Spring Up Oh Well

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When I was a little girl, one of my favourite songs to sing with gusto and waving arms was Spring Up Oh Well. The song begins softly, building up through each line of the verse:

I‘ve got a river of life flowin’ out of me

Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see

Opens prison doors, sets the captives free

I’ve got a river of life flowin’ out of me! 

At church club or sitting around the campfire at summer camp, we would jump to our feet with each rendition of the chorus. “Spring up oh well! And set me free! Spring up oh well, and give to me, that life, abundantly!”  Despite years of the song circling in my head, I never spent a lot of time on the lyrics. I assumed that they were part of the spiritual symbolism of freedom from sin that accompanied all the devotionals and flannelgraph lessons that I heard repeated in church spaces.

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Prison preparation. 

On Sunday, I didn’t go to church.  Instead, armed guards escort a friend and I through the Chiquinquira prison gates.  Guards pat us down, turn us around, pat us down, and tell us to proceed. The man at reception stamps our arms. A German Shepard sniffs us. Other guards paw through the food we have brought and poke holes in our soap to look for drugs. We pass through more checkpoints: metal detectors, fingerprints, document revisions.

Our final arrival at Patio Dos feels anticlimactic. A guard points us down a long hallway. Someone standing behind the bars at the other end yells, “Montes! Your visitors are here!”

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As soon as the door is unlocked, we fall into bear hugs. Jorge beams as he escorts us to his cell and invited us to take a seat facing his bunk. He offers us something to drink and we repeat the greeting ritual I have done thousands of times on the coast: “How are you? How is your family? What is new? What else is going on? How are you?”

The painted white brick walls and two plastic chairs of a prison cell are the holiest place in the entire world. We break and share bread together, in the form of cold fried chicken and plantain. My friend brings a kilo of cheese from the coast and Jorge tell us that he has been dreaming for four years of that very cheese. We drink tea from blue plastic cups and listen and laugh. The same hospitality that I received with every tiny cup of coffee on the coast resonates throughout the freezing cold cell.

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“The fundamental basis of all development in campesino communities is nonviolent mobilization.” Jorge tells us as he reflects on his vision for his community. We reminisce about the days before the march, when we took motorcycles up and down the hills to photograph dying avocado trees and terrible roads. When I look back on that day, I remember the heat and the fear of falling off a moto, but more than anything, I remember the laughter of climbing over hills and the gift of eating chicken off of banana leaves.  We drank coconut water and visited campesino families, recently returned after displacement and ready to mobilise to stay on their land.

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Sitting in a meeting together with other community leaders in 2013. Up until a few months before this picture, there had been little contact between communities, because of fear. 

“I could sign that piece of paper, say I’m a member of the FARC, take my daughter and leave the country. It would be so easy. But this isn’t just about me and I cannot do anything to damage the movement I support.” Jorge says. Despite arrest, his vision for united, mobilized communities still exists. He refuses to do anything to jeopardize the future, even if that means staying in jail. As I listen, I remember the threat he represents, along with the laughter we still share. This is a man with the power and determination to bring one thousand campesinos together in a reconciliation movement for a common goal.

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Every week, one or two people leave the jail as the new transitional justice measures for the FARC take effect. Jorge introduces us to a fellow prisoner who is leaving the next day. Patios full of political prisoners slowly empty. Twenty people become thirteen people. Three more will leave this week.  As cells empty, Jorge collects the belongings left behind. He washes sheets and sends them as a gift to the areas of the jail filling with non-political prisoners, because “he knows what it is like to arrive with nothing.”

Jorge’s solidarity and hospitality stands in direct contrast to the noise of clanging bars in the background. Between anecdotes about family members and friends on the coast, Jorge shares brief snippets about what his life was like when he was first arrested four years ago and jailed at the maximum security prison in Valledupar.  Rotten food. Death threats. Fights. Overcrowding. Inhumane treatment by prison officials. Extortion.

While the medium security facility in Chiquinquira is better, it is still unjust imprisonment. As soon we hear the announcement for the end of visiting hours, Jorge quickly hugs us and rushes us to the door. If he is not present for the prisoner count in the courtyard, he will face the consequences

The future is uncertain. Jorge is hopeful that his case will soon be resolved and that he will join all of his cellmates leaving for life outside the jail. As Jorge is not a member of the FARC, however, his case may fall through the cracks. There is a strong chance that he will remain behind, trapped in legal and political limbo for years. No one has confronted the intellectual authors behind his arrest. Jorge’s organizing presence in the Montes de Maria continues to threaten structures who prefer divided communities.

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On the bus ride back to Bogota, I think not only of Jorge, but of all the human rights defenders and social leaders across Colombia and Latin America who continue to demand their right to be heard. Abundant life and freedom are not simply spiritual symbols, but a present, consistent struggle to live well. Jorge’s imprisonment is part of the same power structures that have killed 44 activists so far this year. The human dignity in the face of oppression in Jorge’s cell  also exists in community meetings and in every woman and man who dares to speak up about determining the future of their own pueblos.  All across the region, thousands amplify Jorge’s vision in a rushing, flowing river of life with the power to set us all free.

Spring up oh well!

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