International solidarity

– Hey, and where are you from?

– “I’m from a department called Extremadura, it’s in southeast Spain, kind of like Valle del Cauca, and it’s on the border with Portugal”.

-“Oh, right, so it’s near Barcelona?”

– Nooo, not at all, it’s at the other end!”

That is how conversations normally start in Colombia with people who are curious about my accent.  Almost no one has heard of Extremadura, and everyone thinks that “extrema” and “dura” which mean extreme and hard, sound harsh, so I am always very motivated to explain the origins of this five syllable word that is an oddity from the start.

When I am clarifying, I tend to include some details about the people who live there, and what we do – apologies if this sounds like rancid patriotism – but talking about my land and its people makes my soul open up (ensancha el alma), like it says in the song by the Plasencian[1] group Extremoduro.[2] It’s the distance that helps me see it, see all of it with more perspective and realise that the details I don’t appreciate when I am actually there become relevant and important, especially in rural parts of Colombia that remind me of my land and make me feel proud of my origins: the strong bond with the earth.

Even though it is a humble and “poor” place, according to the yardstick of almost all numerical valuations of the region’s wellbeing, which only measure economic development – and assume that higher numbers are better – Extremadura continues to live by the commitment its citizens have with the people of the world, looking both beyond and within itself, because it is a land that also takes in migrant people, including Colombians.

The historic moment that Colombia is going through with the recently signed Peace Agreement and another one we hope is on the way, has emerged as the priority for assistance. Angel Calle, the director of the Extremaduran Agency for International Cooperation for Development (Aexcid) expresses it well:  “Extremadura will not look the other way when it comes to human rights victims”.  He was speaking in Bogota, as he listened to organisations accompanied by PBI, and on the inside I once again felt the resonance of the humble and caring origins I come from.

Calle’s interest in seeing, listening and feeling the needs of Colombian communities first hand was evident, and it will enable him to work together with them in his political role with the Extremaduran government Board.  And the needs aren’t just financial, no, they are also political.  It has become a priority for the local, regional and state governments to get to know the many realities facing impoverished communities.

Colombia’s communities are going through trying times, even in the post-agreement phase, as evidenced by all the recent human rights analyses, and that is why international accompaniment and observation needs to be more evident and stronger now in every respect. Why not talk directly to the farming associations, young people in leadership roles in their neighbourhoods, Afro-Colombian communities, women indigenous leaders, journalists working so hard for community radio stations and with women victims of the violence…?  Just as Katrine Ringhus, a PBI colleague present at the same meeting expressed so succinctly, “these exchanges are like gold”. And it is thanks to them that we can take genuine and accurate soundings on which to found a responsible analysis of what happens in Colombia, if the aim is really to cooperate, which is none other than working side by side to join our efforts in the same direction.

PBI, in its work of providing integral accompaniment (physical, political and psychosocial), creates the bonds for this kind of commitment, and gleans the information on which to found its advocacy, information which can only come from the people, from their hamlets and farms, from their Community Action Boards and countless meetings, from the land they respect and cultivate, from the rural schools… “The media rely on information from just one side, and because of that we need collaboration, feedback, political and legal arguments, research on the fulfilment of the Agreements, to continue insisting on the importance of accompanying Colombia during this stage of the journey towards peace”  Calle explains in detail.

The sofa and mid-afternoon coffee[3] are all ours for a couple of hours while the delegation from Extremadura avidly listens to the delicate explanations of the Colombian organisations.  And afterwards we get up enthusiastically because, even though the path ahead is uncertain and we do not know what the future holds, there is a lot for us to do together.  This was the commitment, not to let this opportunity we engaged with pass us by, to continue standing by the genuine transformation which will bolster two peoples, in Extremadura and Colombia, which may be geographically distant but have so much cause for unity.

A few days have passed since this meeting, and now from deep within this complex region of rural Antioquia it comes back to me when, once again, a person in farmers’ attire wants to know where I come from and why I chose to be in Colombia.

– “I’m from a department called Extremadura, it’s in southeast Spain, kind of like Valle del Cauca, and it’s on the border with Portugal”.

And as I repeat the phrase which is almost a mantra, he smiles and asks in his distinctive paisa[4] accent: “this international solidarity is such an important thing, right?”

Silvia Arjona Martin


[1]A person from the city of Plasencia, in Caceres province, northerne Extremadura.
[2]Extremoduro: Ama, ama, ama y ensancha el alma, from the album Deltoya. 1992.
[3]In Colombia, coffee is popularly known as tinto, which means ink, because of its dark colour.
[4]Paisa is the name given to the accent and culture of the region of Antioquia and includes parts of the Andes. The accent is very distinctive.

* Photo: Maite (PBI), Silvia (PBI), Erika (CPDH), Katrine (PBI), Jorge Molano (DhColombia) with two people from the region of Extremadura, Spain.


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