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No army defends peace!

In the city of Medellín youth activists are taking a stand for peace within their highly militarised communities. Adriana Castaño from the Red Juvenil - Youth Network - reports.

Medellín is a city of contrasts, where you find many ways of life. But in parallel, in different neighbourhoods, people live and wage a war that, besides death and prolonged absences, leaves an odd feeling of normality - as if, here, nothing will happen. But it does happen, and increasingly proposals that people should arm themselves to defend life and institutional normality gain strength, proposals that divide the world between goodies and baddies.

Youths tend to see themselves in the middle of a conflict too big to take measure of. Deaths in their neighbourhoods: families and friends riddled with bullets in the fire that kills the dreams of hundreds of youths. It is a conflict that promotes armies and leads away from alternative possibilities, those of another world and another society where dreams could become reality. At times the dreams of young women and men go no further than to stay alive and to work hard, sometimes to feed their family, to have access to education sometimes. Young people aren't dreaming their own lives, but rather of an imposed model of the life of a consumer.

Actors of violence

Today the situation of armed conflict in the city of Medellín makes youths actors, participating in the different armed groups - and that's how people perceive youth. A few figures help to illustrate the importance of youth in this city: about a quarter of the population of Medellín are youths, some half a million people, and youths form a majority of the 9,000 members estimated to be in the 200 armed bands in the city (armed bands including guerrilla, paramilitaries and organised crime).

The social problems that affect youth are increasingly sharp: employment and underemployment, access to a decent education, the stigma of the adult world and the institutions that claim to be reducing violence by restricting freedom - for example, by imposing a curfew on minors. This facilitates and perpetuates the image of youth as actors of violence - both actually and in the making.

The city's mayor's measures to restrict liberties don't touch the issue. Between 1 January and 15 June this year, there were 1,690 murders here - 873 (some 49 percent) were of youths aged between 14 and 25 years old (817 men, 56 women).

Inciting fear

This conflict opens breaches, cements fear, and strengthens indifference. It puts distance and distrust between people, cuts the ground from under relationships, and discounts the value of friendship and love of life.

One strategy is to sow panic so that armed groups will be obeyed. For example, one of the threats that are painted on house walls is “obedient children are put to bed by their parents; the disobedient ones by us” (“us” being the paramilitaries); “we kill all toads” (referring to suspected collaborators).

An activist of the Red Juvenil (Youth Network), who in 1998 declared himself a conscientious objector, writes about his neighbourhood that “we usually wake up to a dawn song where the noise of cars blurs into the steps of students who don't want to arrive late at college, and the shots, cries and sirens of police patrols and the gossip of neighbours about who the dead man was and why they killed him”.

The situation in the neighbourhoods seems so normal at times that it is scary; we are mere passive recipients of information that we don't manage to process because our critical senses are sleeping.

Youth organisation in conflict

Grassroots youth organising is difficult because the armed actors oblige young people to link themselves to their armies. One activist has commented, “In this sector, there is a saying `either put lads into the war or they leave the sector' ... Thousands of youth are forced to participate in the `network' of paramilitary control that is being built in the city.” In sector 13, one of the youth groups has had to learn first aid because wounds from the confrontations cannot be treated in the health centre. Other young groups have had to follow the wishes of the paramilitaries who say what they can do, how they do it, and sometimes offer resources.

Other young people live in doubt about how to become what they want to be. If they live in a neighbourhood where the militias are linked to the guerrillas, they don't have much chance because the security forces see all the young people of that zone as attached to the militia, hence as a military target and an enemy to combat.

The armed conflict affects us at many levels from the losses of close ones to the risk to our own lives. It truncates our fulfilment, limits our freedom to go where we please. It affects the student who is intimidated by someone who lives in another sector from enjoying public space; it affects the autonomy of youth groups to freely carry out their local activities. But above all it puts to one side life, the dream of living - and indeed of living - with dignity.

What is the Red Juvenil developing?

For the last 12 years the Red Juvenil has developed its work with proposals for life and resistance in a society with militarist and patriarchal traditions that we do not want to perpetuate or repeat.

We reject participation in any kind of army out of our conviction that no army defends peace. We reject participation in this war, to be those who line up and give their lives for a social project that is not what we dream of for ourselves.

We have therefore done various actions to show alternatives to the military and to the values that a militarist culture promotes - such as patriarchy, competition and exclusion. On 20 July during a Colombian Independence Day parade, 30 of us entered the stadium where the procession finished and, as a form of nonviolent action, created a space for cooperative games, inviting people to come and play, play to relax, play to resist. A lot of children found this more attractive than the official programme. We are currently developing various strategies to encourage young people to resist participating in the war, without keeping quiet but, on the contrary, acting and building their own alternatives. For example, we are constantly investigating how youths in neighbourhoods where the confrontation is most visible live the conflict in their daily world. Through this information, we expect that many youths will recognise themselves and know that, like them, there are loads of people who don't want to participate in war. Also, we want to spread awareness of what is happening in Colombia to other parts of the world, because the mass media cover it up.

Active nonviolence

We are coordinating with other youth and community groups to make war resistance stronger and more visible. Currently we are working on a campaign where we have joined with organisations from Cali, Pueblo Nueva and Villa Rica(Cauca), Bogotá and Medellín itself.

These are not just youth groups, but also women's, indigenous and community organisations. As well as promoting the values of active nonviolence and direct action against war, our goal is that more young people gain an understanding of the “why” of this war that goes beyond the mass media - Who benefits? Who dies? And of the value of resisting participation in it.

Those youth who refuse to participate in a war that is made in the name of all also reclaim the interests of quite a few other people, those who are against a war that claims blood, bodies and tears. Those youth refuse to accept the situation of death, injustice, discrimination and despair, a world built on corpses. We resist believing that, when you have a dream, you need arms to reach it.

What we don't resist is to follow the concept of a society without armies and without arms, where dreams create but don't assassinate. We don't resist the desire to live and to dance. There fore we say that we give everything to live and to build the world that we want.

Adriana Castaño coordinates the human rights programme of the Red Juvenil of Medellín.