'If I die before you do'

October 3, 2011

Despite a warm, sunny afternoon in Colombia's Valle de Cauca region, the words of Juan's poem, titled "If I die before you do," sent chills down my spine and tears to my eyes.

Juan's eloquent poetry, written with only a third-grade education, portrays the nightmare that he and his family have been living ever since paramilitary groups began occupying their small town in southwestern Colombia. When Juan was forced to flee his home and leave his wife and two children alone in the house because of direct threats against his life, paramilitaries took advantage of Juan's absence to occupy his home with his wife and kids and wait for his return. After members of the paramilitary began to show torture videos to Juan's 5-year-old son, his wife, in desperation, escaped with their children. Currently living in hiding in the safe house where I met Juan and his family, they are struggling to get by as they live in fear of being found, yet haven't lost hope of returning to their village someday.

In August, I spent 10 days in Colombia with a Witness For Peace delegation. I met with many people who have lived through equally horrific experiences in a country plagued by a complex war that has left more than five million people displaced and tens of thousands dead.

Fueling the fire are influences from both multinational corporations and the U.S. government. In 2007, Chiquita Banana admitted to paying off the AUC paramilitaries (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), a group designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization in 2001. Taxpayers in the United States have contributed more than 7 billion dollars in military aid to the Colombian war on drugs since the year 2000; however that money has proven to be a wasted investment, considering that cocaine production has increased in recent years, along with massive displacements.

As I continued my journey through Colombia alongside other delegation members, we listened in disbelief as the women of a small Afro-Colombian village recounted the horrific story of the massacre carried out by paramilitary groups in which they lost seven community members. As trucks loaded with cargo roared by on the highway next to our humble meeting space in an outside wooden patio, the women explained that paramilitary groups had committed similar massacres in other communities located beside the only major highway connecting the main port city of Buenaventura to the rest of Colombia in an attempt to forcefully displace the communities, widen the highway, and make way for an expected increase in commerce pending the approval of the proposed free trade agreement between the United States and Colombia.

The implementation of such a trade agreement would have devastating effects for Colombian small farmers who would no longer be able to compete with the price of subsidized imported goods from the United States. With no other viable options in the agricultural market, many small farmers would be forced to either abandon their land in a country already plagued by displacement, or make a living in the only other profitable market available to them, the cultivation of coca for the production of cocaine.

When Juan shared his poem with us, his words hit me like a jolt of electricity: "You are the only hope we have left. Please tell your government to stop sending Colombia military aid and weapons. They are only causing more violence, death and suffering for our families. Our dream is to live in peace and without fear."

Juan's yearning is just one of millions of cries for an end to the misery that is devastating a beautiful country, people and culture. Juan's dream depends on my actions. Juan's life depends on your actions. The future of Colombia depends on our actions. May we help Juan's words to ring out loud over the painful sounds of a war-torn country, and a people suffering death and injustice.

--David Shenk is a volunteer with the Mennonite Mission Network and works with the Colombian Refugee Project, a shared ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Ecuador and the Quito Mennonite Church, which addresses refugees' long-term needs. It operates out of a Mennonite Church in Quito, Ecuador.--