This has been a week of hope and despair. On Wednesday, the ELN and the government announced the start of formal, public, peace talks and I got to call various spokespeople and ask them for statements on our radio show. On Thursday, I spent a couple of hours frantically trying to translate a public letter from churches and faith based organizations to the two parties, expressing in lovely Baroque language their joy at the talks and their support as communities of faith.
Yesterday, my whatsapp and newsfeeds were full of death and threats, as the paramilitary group the Urabeños successfully shut down half the country in an armed strike, ordering business to close, people to stay home and transportation to stop. Anyone who did not comply was killed, in show of brute force and power. Today, the extreme right is marching around the country to protest peace and proclaim violence, with the logistical support of armed groups.
The whole thing, armed strike to marches, feels frankly terrifying. Which is of course the point. Terror wins when we become afraid to talk to our neighbours, to think about a different future, to allow our choices to be dictated by fear, both in Colombia and around the world. Safety is a valid concern, but how we choose to talk and react and to whom we choose to give prominence in the media and in our conversations, matters.
It is, of course, easy for me to sit in my house, drink my coffee in bed and proclaim the importance of not giving in to fear, while communities huddle in their homes as armed men parade the streets. So, I’m not going to do that. Rather, I want to share the words of some of my Colombian friends from Choco, one of the most impacted areas of the armed strike.
This letter is from a former colleague, who lives and teaches in Choco and also runs bakery. She first wrote this letter to an ecumenical group that she accompanies but has since turned it into a public letter to all in Choco and has given permission for me to share it here.
“It is true, this is not a situation to take lightly but we cannot also allow ourselves to be intimidated. I believe this starts by filtering the information that we share and ensuring that it can be verified. Yes, it is true, there have been hostilities, but it is also true that there are many rumors. When we circulate everything that we see, we end up being useful tools for their purposes and contribute to the sowing of collective panic.
In light of these threats, it is indispensable to join together and not allow our social fabric to be damaged. They do not want us to walk in the streets or open our business? Agreed. We will not be imprudent or challenge anyone, but we will also not cease to celebrate and exalt life.
Let us seize these moments, that for us are not infrequent, to share with our neighbours, get together with those that are close by to sing, play, pray, cook a delicious arroz bochinche or a community soup. It is not possible that a few are more than the majority. Let us use social networking, not to spread threats or sensationalist images, but rather to express mutual solidarity, to strengthen our ties, to plant life and joy. To show that we are not alone and that we can join together and mutually support each other. We do not wait only for answers that come from outside. Let us use the tools that we have on hand, in favour of the abundant life that Jesus has promised us, and not for destruction.
Today I am not going work, as all classes have been cancelled, but we will be preparing some delicious bread for our neighbours, because we will not die of hunger as the threats suggest. We will use our hands to create and to share. I hope all of us can do the same. Let us spread messages of life and not of death.”
I have heard similar messages from others in the area, those who have been impacted by fumigations and violence for decades, calling for moments of prayer, but also of non-violent action, to show that there are other voices and ways of building Colombia than weapons and threats.
I am humbled. Yes, there is fear and legitimate risks, but there is also the courage to make bread, to share with neighbours and to continue to work for just peace. May we have the bravery to do the same, be it threats of terror or climate change. And please hold Colombia and its people in your thoughts and prayers this weekend.