Fighting Violence with Presence
St. Raphael Gymnasium:
Paco was talking in the kitchen with Mireya Calixto, a human rights worker in northeastern Colombia, when suddenly Mireya’s husband, Mario, called her name. He was in another room in their home in Sabana de Torres, with Paco’s friend Hendrik, and his voice was quiet, scared and shaking: “I ran into the room and there were two gunmen, one pointing his gun at Mario and the other at Hendrik,” said Paco. “We were terrified and the children started crying “Don’t kill him, don’t kill him!” As Paco coolly asked what was going on, Mario took advantage of the moment and dashed for the door.
|1) The nervous gunmen demanded to speak to Mario, but Paco explained that he and Hendrik were Europeans. “Please leave, if you want to talk, do it in another way,” said Paco calmly. And the men left.||1) ||2) If Paco and Hendrik had been Colombians, the gunmen would not have hesitated to spray them, and Mario, with bullets.||2) ||3) That, at least, is the theory of Peace Brigades International (PBI), a global human rights group employing people like Paco and Hendrik to work as “unarmed bodyguards”. There are 12 volunteers working for PBI in Colombia who “accompany” human rights defenders as they tour Colombia’s villages, documenting accounts of atrocities and giving advice to locals on their legal rights.||3) ||4) The PBI believes that even the most hardened of killers will think twice before blowing away unarmed foreigners. “If any of us were killed it would be a huge international incident and people know that, the military know that,” said Tessa MacKenzie, a 28-year-old British PBI volunteer in Colombia.||4) ||5) It may sound like woolly idealism, but it is a thoroughly researched peace strategy — and it seems to work. Partly funded by UK aid agency Christian Aid, PBI has projects in Haiti, Guatemala, Sri Lanka and North America. Not one volunteer has been killed since the project began 16 years ago.||5) ||6) Most of the volunteers are European or North American; they are computer analysts, nurses, human rights workers and range in age from 25 to 35. The group began its operations in Colombia in 1994, where the labyrinthine conflict pits leftwing guerrillas against a coalition of army, police and brutal death squads, with the drug trade adding a further complication.||6) ||7) But the armed men rarely clash, preferring to wage their bloody battle for the oil-rich zone through the civilian population. Mario Calixto, who was involved with the local Human Rights Committee, was a marked man. And the threats against him were stepped up after the committee published a report documenting murders, torture and disappearances in 1997. Several of the cases accused the local army battalion of “disappearing” people.||7) ||8) The death threats against Calixto were made by paramilitaries, clandestine death squads increasingly used by the army to do their dirty work. In the second half of 1997 paramilitary groups, who go by ominous names like “the headcutters” or “black hand”, stepped up their vicious extermination campaign. The links between the army and the paramilitaries have been well-documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. ||8) ||9) Paradoxically, this relationship works to PBI’s advantage. Talking to the army means their message will get through to the paramilitaries — a comforting thought in a country where the violence often appears completely random. Working as a human shield in a country where 30,000 people are murdered each year could seem risky bordering on the foolish. But it is the physical protection offered to human rights defenders that lies at the heart of PBI’s work. They shadow some people 24-hours a day. ||9) ||10) Osiris Bayther Ferrias is president of Credhos, a human rights group. There are times when she won’t leave her house without a PBI volunteer, and if she ever leaves her hometown, Barrancabermeja she will ask to be accompanied. She has the utmost faith in the sanctuary the unarmed bodyguards provide her. “We know that the Brigades are like shields that things can hit, but not pass through,” she said.||10) ||11) Bayther also receives death threats from the local guerrillas because her organisation has formally accused them of committing human rights abuses — a case that reveals the absurdity of linking all human rights movements to the revolutionaries.||11) ||12) The PBI does not confine its protection to individuals; it also tries to take care of institutions. Each day a PBI volunteer goes to the Credhos office to give it an international “presence”. Six Credhos workers were killed between 1992 and 1993, but since the PBI has offered them coverage, none has been murdered.||12) ||13) Although their physical presence is important, the volunteers know that the key to their strength lies in the contacts they have. “If I was just some “gringa” that happened to be following around a human rights worker, it would give them a certain amount of protection, but a very small amount,” Tessa says. ||13) ||14) The less dramatic, but just as effective, side to PBI’s work is lobbying. They have a team in Bogota that constantly meets with embassies, government representatives and, importantly, the army. ||14) ||15) In October Gabriel Torres, a worker with Credhos, was detained in Contagallo near Barrancabermeja by the army; he was falsely accused of possessing guerrilla leaflets. When the PBI heard about the arrest, the lobbying machinery was set in motion. The Dutch and Spanish ambassadors were called; they in turn called Colombia’s deputy defence minister. After a few hours, Torres was being taken from his cell to be transferred to Barrancabermeja, when a soldier appeared and wearily said: “Let him go, or else we’ll have those people calling us all day.”||15) ||16) Embassy support is vital, and calms the nerves of volunteers. “It gives me confidence,” Tessa says. “I know that these people support us and are willing to say in front of the government or the military, that they think that our work is very important.”||16) ||17) Fear is something the volunteers have to deal with each day. Inka Stock, a 25-year-old German volunteer, has nearly completed her year with the PBI in Colombia. Like most volunteers who come to the end of their contract, she is mentally and physically exhausted. She spent much of her time in Bogota, giving 24-hour coverage to Yanette Bautista, head of an organisation working with families of the disappeared.||17) ||18) “I was really scared to be with her. You could feel people around you. It drove you mad,” Inka says. Bautista was targeted by the military when, for the first time in Colombian history, an army general was sacked after being found responsible for the disappearance and death of her sister. Bautista has since fled the country, but the PBI’s assistance allowed her to stay on for three extra years.||18) ||19) The presence of the volunteers has transformed the way some organisations, such as Credhos, operate. “We have been more awkward, more dangerous than we were before 1992. They now respect our lives,” Bayther says. “The military threatens us with lawsuits. But now it’s difficult for them to try and kill us because of the Brigades.”||19) ||20) The volunteers in Barrancabermeja have spent hours analysing what happened with Calixto. Some human rights workers believe the attack was a message sent to warn PBI, but the gunmen seemed genuinely shocked to see the foreigners. As with everything the group does, their next move was thoroughly discussed and strategically planned. Last week, two months after the gunmen threatened Calixto, the team returned to Sabana de Torres with a commission including embassy staff and international human rights groups.||20) ||21) In their yearlong training, the volunteers are taught many things including how to deal with fear. Tessa, who is a British army officer’s daughter, says that she can now identify the source of potential danger and can analyse the situation. These days, she finds the most frightening thing about Colombia is being in a packed bus, hurtling along the pot-holed roads. Volunteers are taught about two distinct types of fear: of the darkness — the unknown; and of a wild dog — a recognisable danger, open to analysis. ||21) ||22) Hendrik reflects with a wry smile on this training. After his encounter with the gunmen, he jumped over the walls of the neighbours’ gardens to get to the house where he and Calixto would spend an uneasy night before leaving the town at daylight. As he was about to vault the last wall, a dog began to bark in the darkness. ||22) |