PBI interviews Helena Manrique, who up until recently worked in the area of Reconstruction of the Social Fabric
PBI: You have been with PBI for three years. Tell us what you have been working on.
Helena Manrique: I have worked in the area of Reconstruction of the Social Fabric (ARTS), which has the basic objective of strengthening the protection capabilities of accompanied as well as un-accompanied organizations. We also seek to accompany, strengthen emotional coping skills, and perform emotional accompaniment in particularly serious situations. On a day-to-day basis, internally within the Brigades, we keep the Project updated about what is happening around the country, above all, security matters related to those we accompany and looking at how we can use that part of our work as feedback for the protection strategies that we use in accompaniments day-to-day. Also, the possibility to work with organizations that are not being accompanied is of great help to our analysis of the social movement and the creation of support, collaboration, and empowerment networks.
PBI: What have been, for you, the most beautiful or successful experiences?
Helena: There have been many. It is a bit difficult to summarize them. One of the most beautiful has been to resume our relationship with Association of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared (ASFADDES) and work with them in Medellin, as well as with their chapters. This organization has been with us wince the establishment of the Brigades in this country and I think it is important to maintain the relationship and learn from them.
Each organization is an infinite world from which we have learned a great many things. For example, the deep-rooted relationship that was developed by the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Association (CCAJAR), seeing how there was every time a greater openness to psychosocial work and how there is now a place in the agendas for protection and self-care. This openness to sensibility, I don’t know if it has been successful, but it has served to show that the work has planted seeds and that people want to continue with their work as human rights defenders.
PBI: Do you have a specific moment or situation in mind that was difficult to overcome?
Helena: For me, one of the most complicated situations is to accompany searches for family members of disappeared detainees. We have worked with many organizations and I was stunned by the capability for resistance and love that the family members have. I am hurt and terrorized by their stories and still do not understand where they find the strength and hope to continue. Personally, in these accompaniments—in many cases—I felt that I could only offer solidarity and affection, that I had nothing to contribute.
PBI: How do the threatened leaders and defenders face fear and distress? How does the ARTS focus area support emotional protection?
Helena: The defenders, communities, everyone faces this fear in a very different way with respect to coping strategies, that is, it depends on many factors: if they are communities, grassroots organizations, or lawyers’ or regional associations. In Colombia, after so many years of war, people have developed ways to cope that shock us culturally, for example a sense of humor so sarcastic that they are capable of partying and laughing at even the most dramatic situations.
One of the functions of the ARTS area is to try to listen carefully to the coping strategies themselves. The point is to not try to invent or teach anything new, but rather create forums for helping people to share their strategies, so that they may learn from one another and spark insights. I believe that ARTS’ function is to create forums for people to feel free to share profound things as they face horror and fear. And from there raise questions to see how we can continue to create new ones.
PBI: What has it meant to you to accompany defenders and communities?
Helena: Personally it has been a constant, almost daily, experience of learning values that is difficult to summarize. I think I will need some time to understand exactly how much it has changed my life. But yes, what I can see is, for example, the great love of life people have, how they bet on that which creates and gives life in the midst of horror, adversity, threats, impunity… For me, it does involve looking at other realities through the lens of what I have learned with the defenders and the communities.
PBI: What does the reconstruction of the social fabric mean in your day-to-day work?
Helena: The title of the position is very broad and ambitious, so we must understand its core function: not to do workshops, nor talks, nor emotional accompaniment, but rather, to go beyond.
And part of this task, which does not only belong to this area but also to Peace Brigades, is to help bring together, little-by-little, relationships between people, trust, and common intentions. It is a massive objective. Sometimes it is something as simple as helping people understand that they have forums they can trust, forums in which they can talk about their worries and feel that it is possible to be complicit with the person next to you.
PBI: What have you learned from the defenders that you have met and accompanied throughout the years?
Helena: Workshops provide a forum for people to share what they have lived and learned. One day, at one of them, Alirio Uribe said: “We have been in this fight for many years. Many of our own have been murdered along the way. We have suffered much, but we enjoy our time with friends. It would be contradictory to be unhappy being human rights defenders because we are defenders of life itself. Be careful and don’t let the war take away your joy, because they can take away everything, but the one thing that they cannot is our right to joy.”
And that is why I think that, no matter what they try, they will not destroy this social movement.