A volunteer's letter home

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Feature by Peter Clark

Greetings from the front lines in the battle for democracy in Colombia. I'm not referring to a war waged between the Colombian military, right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrilla groups, but rather the war waged on peaceful civilians who dare to raise their voices or organise politically.

Colombia is often referred to as “the oldest democracy in Latin America” because of its nearly uninterrupted series of elections during the last century. However, civil society and the freedom to exercise US-style “First Amendment rights” are under increasing attack.

As Colombia's 40-year armed conflict rages on, armed groups on all sides are pressuring and silencing people who believe in a nonviolent alternative. As a PBI volunteer in Barrancabermeja during the last seven months, I've been accompanying two of those organisations: the Women's Popular Organisation (OFP) and the regional human rights committee known as CREDHOS. Groups such as these play a vital role in this country. They demand that all armed actors respect the lives and human rights of civilians and that violators of those rights are held accountable. They advocate a peaceful resolution to the war, and reach out to the community to address local social problems.

While there are other sectors of society promoting democratic change in Colombia, the human rights community and PBI play a fundamental role. The accompaniment of PBI helps keep alive many of these activists and their nonviolent struggles despite constant threats and attacks. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders recently reported, “The presence of PBI in the city [of Barrancabermeja] is highly important. The paramilitaries in the city have made clear that the international support for human rights defenders is the only reason they have not killed more defenders.”

The alternative is allowing only armed actors to have a voice, as the rest of Colombia's citizens choose to stay silent or speak out until they are silenced by bullets or threats. Under these conditions, the massacres, assassinations, forced disappearances, kidnappings and displacements that plague Colombia are sure to multiply while a peace agreement becomes more distant.