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Practicing Peace, Living with War: Going Upriver in Colombia[1]

Kimberly Theidon

Center for Latin American Studies
Stanford University

Please do not cite this manuscript without written permission of the author

Statistics can be numbing, unless the human faces behind the numbers have names, histories, families — unless we can see people rather than graphs. I am a medical anthropologist who has worked for years in Peru, particularly in rural villages that were destroyed during that country’s internal war. I have spent many hours talking with survivors of war, offering kleenex, caressing backs heaving in sobs, massaging necks that “open like raw nerves every time I think of how they killed him” — and drying my own eyes as survivors transferred the burden of their memories to me, if only for the space of an interview. I lost my capacity to erase the faces many years ago.

One too many mornings spent reading the New York Times and Juan Forero’s columns about Colombia made inaction impossible for me. I knew from my experience in Peru that people must be trying to work against the violence, even in the midst of war. I also knew that simply saying “no” to military funding and interventions was insufficient: There had to be alternatives to which people could say “yes.” I left for Colombia in July, meeting up with two colleagues who share my concerns. We decided to head to Urabá, a northwestern region which straddles the departments of Choco and Antioquia. Maria Paz at the UN office was a good contact, and we had heard that a number of the displaced had organized as Peace Communities and returned to their land.

In Urabá the paramilitaries control the towns and cities in alliance with local elites and their military connections, and the guerrillas dominate the countryside. Both charge “a vaccination” — the bribes that civilians are charged to keep an unnatural death at bay.

A review of the accords the campesinos drew up reveals that the Peace Communities represent both a citizen initiative and a demand. Anyone who has ever worked with campesinos has heard them speak about their villages, and themselves, as “los olvidados” — the forgotten ones. They are referring to a geography of difference that informs the distribution of poverty, the administration of (in)justice and the right to be considered citizens of the nation and not merely “wards of the state.” But the “forgotten ones” also refers to the absence of the state in their communities, except in the form of soldiers who may be stationed in nearby military bases. One clause demands the unarmed presence of the Colombian state, in the form of services, public works, and the fulfillment of the state’s obligations to its citizenry. As one of the campesinos who participated in drafting the agreements told me, “We are no government pilot project. The Colombian state has never treated campesinos as brothers, but we are members of this country.”

I had many opportunities for conversations that lasted late into the hot, sticky nights. I was told of how life used to be, when they could tend their crops, celebrate their fiestas and watch their children grow, trusting they would have a future to grow into. They spoke repeatedly of the “delicious life” they used to enjoy before the fighting engulfed them, contrasting that past with a present “that tastes like food without salt.”

Villagers live in a state of coercive coexistence with the FARC: Forced to choose between an absent state, the brutal paramilitaries and the guerrilla, one selects the lesser evil. When people speak about the armed actors, the names of the protagonists are frequently omitted. Eyes shift, heads tilt and voices drop. Sentences are punctuated by pauses that the listener fills in, guided by the pattern of the violence and the speaker’s eyes. In conversations about the FARC, one man noted, “When the father is in the house, the child does not speak ill of him.” The guerrilla kept standing in doorways listening; sitting on porches watching; following the brightest adolescent boys around.

The night before we left, don Manuel sought me out. He is a proud man who has worked the land his entire life. Sitting across the table from me, tears filled his eyes: “Are you really going to leave tomorrow? Are you going to leave us all alone?” Irony is not just a literary device —sometimes one lives it. Three gringa anthropologists who do not know how to wield a machete or a machine gun. Yet our presence made people feel safer.

Manuel offered criticism and requested a promise. First his criticism: “Plan Colombia sends more weapons when what we need are schools, health care, roads. If the US wants to wage war, why don’t they wage it against the armed groups that started all this and not against us — not against peasants.” His words repeated in my ears the next day as we wound our way down river past the paramilitaries and the guerrilla who watched from behind the palms bordering the Atrato.

I write against the erasure of these villagers and their “revolutionary alternative.” Peace is a long time coming in Colombia, yet some people practice peace every day. These lines are haunted by the promise I made to Manuel on that humid night in Costa de Oro: “Tell people when you get home that we ask for international support so we may live una vida digna — a dignified life.”

[1] I am deeply grateful to the Shaler-Adams Foundation and Women and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard for the funding that made this research possible. I thank the many people in Colombia who shared their lives and their time with me. For helpful comments on this article, I thank Kathleen Dill, Edith Eddy, Adam Isacson, Robin Kirk, and Barry O’Neill.

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