Trip to Colombia seeks to build bridge for peace

Trip to Colombia seeks to build bridge for peace


Displaced persons newly arrived in the city first make their homes from scraps before accumulating enough money to buy bricks to build houses. Patricia M. Tucker photo.
 
In late June, I traveled to war-torn Colombia, South America, intent on planting seeds of peace. In the process, I learned firsthand just how painful war can be and how desperately our witness for peace is needed here in the United States.

I joined an ecumenical delegation of 37 that was dedicated to building a bridge for peace in Latin America. It included Presbyterians, United Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Friends (Quakers), Mennonites and UCC members. Sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Witness for Peace, we were ordained ministers and lay persons together from various backgrounds, engaged in one mission.

In Bogotá, Colombia's capital, our delegation listened to countless personal stories about the 50-year war that has intensified in recent months. We marveled at the kindness, openness and faithfulness of the Colombian people, despite the grave suffering they must endure. We also met with representatives from the U.S. embassy there, whose welcome to us seemed less enthusiastic.

We visited several villages inhabited by those who have been displaced from the rural regions of the country. These slums were largely populated with Afro-Colombians, Indians, and campesinos, who live in huts with no electricity or potable water. Their lands were stolen by "armed actors"—either left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, or even the U.S.-backed Colombian military itself. The people we met are threatened to be killed if they do not join one of these competing armed groups. Thus the cycle of violence continues in each generation.

We heard that fertile lands are fumigated by U.S.-provided helicopters. As people are displaced from their lands, the government possesses them. In many cases, lush farmland is converted into hotel resorts, oil refineries or corporate manufacturing centers. Meanwhile, there are no jobs for those who have been displaced and no schools for their children. Access to work and education is reserved only for those with money and power.

In Chocó and Sucre, both on the west coast of Colombia, poor Afro-Colombians and Indians have endured town massacres that have left thousands of men, women and children dead.

Without political or economic power, they have no representation in national affairs. They are largely invisible to their own government but are used as pawns by those who rape, murder, kidnap and steal. This is part of the "daily bread" for many in Colombia.

Throughout this country, the people implored us to return home and beg our federal government to stop the funding for more military aid to Colombia. "Stop Plan Colombia," they said over and over, again and again.

Plan Colombia does not curtail the drug trade or the production of the coca plant. Instead, under the pretense of the war on drugs, Plan Colombia is used to buy arms, to further militarize the countryside, and to fumigate plantain farms. Our U.S. tax money is being used to oppress those who are among the poorest of the world.

The installation of Colombia's new president, Alvaro Uribe Vélez, does not provide much hope. His get-tough campaign means only that things will likely stay the same, or more likely, worsen.

We must demand that President George Bush and our representatives in Congress put a stop to Plan Colombia. Instead, let us divert this money to the poor people of Colombia through humanitarian assistance, so that economic stability can return, this war may be ended, and the children may have a better place to live.

The Rev. Vilma M. Machín is Minister for Multicultural and Multiracial Transformation for the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.

Facts about the violence in Colombia

Large-scale massacres of civilians by both right- and left-wing armed groups occurred in Chengue in 2001 and in Boyaja in 2002. In the Boyaja attack, 119 civilians were killed when a bomb hit the church in which they were hiding.

Many attacks have been aimed at churches and church leaders, including the recent assassination of the Archbishop of Cali, Colombia. Thirty-six priests and two bishops have been murdered since 1989. Numerous Protestant pastors also have been killed. In Arauca, Colombia, two pastors have been killed and 36 Protestant churches have been forced to close in the past six months.

For more information, visit the Witness for Peace website at  www.witnessforpeace.org

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