End of last month, a remarkable community celebrated its unlikely anniversary in a remote part of northern Colombia. Accompanied by delegations from many countries, human rights organizations, and many dignitaries, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó remembered their twenty years of nonviolent resistance in the middle of a brutal war, while stating their firm decision to carry on building a project of hope, of solidarity, dignity and genuine peace.
Together with a small delegation from Tamera, including co-founder Sabine Lichtenfels, Andrea Regelmann and Laura von Raffay, I had the honor to participate in this extraordinary event. In San José, we were joined by a wider group of international cooperation partners – Alnoor Ladha from Canada, executive director of /The Rules; Claudio Miranda, Paulo Torres and Alessandro Neres of the “Favela da Paz” project in São Paulo, Brazil; and Leslie Mamani from the spiritual community “Comunidad Sariri” in Bolivia, who also represented our friend, Bolivia’s foreign minister Fernando Huanacuni.
A viable alternative to war
What is the Peace Community? Founded by 1,350 displaced farmers in the Northern Urabá region in March 1997, after paramilitaries roamed the region pillaging and massacring, the community came together to protect themselves and their land, declaring themselves neutral in the war. The armed groups made them pay a huge price for this decision, killing more than 200 of their members, including most of their leaders. Almost all victims died by the hands of paramilitary and national armed forces, largely trained by the US government, working in the service of local landowners and multinational corporations.
Despite the horrors they have faced, the members of this community have stood their ground and continue working together bound by a commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation. Their fundamental principles include a rigorous rejection of drugs, alcohol, arms and no cooperation with any of the armed groups. The fact that the Peace Community could exist for twenty years and still continues walking their path with strength is a real miracle. Eduar Lanchero, one of their late leaders, once said, “The power of the community consists of its ability to transform pain into hope …” With their community, the people of San José have shown other communities in the region and country how to break the vicious victim-perpetrator cycle and to create a self-sufficient community outside the dominant resource extraction economic model that surrounds them. This level of economic autonomy and independence from state influence has been seen as a grave threat to the interests of multinational corporations looking for development opportunities in the region.
Conscious of the larger systemic effects of their resistance, Lanchero further elucidated,
The armed groups aren’t the only ones who kill. It’s the logic behind the whole system. The way people live generates this kind of death. This is why we decided to live in a way that our life generates life. One basic condition, which kept us alive was to not play the game of fear, which was imposed upon us by the murders of the armed forces. We have made our choice. We chose life. Life corrects us and guides us.
An uncertain future: Colombia at the crossroads
Though we celebrated the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC-Ep guerrillas end of last year as a sign of hope, we found the situation on the ground to be more than complicated. All over Colombia, paramilitary death squads, multinational corporations and corrupt politicians are using the so called “peace” as a cover to perpetuate the war against defenseless civilians and those resisting their plans. Now, as the world believes peace has arrived in Colombia, and global attention shifts to other crisis areas, paramilitary forces quietly take over many of the areas formerly held by the FARC, kill activists and threaten grassroots communities, thereby secretly continuing the same pattern of violence, exploitation and displacement at the heart of the Colombian Civil War.
Since September, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó has faced paramilitary invasion in their remote hamlets in dimensions unseen in last years, with some of the hamlets being constantly occupied by them. The paramilitaries present themselves to the rural population as the “new masters” of the countryside, enticing them to plant coca for their drug business, promising protection for those who collaborate with them and brutal punishment for those who dare to resist them. Tragically, the Colombian government continues to deny the existence of paramilitaries altogether, which makes it hard to stop them or protect the rural population from them. Members of the army even threatened the Peace Community they would face media slander if they won’t stop speaking up about the paramilitary presence in public.
Colombia finds itself at a crossroads: Will a true process of true peace-building and reconciliation begin? Or will “peace” just remain to be another word for hidden war?
For a deeper insight into the current political situation of Colombia, I recommend reading my in-depth article, War and Peace and War: The Untold Story of the Colombian Civil War and the Potential for Genuine Peace, published by Common Dreams on April 18, 2017.
A celebration of hope
Yet, despite of it all, the anniversary celebration on March 23rd, wasn’t dominated by fear and despair, but filled with determination for a different future. A few hundreds from across the country and the world had come to the community’s central village (San Josecito) to show their solidarity and support.
Though we faced a community that has visibly shrunk in numbers over the past few years, the spirit of those who remain steadfast, seems even deeper, more determined, somewhat matured. In the stormy transformation the country finds itself in, the Peace Community also needs to find a new self-image and take a new position.
We were invited to start the anniversary day by holding a common meditation at the center of the village during sunrise. Around sunrise, Sabine Lichtenfels opened with a prayer and song, being followed by words of meditation she had received a few days earlier. Friends in various countries connected with the same meditation at the same time. In her message, Sabine put forward a daring vision for peace in Colombia – of a deep frequency of peace spreading in the country that reconnects people’s hearts with the powers of nature and the primordial roots of Indigenous culture underneath all wounds of colonial aberration. With around 70 participants, we visualized this inner shift leading to a new movement of hope in Colombia, allowing people to regain belief in their country and humanity and enabling them to build autonomous peace communities that step out of the system of violence. At the core of the vision, we could see that it’s San José de Apartadó and other already existing peace communities that could tip the scale from war to peace, offering their profound experience of reconciliation to disarmed fighters all over Colombia.
Here’s the meditation, accompanied by images from Colombia:
In an open letter to President Santos, Sabine wrote,
San José could assume a key role for the next stage of the peace process in Colombia. Together with other projects of the “University of Resistance,” indigenous communities and women’s groups, this extraordinary village could teach the ways of nonviolence and forgiveness to previous fighters and show them how to coexist in solidarity. All over the country, peace communities could arise that would heal the wounds of the war and take an active role in ecologically restoring the country. This is how Colombia could turn into a global role model for transforming a war culture into a peace culture.
This vision was what gave us orientation and guidance on this journey. It was powerful to experience how much resonance it received, while it would be easy to dismiss it as being utterly naive under such difficult circumstances. And it wasn’t just easy to stay with such a vision as we were facing the continuing war not just as anonymous headlines on the news, but face to face, being in touch with dear, beloved friends.
The more astonishing and overwhelming was the reaction of many people who participated in the morning meditation in San Josecito. Long-term political activist Hernando Gómez Serrano, for example, a man who has faced inconceivable persecution throughout his life, and who hadn’t seemed to be very hopeful about the peace process just the day before, approached us deeply moved and changed, in deep gratitude for this image of hope.
During the celebration, there was an impressive host of dignitaries – the Norwegian, Swiss and Italian ambassadors, embassy personnel from Germany, Belgium, France, as well as high-level representatives from the EU and the UN – offering their solidarity and support. Some of them made statements that went clearly beyond the usual diplomatic jargon. The Swiss ambassador was visibly moved by what he witnessed, saying, “This is a reality of Colombia I haven’t known yet. Now I realize how different life is on the ground than it seems from my office in Bogotá.”
Acknowledging the paramilitary threat against the community, Todd Howland, Colombia representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “Many claim that now there’s peace, there’s no longer any need for a peace community. In reality, the opposite is true – at this crucial moment of Colombian history, the experience of the community is more important than ever before.”
Being in San Josecito, we also learned that members of “Operazione Colomba,” a group of Italian human rights activists who’re constantly accompanying the community, are facing growing pressure from the Colombian army and threats to be expelled from the country. In a moving encounter, the internal council of the community asked us, “Will you come here and accompany us if necessary? We wish a closer collaboration with you!”
Just before leaving, we had the opportunity to sit down with some of youth and young leaders to discuss prospects for collaboration. We spoke about the Global Campus. Claudio Mirando from Brazil shared his story, how he as a teenager, growing up in one of the most violent neighborhoods of the world, decided to dedicate his life to a path of humaneness and empathy, and how he became a role model for countless youth around him.
Alnoor Ladha of /The Rules encouraged the young people,
There’s an awakening all over the world. People realize they aren’t isolated in their struggles, but that they all confront the same global system, which is at war with life. In this regard, there’s lots those people can learn from your community, as you have been in this work for twenty years already. As I see it, your community could now turn into a planetary center for reconciliation and healing, a seed for true peace in this country.
Again, we were overwhelmed by the response returning. We saw young people with great commitment for their project and political awareness of why it’s needed. They responded with many ideas of what projects they could take on, but also reacted enthusiastically to the idea of being part of a vivid planetary community, connected with like-minded companions around the world working for the same goal of a future without war.
Future laboratories for peace
In addition to our time in the Peace Community, we spent ten days in the Colombian capital Bogotá with a political agenda, meeting government officials, representatives from social movements, the church and Indigenous people. In all those meetings, we could witness the contagious power of an authentic vision of peace. The idea of centers for reconciliation and healing arising in the country, as rudimentary and developing Healing Biotopes, was something that opened closed doors of despair or ideological dispute time and again. While it was hard to come to terms with a government official when we were speaking on the conventional political level about human rights violations, her heart opened when we brought that vision to the table. Through vision, people and institutions that appear to be adversaries under the conditions of the current political reality, become potential cooperation partners. With this, we could always train to flip that “switch” within ourselves from thoughts of hostility and fear to those of collaboration and reconciliation, strengthening the awareness that beyond their masks all people carry the longing for a different form of human existence within their hearts.
In all the conversations he had, we saw the Colombian peace process like something that’s on a razor’s edge. Colombia is on a tipping point with both the promise of true transformation and the grave danger of a “cultural and ecological genocide,” as Indigenous leader Ati Quigua put it. All those who are serious about peace realize the urgent need for functioning models for a nonviolent system of life. Now that the FARC-Ep rebels have begun to lay down their arms, the question of the future becomes urgent and existential for them. What will happen to them after being disarmed? They fear to fall prey to the resurgent paramilitary, but they also hope to turn the 26 transition zones in which they have gathered into long-lasting peace zones, i.e. ecologically sustainable and self-sufficient villages. We were amazed to see how the external events increasingly accorded with our vision – and felt at the same time compelled to accompany this process, so the possibility – not the fear – will turn into reality.
In the wake of all this, our dear friend Gloria Cuartas, the former mayor of Apartadó and current head of a government agency for victim reparations, approached us with a suggestion, “Why doesn’t Tamera host a “round table” in your Healing Biotope in Portugal, bringing together representatives of the Peace Communities, the Colombian government, the FARC-Ep and rebels ELN, Indigenous People and social movements?” The idea would be to inspire all these people by Tamera, to discuss turning San José into a protected peace zone and to find out how the experience of the Peace Community and the Global Campus can support making the Colombian peace process a success. Right now, we’re seriously considering this suggestion with the core group of Tamera.
Last, not least… An important aspect of our journey were encounters with various leaders of Indigenous Peoples. Coming to Colombia, we felt simultaneously connected with the movement for “defending the sacred” that has arisen through the resistance of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States. We see the same conflict everywhere in the world, in every country, every region. Everywhere, an emergent humane impulse for community, autonomy and healing clashes with the violence of state and capital power. And we saw that reconnecting with the original wisdom of authentic indigenous culture holds a key to be able to answer the question, “How can the power of community finally prevail?”
PHOTO 4: Tamera’s delegation (on the left: Andrea Regelmann, Laura von Raffay, Martin Winiecki, Sabine Lichtenfels) meeting Indigenous leader Ati Quigua (center) and Leslie Mamani and Giovanny Simbaqueba of “Comunidad Sariri” (right)
When we are able to recognize the sacredness of life that is beyond all religions and discover that there is consciousness in all that surrounds us, we are no longer isolated. We can gain enormous powers of healing and regeneration by consciously participating in the sacred alliance of all beings.
Certainly, there’s still much for us to reflect and harvest from this journey. Yet what is clear is that we need to combine the many struggles and movements defending the sacred in a common global platform – a global alliance that comes together to develop a common vision for the future, a new vision for nonviolently inhabiting this planet. And, most importantly, an alliance of people no longer guided by ideologies, but reconnecting with and serving life’s enormous powers of regeneration, healing and protection. We see the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó as a shining point of light in such an emerging planetary movement – and we will deepen the Global Campus program and continue to strengthen this cooperation with all our heart, minds and hands.