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Colombian conscientious objector Martin Rodriguez shares his experience of life in a heavily militarised society.

What does it mean to be an antimilitarist?

It is complicated enough discussing what it means to be an antimilitarist in a country like Colombia, but even worse because although antimilitarism is something that I share and promote, I'm not really sure how much of an antimilitarist I am. In a diverse range of situations, my actions and language are loaded with militarist symbolism that has become inherent in the cultural practices of Colombian society.

I remember when I was a boy, before entering class, the director of the “educational centre” ordered that the centre's 200 children line up straight before entering the classrooms. We were then again “ordered” (at eight years old, this word had no meaning for me) to do exercises to wake us up.

Every day, one or more of the pupils was punished for not complying with the orders. Others, who behaved well, were made prefects in recognition of their “good conduct”. When everyone was in order and lined up properly, then the director would give thanks to God, and emphasise that obedience is the main asset for the school community. This example of school practices is just the tip of the iceberg of the realities that have formed many generations of Colombians.

Micro-war

El Bosque, the neighbourhood of Medellin where I have spent most of my life, is poor. It has around 30,000 inhabitants, the majority of whom have been displaced from other neighbourhoods or areas that are frequently in conflict. The formation of this neighbourhood in the 1980s coincided with the boom in drug-trafficking and it was in places like El Bosque that the narco-traffickers recruited their small armies. Up until then, being a criminal was seen as somewhat degrading, but then the narco-gangs became to be seen as glamorous and able to bring protection, power, status and comfort to their affiliates and to those around them. At the end of the '80s came the phenomenon of the urban militias - FARC, ELN, EPL, M19 - with the clear objective of returning tranquillity and peace to poor urban neighbourhoods that had been made unliveable in by the narco-traffic gangs.

These and other groups called “Milicias populares” (popular militias) were formed mainly by young people, who then died in large numbers in subsequent violent confrontations. Among those who died were my two brothers, Edwin and Ismael, aged 16 and 18 respectively. The victims of this “micro-war” were not only the actual combatants, but also young people who did not take sides, who opposed the fighting or simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Oh, another guerrilla”

When the time came for me to do my national service I didn't go. I was still studying and I was also certain that I didn't want to do it. I had seen on the news that a boy had refused to join the army - calling himself a conscientious objector - and so when I left school on my 21st birthday, instead of going into the army, I too became a CO. I was very scared, I didn't know much about the issues, but I was guided by what I felt was the right thing to do.

When I was called to the army office, I introduced myself shyly as a CO, “oh, another guerrilla” said the official and called for his superior. Waiting for the officer to arrive was torturous and the minutes seemed like hours. “What are you?” he asked when he arrived. Although I was really scared and I didn't fully understand the question, I instinctively answered that I was a CO. The superior said, “CO or gay?!... you know, we do not accept gays... It's men only here.” He then left. The military clerk in the office then asked me to sign a form and return in a month to get the receipt I needed to get the “second category” military ID papers which would exempt me.

As I left I heard the jokes of other men who were in the office to sign up, but because of my relief I wasn't that bothered. When I arrived home my mother was waiting in expectation. She thought it was very important to perform military service and so when I told her she expressed her anger and concern, I decided to ignore her.

On my return to the office to pick up the receipt, they said it would cost 96,000 Colombian pesetas (US$45), but I didn't have any money so I couldn't pay for it. I thought that since I wasn't going to be in the army anyway I wouldn't need the ID papers, but in Colombia military ID papers are needed to get into university, to get a job and to leave the country: in a word, it is more important than the normal national ID papers.

Refusal is not enough

Since I was 13 years old, I have participated in the activities of youth groups, undertaking voluntary work. It has always been an inner concern of mine to help the community and I think that this has been a factor in preventing me from joining armed groups or taking up arms to defend myself or my family.

As I continue my life as a CO, I have also felt it important to explore the fundamental issues connected with conscientious objection, nonviolence and antimilitarism in general. These issues have been the background to my way of life, and at the same time they have also presented me with many challenges.

Simply refusing to serve in the army - refusing to be part of the war we live daily in Colombia - is not enough, there are many more complex issues - for example gender relations and the patriarchal system over which contemporary society is laid.

There are a lot of challenges to do with altering the military culture in society and I still struggle with trying to “unlearn” the militarised life I was taught as a child.

I continue my life as a CO and fortunately I am not alone, because there are many young people in a similar situation. Even though the media does not portray us accurately, the truth gives us hope and a sense of what it is to be antimilitarist.

Redes Juveniles A A 52-215, Medellin; or Calle 47 N 40 53 Medellin, Colombia (tel 57 4 292 3234; email: jovenes@col3.telecom.com.co).

Martin Rodriguez works with the Colombia Youth Network