When a Commemoration is not a Commemoration


I’m sad this week. Not for any sort of existential crisis or deep questionings of my place in this community, but because things didn’t work out they way we wanted them to in our most anticipated event of the year. Instead of bringing the community together, we seem to be further and further apart.

As all of you faithful readers will know, Mampuján and two neighbouring communities are the communities in Colombia with a sentence under the Justice and Peace Law. The sentence orders reparations under various forms, including individual, collective and measures of satisfaction. While progress has been made on some of the other forms, the most activity so far has centred on victim satisfaction because it is the easiest to achieve. This has included things like publicly stating, using newspaper and TV, that Mampuján was never associated with guerrillas and planning a monument to the community. One of the largest measures ordained was a commemoration ceremony remembering twelve years of displacement, on March 11, from Mampuján Viejo and a massacre that took place in the surrounding area of Las Brisas. The president of Colombia himself was set to make an appearance, along with the Ambassador of the United States, the Supreme Court Judges who gave the sentence, the head of the Fiscalia and a number of other so called important people. We actually ended up changing the dates so that the president could attend.

As a community, we worked to get ready. This involved not only talking to the people here in Mampuján, but working with leadership teams in all of the other areas under the sentence as the commemoration was theirs as well. We ended up deciding to hold two days of activities, the first day for each community to hold their own private day of remembrance in their original location, and the second day for all of the guests and the three communities to come together in Mampuján Viejo for a day of speeches, songs, dramas, all focused on mourning the past and looking forward to the future. Music and drama teachers showed up to teach us traditional Afro-Colombia mourning songs and drumming patterns. We spent all week cleaning up Mampuján Viejo and planning a softball tournament, like they did in the days before displacement. The former store was turned into a museum, were photos and quilts were displayed. For many people, this would be there first time sleeping in Mampuján Viejo since they were displaced and we planned a special breakfast of turtle for all of those who chose to stay over, as a form of symbolic return.

Before the event began, I was impressed to see the way the community leaders owned the event. Even since the march in December, I could see growth in their confidence to organize events and motivate the community. For many of them, despite the promise of the arrival of the president, this was an event that they were doing for themselves, to remember and reflect on twelve years of displacement.

However, as with any event, funding was a problem. We sent out letters, but got no response. However, on Sunday, a week before the event, the government in Bogota finally responded to say that they would provide the funding, along with contributions from the United Nations Development Program. However, they refused to provide us with any sort of cash. Instead, they would send two operators from Bogota, as go between people who would buy everything that we need, make all the contracts, and basically take care of carrying out our plans.

It was a disaster, and not only where the operators were concerned. Two people finally showed up on Tuesday, and we had an all day meeting about food. The next time they showed up was Thursday night, were they made fun of my Spanish. The food itself finally arrived on Saturday night, but most of the meat was missing and there was only enough for one day of everything else. The sound equipment didn’t arrive. Half the people waiting for lunch the first day didn’t get fed. The bus and car drivers in charge of ferrying people and things refused to work. I was so dirty that when I shook my head, dirt flew out of my hair. The president decided that he really couldn’t show up after all and it was announced that reparations would be delayed at least another month. I spent all of my time running around like a crazy person, trying to track down and demand missing food in an area with no cell phone signal as well as pacifying people as lunch became later and later and later. There is nothing like the panicky feeling of passing out food to people as you try to judge whether there really will be enough for everyone. This feeling is intensified as you realize that people are also tired, disappointed and feel helpless in light of everything they have heard.

(I later found out from one of the operators that they were very understaffed. A one day event for 600 people in Cartagena that week had 6 operators working; we were basically running 4 different events for over 1500 people during two days and had two operators).

Needless to say, people have not been happy with community leadership this week and there has been a lot of muttering on the street. It’s all made worse by the fact that we still don’t have the promised resources to pay back community members who contributed to the event, like the cooks or bus drivers, which makes leadership appear inefficient and selfish. Of course, leadership is not perfect, but there are a lot of extenuating circumstances taking place that are completely out of their control, made much more difficult by people camping out on their doorsteps demanding payment that we simply do not have.

However, all of the logistical stuff aside, I think what makes me the most sad was that the event turned out not to be about the community at all. Instead, it appeared to be a place where all of the so called important people from Bogota and Cartagena, including functionaries from both the Canada and US Embassies could arrive in their helicopter, listen to speeches, receive flowers from the kids, and go home feeling like peace in Colombia is moving along nicely as another sentence item is checked of the list. I understand that peace is a process that takes time, but it’s frustrating that nobody saw the disappointed and angry community members behind the scenes who were not being remembered in a dignified way. This event was supposed to be all about them, and they were really excited about it, but in the end, it really was not about them at all and there was nothing they could do about it. And if it is really all about the peace process doesn’t the process itself need to be part of building peace? If the end result is empowered and restored communities, the communities need to be given control over their own resources now and given the opportunity to manage things themselves.

I cannot help contrasting this event to our march in December. The march was not a sentence ordained activity, yet it resulted in empowerment and unity within Mampuján, because the community had to work together to achieve tangible results. Everyone was important because everyone was walking. Every step was an achievement and everybody’s steps were needed. During the commemoration, we tried to organize a human chain but even that didn’t have the same impact. At the end of the day, the community ended up being a spectator and left feeling disempowered and fragmented.

(That is not to say that there were not moments of deep hilarity involving snapping turtles, escaping from burlap sacks and trying to bite our toes off in a van. I had no idea that turtles could climb car seats or enjoy trying to chew on ears. Also, try attempting to pass out said turtles at 3:00 am with the help of only cell phone flashlights so that people could kill and cook them for breakfast. It will probably be a moment you will not forget.)

13 comments on “When a Commemoration is not a Commemoration”

  1. ho-ly cow. that’s all. the dead horse story has been surpassed in both pathos and potential absurdity. but, thank you for sharing your experiences. . . even though right now things are going rather roughly. . .

    1. I know. I think I am going to have an impressive collection of stories in the dead horse vein by the time I finish these two years. I did not even mention the community meeting we had on Wed night which ended with people throwing styrofoam dishes at each other…
      I have two weeks of meetings in other parts of Colombia, starting tomorrow, and I think that will be a nice break!

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