My First Ten Days as an Accompanier with the Urabá Team (PBI Colombia)
I am Itsaso and part of the PBI field team in Urabá. I am 31 years old. Yep… I am one of the oldest team members and am feeling nostalgic, happy and proud of myself for everything I have done over the last almost seven months as a part of the Urabá field team. I felt so many emotions, uncertainty, doubts, fears, and eagerness when I got here that I want to look back, remember those first days, and try to feel them again. So, I will light a bit of incense, make a cup of tea, and give myself a little massage before I start remembering and initiate this trip through time. I think about why I began this new project… to learn up close about the resistance and struggles of human rights defenders and, from my position and work with PBI, to accompany these initiatives to build a more peaceful world.
Ready, set… Here we go!
The airplane from Bogotá lands in Carepa, the municipality with the airport closest to the place I will spend the next 18 months. I am deboarding the airplane with my teammate and as soon as I place my foot on that first stair, I feel drops of sweat run down my forehead. It is really hot and it si a humid heat that is difficult to “accept” after the cool Bogotá weather. At arrivals another teammate is waiting for us, gives us a welcoming hug, and introduces us to one of the taxi drivers, and we start our journey to Apartadó. We arrive at the house, which is close to a park, providing us with a breath of cool air and tranquility. The rest of the team welcomes us with affection and a surprise: homemade pizzas for supper! We start getting to know each other right away.
The other new teammate and I have a free day. At the house there are two bicycles, one is a bit peculiar. I had never ridden a bike like it. It is one of those old bikes that you have to backpedal to brake and it is covered with dirt (either because it is old or because of how the poor thing was used). Together we started exploring town, stopping to rest from time to time and, during one stop, we have a tasty fruit juice at a park full of flowers. Under the scorching sun and soaked with sweat, we see the stadium, the women’s and youth center, the municipal library, the bus terminal, and streets filled with stores and clerks inviting people to enter and not miss the “last deal of the day.” Later, we go home, totally exhausted, and meet the woman who helps with cleaning and lunch. That night, back at home, we joined all of the team and some friends, and we enjoyed a lovely “parche” (plan or group of friends) dancing, talking, and listening to music.
Since that day, we have spent many nights together watching movies, making desserts, sharing stories, playing Catan or a peculiar version of Parcheesi.
Day one of training. First, we learn how the house works and the agreements for living together, and then we focus on the local context. I feel nervous and, at the same time excited to learn Urabá’s history. My teammates are well prepared and it is all very interesting. What a unique place: a banana region, political and commercial interests, the history of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó—victim of numerous massacres and other serious crimes—the development of paramilitarism in the region, the dynamics of the different guerrilla groups, etc. Later, they give me a book about Colombian history, and, without a second thought, I start reading. I don’t know how long I carried it with me from one place to another, enjoying the curiosities of a territory as diverse as Colombia.
I think that after the training and self-training, which has yet to end, I began to understand why this area has been hit so hard by the violence and how, at the same time, the communities have developed so many alternative proposals and in resistance to the armed conflict. Specifically, this team accompanies the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP) in the Chocó part of Urabá: in the river basins of the Curbaradó, Jiguamiandó, and Cacarica rivers. Some of these are Humanitarian Zones and Biodversity Zones, inhabited by Indigenous, Afro-descendant, mixed, and peasant communities. We also accompany the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó in the Antioquia section of Urabá. We have accompanied them since 1997, when they declared themselves to be neutral in the conflict and they have resisted in the territory using non-violence to respond to the many attacks over the last 25 years. We also accompany Dh Colombia in the region. This is a lawyer’s organization with its office in Bogotá. Here in the region, they provide legal support to the Peace Community, to recover and remain in their territory.
I feel a bit saturated with so much information. I already knew that being a part of the PBI field team was not going to be easy and that it would have its complication, but, I don’t know… all the names, abbreviations, folders, forms… I ask myself if I will ever be able to learn all this and I share the concern with my teammate, who is also new. She feels the same, which makes me feel better. We have a training on how to “act in the field” and, when we finish, my colleague and I spend a while role playing response to different situations. Will I be ready to put this into practice? I have so many doubts.
First weekly meeting. I finally experience what we learned in Bogotá about the horizontal structure and consensus. I feel a bit nervous and lost at the beginning, although I immediately understand the group’s dynamic, the meeting’s objective. I start to feel more comfortable and participate. After the meeting, we continue with more training. Honestly, I have too many concepts and abbreviations in my head. Will I have to do all this? My teammates tell us not to worry, that it is a lot but that little by little, we will learn how each thing works.
I remember reading so many articles during those initial days. I watched videos, documentaries… and a few movies at night to continue learning about the context. I remember a book that helped me understand much better, “Colombia: Inside the Ñabyrinth” by Jenny Pearce and “Ahí dejo esos fierros” by Alfredo Molano. These two books allowed me to understand the region much better, its experiences, its complexities, its heartbreaking stories, and also its infinite forms of resistance and to build a better world to live in.
One of PBI’s values is non-partisanship. At PBI we act with independence and in non-partisan manner. As a brigadista, I have this clarity: non-partisanship does not mean neutrality or passiveness in the face of injustice or individual and collective human rights violations. I have already seen this in the Peace Community which, identifying themselves as neutral, has a political position that confronts violence and resists in the territory to build another world that is possible, where a respect for human rights is normal and daily. I am thinking about non-partisanship, because today are the presidential elections in Colombia. The loudspeakers from the electoral campaigns have gone silent. Today I share some responsibilities with other teammates and I am in charge of the phone. In the afternoon we turn on the television and watch the results: Francia Márquez and Gustavo Petro have won and, apparently, according to the communities, change is possible in Colombia… a caravan of motorcycles go by the front of the house, joyfully celebrating the election results.
I have a free day and I decide to go to Turbo, located in the subregion of Urabá in the department of Antioquia and close to Apartadó, between Necoclí and Currulao. It isn’t a bad thing to disconnect from so much information and to go out to explore nearby towns. I feel nervous while I leave the house “Which bus should I take? Where will it drop me off?” I ask around and they explain how much the fare costs and where I should get off. They tell me that it is better to catch a motorcycle taxi because the beach is kind of far from the bus station. The sun still isn’t too strong (they say that the sun is very hot in Turbo) and I walk. I walk all the way down and sit in a calm area to read and write about my first experiences over these first days. Several friendly people come up to greet me, but I continue reading. After a while I go to the beach and swim. Its true, the sun in Turbo is beating down hard. I then gather my things and catch the bus home. I am exhausted when I reach Apartadó. I take a cold and refreshing shower, one those showers you are thankful for when you are hotter than your body is used to. I put on some comfortable clothes and rest, happy with the experience.
My teammate moves to another bedroom. Up to that point we had shared a room. A room with limited air flow. I reorganize my things, decorate my room the way I like it, I download the music I like onto my phone and I also enjoy the silence, something rare in a house with so many people each day, a house where we live and work.
I must accept, after having been here for seven months, on the one hand, it is well and good to share a room, but it is also important to have your privacy and personal space.
Today is an important day because it is the first time, since I arrived, that accompanied people will come to the house, and I am lucky enough to be at the meeting with them. I am finally able to listen to them and learn about their needs and analysis of the region’s context. I haven’t visited many of the areas they name and or seen the issues firsthand, but I am sure that in the coming weeks or months I will be able ask questions and analyze situations with the organizations, as my teammates are doing today. And that motivates me.
My first accompaniment in the field. It is hard to explain the whirlwind of emotions that I feel. I prepare with a veteran on the team (they have been on the team for a year and half already), packing our backpack with: PBI flags to make our presence visible in the community we will be visiting, magnetic logos to make the car we will use visible, bottled water, food, a blank notebook, pens, rubber boots, a rain poncho, a book to read at night, and enthusiasm, a lot of enthusiasm. The accompaniment seeks to provide protection and show an international presence in La Holandita, one of the Peace Community settlements, during the Peasant University. Many other communities from different regions of the country will participate to share knowledge on issues like food sovereignty, health, land, and territory. I am with my teammates attentively listening to the welcome and presentation of the agenda and logistics for the three days of work that await them. That night I can barely sleep I am so excited. Also, early the next morning, while it is still dark, I want to get up to accompany the community members as they remember and share mass for Eduar Lancheros, a defender of the peoples’ rights, a philosopher, and one of the souls behind this epic initiative that is the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó.
Getting to know and accompany individuals whose lives and bodies defend the territory is something that still moves me, even after seven months. As you can imagine, this day was full of spaces for reflection and dialogue. I accompanied and listened to everything I could, remembering that one of PBI principles is non-interference. On the one hand, it wanted to be very open, close, human, and friendly, talking with people and on the other hand, keep in mind the non-intervention policy. I remember a member of another international organization that provides permanent accompaniment to the Peace Community, who saw me writing (my idea was to write an article about happened during the University of Peace and Resistance—also known as the Peasant University) and they told me, “at the beginning you will always be writing, but you will relax… this is just at the beginning.” I guess it is the excitement. Now, seven months have gone by and yes, to a certain extent, I don’t’ write as much as I did that day… but I continue writing down my emotions, reflections, lessons learned, challenges, and experiences.
Seven months have gone by, and I fondly remember a phrase from a professor and friend in Euskadi (Basque Country, Spanish State): “PBI is a school” and it’s true. I learn every day, I am deconstructing myself, reflecting, improving myself to accompany, in the best way possible, all these people who put all their energy, strength, years, and lives to build another world that is possible.
Postscript: I have written four pages of a dictionary of Colombian words: here are the first three entries: chévere (cool), tinto (black coffee), and parche (plan or group of friends).You can read the rest if you come join us and we can continue building this project based on consensus and a horizontal structure.