From Nigerian Refugee to Accompanier in Colombia

Report received May 17, 2013 from Bemene Piaro, now an Urabá-based accompanier for the month of June.

About 17 years ago, I got on an overcrowded bus with my father, Bliss, and my sister Nia, and that was the last thing I remember of my childhood in Nigeria. We spent the following two years in Togo, a neighboring country as refugees, relying on food rations from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and struggling with the language barrier. My only experience of the violent conflict between the Ogoni and the Nigerian government over Shell Oil’s mining activities are confused scenes of random gun shots that prevented us from going to the farm one morning and several occasions of rumored violence that led to me being sent out of my village and away from my grandmother, to whom I was close, to live with one uncle after another in various cities, as the male members of our household, including my father, fled from the village in which I was born. It is not until I came to the US, two years after leaving Nigeria, that I was able to watch a graphic documentary of the heinous acts of physical and environmental violence that took place in the group of villages that compose Ogoniland. Many other Ogoni children were not so lucky and not only witnessed more violence but were not able to leave the country and now continue to live with the long term impact of environmental degradation and pollution that resulted from oil spills.  This is an experience that will stay on my mind during the month of June as I learn of the far more distressing experiences of Afro-Colombians living in displacement within their own country.

On June 4, I and Alison Wood, who currently resides in Tucson Arizona, will travel to Urabá, Colombia, in South America to be co-accompaniers and participants in the Colombia Accompaniment Program. The Colombia Accompaniment Program is a partnership between the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, PC(USA) World Mission and the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, and it primarily trains and deploys U.S. citizens on short-term missions to Colombia to serve as witnesses of the violation of the human rights of Colombians who have been displaced by the internal strife of the past 40 years. At the accompaniment training that takes place in March and October each year at Stony Point Conference Center in New York, future accompaniers learn that the civil war in Colombia is primarily a struggle over land rights which has grown more gruesome as cocaine trafficking has become a major component. Now the most distinguishing trait of the conflict is the overwhelming number of armed parties, including guerillas, paramilitaries and the military, and the unequaled high prevalence of internally displaced people. Even compared to Syria and Sudan, Colombia has the highest proportion of displaced people living within its borders. On April 12, 2013, the murder of the son of a land right activist Narcisco Enrique Teheran Mejia in his bed following death threats and paramilitary operations in his area reminded us that despite claims by the Colombian government that there are no longer paramilitaries, and in spite of ongoing peace talks between the government and the main guerilla the FARC, Colombians continue to be killed and their rights to be violated. Yet the U.S. has provided over $8 billion in primarily military aid to this country in the past 10 years and currently has significant military presence in the country. Clearly the relationship between the U.S. and Colombia and our role in the conflict is intricate, but as U.S. citizens, our presence in Colombia with those who are being threatened has the special capacity to diffuse some of the danger and tension, perhaps by reminding the armed actors that threats and violence will be recorded and reported and justice demanded.  We also provide a pastoral presence as we listen to the stories of those who are trying to rebuild lives after displacement and violence.

As accompaniers our primarily role is to be visible and present in places required of us by the local Presbyterian church. We are also invited to home stays and to different places in the community where we hear the stories of those living in displacement. We write weekly reports to tell the stories we hear and or record any occurrences during our stay. While some accompaniers have heard stories of deaths in their community due to violence, and have been present to comfort the families, no accompaniers have ever been attacked or harmed in anyway, and as the accompaniers are also accompanied by locals who do their best to assure our safety, the greater danger is that risky behavior on our part will cause harm to befall our local hosts. Our weekly reports have to first be approved by the staff of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, and that approval is only given after it has been ascertained that the reports contain no information that would increase the threat against a particular person should it be read by the “wrong” people. It is under these conditions that over 90 accompaniers have lived in solidarity with Colombians in their own country, and hopefully many more, including our own Donna Obe (in August), will continue to do so as long as the conflict continues.

For more information about the Colombia Accompaniment Program or to register for a training visit the PPF Colombia Accompaniment Program page