July 5. Several teachers are unsure about whether they will return to their schools after vacation. Twenty four teachers have been killed in Arauca during the past eight years.

The FARC also distributed a written death threat in late May in which they declared the Arauca State Peasant Association (ADUC) and the Regional Student and Youth Association (ASOJER) to be “military targets.” I live in the social organizations building in Saravena which houses the offices of ADUC and ASOJER.

My friend Robinson spent 18 months in prison for “rebellion” and he was the only person I talked with at the wake that still exhibited some hope. He said, “We have to transform our difficulties into something beautiful.”

In love and solidarity,


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

April Speaking Tour

Dear friends,

In just a few hours, I’ll be flying from Bogota to Los Angeles to arrange the final details for Nidia Castellanos’ Northwest speaking tour: “Women Resisting War in Colombia” (see schedule at end of message).

Nidia is a single mother of three children who is risking her life to defend human rights here in Colombia. She is the secretary general of the Arauca Peasant Association (ACA), which promotes organic agriculture and defends the rights of its members and their families. ACA has been severely repressed by the Colombian government and has also been attacked by the guerrillas.

Luz Perly Cordoba, the founding president of ACA, was imprisoned for “rebellion” in 2004 and now lives in exile. Jose Caicedo, the following president, went into hiding after an arrest order was issued against him for rebellion in 2007. Carlos Cabrera, a previous secretary general, was killed by the guerrillas in November 2008.

“Defending the rights of small farmers and their families in our state of Arauca means facing a lot of risk,” said Nidia. “I’m willing to suffer those consequences because I want a better future for my children – Melisa, Camila and Brandon.”

“We hope that the Obama administration will represent a change in U.S. policy towards our country,” continued Nidia. Colombia doesn’t need any more guns and bombs - there are already enough to kill all of us. We’re also aware of the serious economic problems in the U.S. Instead of spending your tax dollars on more weapons, that money could be used to create jobs and support health care and education – in Arauca, as well as Montana.”

The U.S. government is providing Colombia with more than $1 million per day in military aid. Some of that aid is used to protect Occidental Petroleum’s oilfield and pipeline in Arauca – which produce and transport 100,000 barrels per day. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly documented the human rights abuses committed by the Colombian military.

We hope you’re able to join us for one of the presentations. Please also help us spread the word about Nidia’s speaking tour.

In love and solidarity,


Monday, April 6 – Helena, Montana

7 P.M. – Wiegand Amphitheater, Simperman Hall 101-202, Carroll College

Tuesday, April 7 – Billings

7 P.M. – St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, 180 24th St. West

Wednesday, April 8 – Red Lodge

7 P.M. – Regis Cafe, 206 16th St.

Thursday, April 9 – Bozeman

7 P.M. - Strand Union Building 235, Montana State University

Monday, April 13 – Hamilton

7 P.M. - Hamilton Library, 306 State Street

Tuesday, April 14 – Arlee

6:30 P.M. – The Hangin’ Art Gallery, 11 Hwy. 93

Wednesday, April 15 – Kalispell

7 P.M. – Blake Hall Board Room 140, Flathead Valley Community College

Thursday, April 16 – Missoula

7 P.M. – North Underground Lecture Hall

Monday, April 20 – Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Spokane, Washington

Noon – Todd Hall, Molstead Library, North Idaho College

7 P.M. – Wolff Auditorium, Jepson Center, Gonzaga University

Tuesday, April 21 – Ellensburg

7 P.M. – Room TBA, Central Washington University

Wednesday, April 22 – Bellingham

Noon – World Issues Forum, Fairhaven College Auditorium

7 P.M. – Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, 13 Prospect St.

Thursday, April 23 – Twisp

7 P.M. – Confluence Gallery

Monday, April 27 – Portland, Oregon

7 P.M. – Portland Mennonite Church, 1312 SE 35th Ave.

Tuesday, April 28 – Corvallis

Time and room TBA, Oregon State University

Wednesday, April 29 – Eugene

Time and location TBA

Free at last!

Dear friends,

My friend Flor Diaz was released from the Arauca City prison last month and was finally able to return to her home here in Arauquita. We went out on the Arauca River with her youngest children, Viviana and Fernando, on March 10 to watch the herons returning to roost for the evening. There were hundreds of herons in the trees along the river and it was wonderful to enjoy that beauty and freedom with her.

Flor spent three years and four days in prison for “rebellion.” She was the secretary general of the Arauca Peasant Association and she told me that she was imprisoned because of her work in support of human rights. “I can’t ignore the suffering of others,” she said.

Marcela, her oldest daughter, was 18 years old when Flor was detained by the secret police on February 14, 2006. Marcela had to assume the responsibility for her three siblings: Viviana (who was just 8 years old), Fernando and Edwin. “It was very hard when they would call me and tell me there wasn’t any food in the house,” Flor said. “I would ask myself, ‘What can I do?’”

Flor worked for 14 years as a health practitioner in the rural communities of Arauca and also served as a catechist. She continued with her vocations while she was in prison. She would care for the other prisoners when they were ill, and she also helped organize prayer and mass.

“Suffering makes you strong,” Flor said. “If you’ve never suffered, you can’t be strong. I would get very disappointed when I received bad news about my case. I would argue with God: ‘You abandoned me! I don’t want anything more to do with you!’ But then I would remember the gift of my children.”

Flor’s first grandchild, Camila, was born on December 20, 2006. “I saw her for the first time on January 21, 2007,” said Flor. Marcela would take Camila to visit Flor in prison every three months. “For the first two years of her life, ‘Grandmother’s house’ was the largest mansion in Arauca,” Marcela said jokingly.

Being in prison for three years was a very hard experience but it’s also an adjustment being outside of prison after all that time. “I couldn’t see long distance,” Flor said, because there aren’t any open views in the prison. “I also wasn’t used to the noise in town. All I heard in my cell was the sound of the fan.”

Flor told me about a conversation she had recently with a fellow prisoner who had also just been released. They talked about the process of adjustment. Flor said to him, “I’m not doing well either (she’s unemployed and in debt), but I am free.”

As we were alongside the river, Flor explained “Oil and war are the cause of poverty here. What do we get from supplying the war machine?: widows and poverty. We’re going to stop supplying that machine. It already has enough. Let’s look at the situation of poverty and invest that money to meet the needs of the people.”

In love and solidarity,


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Armed transportation stoppage

Dear friends,

The “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army” (FARC) declared an armed transportation stoppage here in the state of Arauca that is causing hardship for the people they claim to be defending. FARC guerrillas called the transport companies on March 16 and threatened to burn their vehicles if they didn’t obey the order to halt transportation.

I’m currently in the town of Arauquita – which lies along the highway that runs through the north of Arauca. The route to Saravena (35 miles west) was the first to be suspended early on the morning of March 16. The last taxi for Arauca City (65 miles east) left town around 2:30 that afternoon. Two armed men on a motorcycle halted a bus on the highway that day and forced it to turn back.

There are no longer any taxis circulating in Arauquita. The motorized canoes that take people across the Arauca River to La Victoria in Venezuela have also been suspended. School bus service in the towns of La Esmeralda and Fortul was suspended this morning due to threats from the FARC. Local stores are running out of fruit and vegetables, and the remaining food is increasing in price because of the scarcity.

Defense Minister Juan Santos flew to Arauca City on March 16 for a public meeting about the security situation in Arauca. Government authorities decided to fine the transport companies that are refusing to risk their drivers and vehicles during the stoppage. The military and police also announced that they were launching “Plan Meteor” to prevent the guerrillas from paralyzing transportation.

FARC guerrillas have burned a cargo truck and a tanker truck, halted a vehicle on the Arauca-Tame highway and placed it across the roadway blocking traffic, attacked a tractor-trailer, and also attacked a caravan of oilfield workers.

The military and police launched the “Arauca Moves” plan on March 17. The plan consists of armed escort for transportation caravans. One caravan of vehicles leaves Arauca City every morning for Arauquita, Saravena, Fortul and Tame. Another caravan travels daily from Tame to Arauca City. The caravans are accompanied by a large contingent of soldiers, police and secret police. Three of the caravans have been attacked by the FARC.

The United Nations’ World Food Program planned to deliver food supplements for pregnant women and nursing mothers, and children at risk of malnutrition, in Arauquita on March 19. The delivery was cancelled because the food packets couldn’t be brought here due to the transportation stoppage.

According to United Nations’ reports, FARC commanders ordered the “Black March” campaign (which includes the stoppage in Arauca) to commemorate the death of three of their top leaders in March 2008. Raul Reyes, the second-in-command, was killed along with 25 other people when his camp inside Ecuador was bombed by the Colombian military on March 1. Ivan Rios was killed on March 3 by his own bodyguard, who then cut off Rios’ hand to present to the government as proof to collect the reward money. Manuel Marulanda, the legendary leader of the FARC, died of natural causes on March 26 – after fighting against the Colombian government for more than 50 years.

The vast majority of people here in Arauquita have no idea why the FARC is imposing this transportation stoppage – they just want it to end soon. According to those same UN reports, the stoppage is going to continue until March 30.

In love and solidarity,


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Letter to Montana Congressional Delegation--Colombia

Dear Senators Baucus, Tester, and Representative Rehberg,

As advocates for sensible, just and humane US foreign policies ,and residents of the great state of Montana, we would like to draw your attention to the issue of U.S. involvement in Colombia and ask that you consider the human rights impact of U.S. policy as you determine your position concerning upcoming funding requests.

Colombia is caught in a complex web of violence resulting in the most severe humanitarian crisis in the hemisphere. Approximately 3 million people have been forced to flee their homes in recent years, and human rights violations continue by all armed actors. (as documented by Human Rights Watch). Since the inception of Plan Colombia in 2000, the U.S. has supported a military solution to Colombia’s armed conflict and illegal drug trade, which are in many cases interrelated. Over 80 percent of nearly 5 billion in U.S. assistance has gone directly to Colombian military and police forces but the war continues unabated and there has been no reduction of the availability of Colombian drugs on U.S. streets. Despite the many destructive consequences of U.S. policy in Colombia and the drastic failure of the War on Drugs, Plan Colombia has not changed. Recently, members of the Colombian government and the Uribe administration’s cabinet have been implicated in secret support of death squads.

We urge you, as our representative in Congress, to shift the U.S. focus in Colombia from funding the military, which has been implicated in human rights abuses, to assisting in negotiations for a lasting peace. We would ask that you support all legislative efforts to direct funding toward increased alternative development programs, judicial reform and aid for internally displaced persons, including Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations. Rather than the ineffective, often indiscriminate and inhumane aerial herbicide spraying, we must work to reduce demand at home and support programs to move Colombian farmers away from illicit crop production.

We further believe that in light of the Colombian governments poor record regarding its close ties to those implicated in the persecution, harassment and even murder of union leaders, social justice activists, and community leaders, as well as their failure to improve investigations and prosecution of these crimes, the US must not sign the Colombia FTA. The US must demand accountability from its trading partners.

As your constituents, we encourage you to help seek a new direction for U.S. policy in Colombia, one which is based on respect for human rights and justice.

Thank you for your consideration of this important issue.


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Summer Language Exchange and Accompaniment

Originally, when I was thinking through my learning objectives for students when traveling to Spanish-speaking regions of the world, I wanted their experience to be more meaningful than your run-of-the-mill museum/castle-visiting-tour. I wanted to bring students to regions of the world that starkly contrasted with theirs and to make a central component of these experiences socially-conscious travel. With trips to Chiapas, Mexico in February of 2008 through Witness for Peace, and a more recent trip to Nicaragua last November through Global Exchange, I was able to accomplish a great deal of what I had hoped for as students were challenged to engage in economic, political, social and cultural issues. However, even as I found that what I was doing with students was unique among most high school experiences, I realized I wanted to go beyond this level of challenge for students engaged in the act of learning.

These two delegations of students to Chiapas and Nicaragua were amazing experiences for the students and me. It is evident in their successful community presentations around Missoula in schools, churches and the University of Montana, that they learned a great deal about the economics, politics, history and culture of Latin America. Two of the students who participated on these delegations are newly inaugurated board members with CAJA!

However, I believe there exists another level of learning and participation for us that goes beyond the experiences Global Exchange and Witness for Peace can provide. One of my goals is to critique the idea that travel experiences, even “socially-conscious” ones, should be viewed by the participants as a product to be consumed. Secondly, both Global Exchange and Witness for Peace presented our delegations to the communities of Nicaragua and Chiapas as consumers, albeit “fair” consumers learning about the advantages of Fair Trade over Free Trade. In both cases, we gave our money and in return we received an “experience” (i.e. a product) to “witness” firsthand the effects of global economics, U.S. foreign policy, etc. In return, we committed to telling our/their story upon return, which included a plea to our consumer society to buy Fair Trade.

From June 19-July12, 2009, I will be co-leading a group of 10 Montanans (5 graduating seniors, 3 returning seniors, 1 graduating U. of Montana student and my twin-sister who will be graduating from Carroll College in May) to Chiapas, Mexico for the first-ever Summer Language Exchange in the Zapatista community of Oventic, Chiapas, Mexico. Big Sky High School senior, Gabriel Doherty, will be co-leading this group as he approached me four months ago offering to make his co-direction his high school Senior Project.

It is my contention, that while this kind of travel is certainly valuable, it is through the act of accompaniment that learning goes beyond the intellectual absorption of ideas (including “walking a mile in another’s shoes”). Accompaniment, instead, embodies the concept of mutual aid. In this case, the students and the Zapatistas are pushed to stay open to divergent ideas and accompany each other as they work through the real lived history of their respective moments in time. The Zapatista language school does not provide a structure for learning, but instead expects learning to be self-generated (an aspect of their school that has frustrated misinformed revolutionary travelers). Again, their expectation is that if one is going to learn, they need to begin by asking what it is they want to learn, and no one will be there to prod one to ask.

The language school in Oventic offers Spanish and Tzotzil. I will be studying Tzotzil and the students will study Spanish. Our daily lessons consist of only a couple of hours of morning grammar and an hour of afternoon activity, while the biggest challenge provided in Oventic, as many who have gone through this experience claim, is figuring out what to do with oneself for the rest of each day. The Zapatistas are inviting us to generate for ourselves what we will learn. At the same time, our presence in their community for the three weeks provides much needed accompaniment, as U.S. military aid has resulted in the increased militarization of Mexico in general and Chiapas in particular. Moreover, we must also recognize that it is we, U.S. Americans, who could benefit a great deal from the accompaniment of Zapatistas; having their support as we face our own struggle for justice at home in the U.S. Instead of reinscribing the global economic order by using our economic privileges to consume one more product (even if those products are “greener and fairer”) we must, as is the mission of CAJA, “seek to fundamentally alter the unfair distribution of wealth, power and resources.” Accompaniment transcends the deficiency of consuming our way out of our current predicaments by doing our transformation. “We need to walk together. We need to do history together. We need to journey side by side, confronting whatever comes” (Staughton Lynd, Wobblies and Zapatistas).