Colombia Accompaniment Report: Peace Through Various Prisms

by Lynn Drew Bartlett and John Turnbull, Accompaniers in Urabá, July 2018

“Dabeiba is more incredible than Macondo,” says Rev. Diego Higuita, referring, with the second place he names, to the town invented by Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García-Márquez. Macondo for much of One Hundred Years of Solitude is cut off from life in Colombia and exists in its own refracted universe of magnets and prisms delivered by wayfarers from a world Macondo cannot seem to connect with.

The executive secretary of La Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia (IPC) is talking about a specific moment in the multiphase, multifront war that had been a near constant in Dabeiba. Strategically located in the province of Antioquia, the municipality is known as the “door to Urabá,” the fertile and productive region to the north.

Higuita recalls a contiguous few days of violence during what he calls the “total chaos” and lawlessness from 1995-2002, days in which hundreds of soldiers died fighting the guerrilla opposition, the FARC (Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The city of Dabeiba, whose 1990 population of 25,000 had dropped an estimated 80 percent as the result of war casualties and exodus, was shuttered. After these days of bombardment, on a corner near the heavily shaded central park, a bar opened, music blasted, and people danced, seemingly oblivious to the destruction.

Futbol in Dabeiba, taken by John Turnbull in July 2018

The peace-accompaniment journey means contact with a collage of peace- and society-building groups and assorted outlooks on the peace process, such that Higuita remarks that the longer one stays in a place such as Colombia, the less one is confident about writing anything true. Perspectives from Afro-Colombian, campesino, women’s, youth, and indigenous peoples form a rich variety of testimony. Ambiguities abound. What does the language in the peace accords, signed and ratified by the government and the FARC in November 2016, mean for various interests, including the church? What will be the approach of the new Colombian president, who assumes office on August 7, toward these delicate arrangements and ongoing settlement talks with other armed actors?

Higuita prefers to say that Colombia remains in a post–peace accord phase rather than a post-conflict phase. Assassinations announced on Colombian national news in mid-July of a union leader in Antioquia and of a female Afro-Colombian leader in Cauca underscore the continued risks for those trying to shape their institutions and communities for a new era.

Dabeiba, photo by John Turnbull, July 2018

An IPC Bible study on the Pauline letters, examining their anthropological and political context, has helped inform Higuita’s community-centered analysis of displaced and traumatized people in this region. For example, he referenced Paul’s use of the word καταλλαγή (reconciliation) and interprets it contextually as a community-mediated process in which wrongdoers offer some explanation and recompense to victims, who, in return, acknowledge the attempt to reconcile. In the base community of La Balsita, outside Dabeiba, campesinos displaced by paramilitary groups in the late 1990s say this form of reconciliation is what they are waiting for. “We want to know why,” one man says.

In El Pital Bajo, sister village to El Pital Alto, leaders of a small pueblo of Emberá speak powerfully about their exclusion from consideration of how they had been affected by decades of malicious killings and exploitation. “With a signature on a peace agreement, they say there is peace,” says one of the indigenous advocates. “Nobody asked us about it.”

To say they are wary is an understatement. The meeting begins with a mixture of Spanish and Emberá Catío, their mother tongue, as they clarify what the meeting is about. They testify eloquently to their long-standing connection to the land and its dramatic green escarpments, the pink wildflowers that help promote sleep, and their cultivation of corn, plantains, maracuyá, and other crops on a small scale. They are quick to point out that this had been their way even before they became a colonized people.