It rained the whole three days we were in Puerto Asis, Putumayo. Instead of the blast of hot, humid, air I was expecting when I stepped of the plane, we were meet by gray skies and drizzling rain. From the weather to the alien looking pineapples currently in season, with their spiky skin, everything was different.
The situation is incredibly complex in this province controlled by active fighting between the various different fronts of the FARC and the state military, with neo-paramilitary intervention in the form of criminal gangs. We heard from a couple whose son disappeared six months ago. When they went to investigate a mass grave where a young man was rumored to have been killed, the body they found, buried alive, was not their son’s. When they denounced what they had found, they were threatened and ordered not to speak.
Coca crops have increased since peace talks started. According to the pastor we were visiting, due to a lack of educational and employment opportunities, young people continue to join illegal armed groups. Military bases and fumigation plants are everywhere. Armed groups performed a social cleansing of Puerto Asis five months ago, “cleaning” the city of it’s undesirable inhabitants- sex workers, the homeless, common criminals. Forced oil spills and pipeline destruction contaminate the environment and destroy the livelihoods of those who live downstream.
Two weeks earlier, I was back on the coast to celebrate. Everything, from Ricardo’s metaphor heavy speech at the Sembrandopaz tenth anniversary shindig to the amount of rice I ate, felt completely normal. While entering a post-conflict phase continues to be incredibly challenging, there is a sense of hope seen in the community organizing and advocacy. From the courage of those in Pichilin to share their stories and demand reparations for all members of the community and the determination of the Alta Montaña to defeat fear by coming together to form a creative reconciliation and justice movement, the feeling was the same: community organizing is not only possible, it is in fact the only way of creating the change needed for dignified lives.
The same sense of the hope inherent in community organizing was missing in Puerto Asis. In a world where active violence is ever present, speaking out in the same way becomes much more dangerous. Of course, given the fact that Jorge Montes remains in jail without a trial, advocacy is not danger free in the Montes de Maria either, but different dynamics are at play in Putumayo, or at least in the very small number of people we were able to visit. Yes, the church has a foundation that cares for children whose families are conflict victims, but the overall vision of Colombia’s future was dark and the conclusion seemed to be organizing to save souls, not social justice.
I like to look for signs and chickens in unexpected places are my favourite. Seeing a chicken is not a prediction that things will be okay; rather, they are a reminder to look harder, to pay attention to the unexpected that lies around the corner, to challenge my own understanding of “normal”. When I saw a chicken, proudly supporting the Colombian colours, on the Septima on the Sunday before our trip to Puerto Asis, I should have known that things are not always what they seem; I needed to be reminded that two years in one community and two year in Bogota does not make me an expert on Colombia, neither of its beauty nor of its pain.
Joy, love and hope are still present in Puerto Asis, even when their expression is annoying. For example, the people we visited spent more time reassuring me that I would get married then talking about violence, letting me know that someday soon, a good life with children would be mine. It didn’t really matter that nobody even asked me if I wanted to get married and have a million children; in any case, I now am fully aware of all the reasons why motherhood is the most wonderful thing in the world.
A different example was when the local pastor leaned back over from the front seat of the car, simply stating: “When I came here 27 years ago, all I had were my wife and two children. Putumayo has given me everything!” Rivers, jungle, the sweetest pineapples in the world. Connections and understanding with a part of Colombia mainly forgotten. Friends and family. Work and a vision for the area, even if not one I share. Laughter and pride over the “best platanos in Colombia.”
I do not want to be overly simplistic, claim that what the church is doing is enough, nor paint a false portrait of lives that are in reality extremely challenging and full of uncertainty. I do, however, want to honour the chickens. My Dutch friend taught me that the word for resilience in Dutch directly translates to “spring power,” the ability to bounce back. Even though among the people we met, for a very limited time, the version of community organizing I expected was missing, the spring power was surprisingly real.
As we waited to fly back to Bogota, drinking pop at a restaurant across the road from the world’s smallest airport, a tiny chick wandered under the table. It may have been raining, we may have been only 700 metres away from a Plan Colombia sponsored fumigation plant, the river may have been full of crude oil, but life goes on. And getting even the smallest glimpse of the way people live those lives is a privilege that challenges expectations and norms. Spring power.