Why did PBI set up a project in Colombia? Janey Skinner remembers that year in 1993

In 1993, Janey Skinner participated in the PBI exploratory commission to Colombia[1]

Colombia 1993

“Alfonso was 28 years old with a wife and kids. He was a displaced person from the village of los Alijibes in El Carmen de Chucuri, Colombia, who had lived in San Pablo for the last two years. He had received a letter from a paramilitary group, signed ‘Palizada.’ The letter stated that the paramilitary group had nothing against Alfonso anymore and that he could return home without anything happening to him. Well, he returned to El Carmen and 15 days later he was assassinated.”

Juan, also from the Chucuri region, told this story to explain why he remains a displaced person without any permanent place to live.

He explains: “In that area there are about 60 paramilitary bases…. When they go into a village, they go together with the Army. If someone doesn’t want to take up arms (and join them), they give him a day to leave. They don’t give him a chance to take anything with him, or sell anything. That’s how they steal the land from us.”

When he first fled Juan sought refuge in the Peasant Shelter in Barrancabermeja, the main urban center of the conflictive Magdalena Medio region. Unable to return home, he moved to one of the hundreds of shantytowns around Colombia, shelter to over 300,000 people displaced by paramilitary, military, and guerrilla violence.

Forced displacement and other human rights violations led to the visit by an exploratory commission of Peace Brigades International in 1993. PBI provides a nonviolent nonpartisan international presence in areas around the world.

Four organizations familiar with PBI’s work in Central America invited us to investigate setting up a long-term project in Colombia: the Intercongregational Commmission for Justice and Peace (and the Peasant Shelter), the Regional Committee for Human Rights (Credhos), the Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared (Asfaddes), and the Center for Cultural and Social Development (Codecal). For eight weeks, PBI met with over a hundred organizations, researchers, government officials, embassies, church leaders, and displaced communities to see whether international accompaniment, a method that has been successful in other countries, could offer some measure of protection to those threatened by political violence in Colombia. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Mayors, lawyers, priests and many others agreed that a PBI presence could make an important contribution to a peaceful resolution to the conflicts at least in certain regions of Colombia. One human rights lawyer said, “International protection is the only kind that works.”

One of the members of the PBI exploratory commission relates this story:

“One day in Barrancabermeja, we were walking through the city with two members of Credhos. While we were walking, the two people were telling us of some of the horrors that had occurred.

‘Last year on that corner a doctor was killed…. In that store three young people were harassed…. In May, two mutilated cadavers were found in this park….’

When we arrived at the restaurant one of the Credhos members smiled saying that they had enjoyed walking with us because for more than a year they had been afraid to walk around in the city and had always gone everywhere by taxi and in fear. We realized the powerful impact a foreign presence could have, even in small matters: We had enabled these people to walk down a main street of Barrancabermeja at midday and feel comfortable.

There were many small indications like this one that illustrated what everyone has been telling us: That international humanitarian presence can help keep open a political space for which many people are struggling and even giving their lives.”

Hearing this need PBI’s International Council agreed in January to establish an observer project in Colombia, contingent upon finding the funding and personnel necessary to carry it out.

Given the magnitude of the conflicts in Colombia and the high quality of work already being done there in favor of peace and human rights, PBI’s proposal is modest. We propose to establish a team of eight to twelve volunteers working in at least two regions of Colombia to provide international protective accompaniment and “peace education” workshops. In addition, we would report back to our home countries through our monthly bulletin, highlighting not only the problems in Colombia, but especially the active nonviolent efforts to resolve them.

Janey Skinner


[1] The article was published in 1993 in the Colombian Human Rights Network, Oct. to Nov. 1993, Vol. 5, no. 4

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