For over 10 years PBI has accompanied Berenice Celeyta; human rights defender, active leader and tireless spokeswoman for the social movement in both Cali and nationally.
Two years ago we began a pre-accompaniment process with the Association for Social Research and Action (Nomadesc), of which Berenice is President, culminating in the signing of a formal accompaniment agreement. For a year now we have also been accompanying the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission’s missionary team in the Valle del Cauca. These accompaniments, amongst other factors, led to our decision to open an office in Cali.
Cauca and Valle del Cauca extend from the Pacific to the Andes mountain range, a region that has seen “its fair share of the recent armed confrontation” according to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (Codhes).
I joined the Medellin team in June 2010, back when the idea of undertaking a more in-depth exploration of south-west Colombia was taking root. From meetings and accompaniments in the zone, from one decision to another, step-by-step we deepened our analysis and in March 2011, finally opened an office in Cali. From the terrace of our new house, I can see the surrounding Cali Mountains as I reflect on the road and work that brought to where we are today.
I remember the heat from our first visits to Cali, days filled getting to know its neighbourhoods, visiting apartments, analysing security conditions of potential lodgings. I remember my first supper at home with Dan, another volunteer from my team, at the beginning of what was known as the period of “rotation”. For a year we were always coming and going between Medellin and Cali, ensuring that there were at least two people in the south at all times, but never the same pair. We would leave with messages from our teammates staying in Medellin – “Safe journey Alice! See you in three weeks! Say hi to everyone! – before returning to find a slightly changed team, as a result of the rotation and the events that had taken place during our absence. And then it would be; “Hi Alice!! Back already? Time flies! How did it go? Did you manage to sleep on the bus?” And ah, the bus, that nine hour long bus ride.. We were never quite able to reach agreement regarding which company went the fastest, or showed the least awful films, had the most comfortable seats or most legroom for us volunteers who tend exceed the average size of the local population by a good margin.
And so here we are. From the heights of northern Cauca we can observe the beauty of the La Salvajina reservoir, built in the seventies, but which has affected so many Afro-descendent, indigenous and small farmer communities from the region. From the heat of the Valle forest, as we digest our third meal of rice, fish and “papa china” (Eddoe) of the day, we watch the Calima river. Its banks have witnessed crimes that terrorized entire populations, forcing them to flee to the marginalized neighbourhoods of the unsuitably named portal town of Buenaventura or “good fortune”. The forests attract those wanting to cut them down, the rivers those wishing to divert them or build barrages to produce electricity, while the mountains attract those wanting rip them open, to dig out the silver, coal or gold hidden inside. The fiscal and contractual benefits of the tax-free areas established by the government attract all. These territories, so rich in natural resources attract many, who are later forcefully expelled.
I will carry with me three images from this unforgettable experience. The eastern mountains of Medellin at six in the evening, a time when the red light of the sun blended with the green of the woods; the pitch black slopes surrounding the La Salvajina reservoir, not a single household light in sight, illuminated by the pale glow of the moon; and the snow capped Nevado del Huila, which for a couple of hours magically emerged from the sea of clouds which had surrounded if for seven years. Its beauty made us stop the bus in which we were traveling that November afternoon, along with fifty other people, on our return from a commemoration event for a massacre which had taken place on the road to Buenaventura.