[Soacha, Bogotá: the stakes. The aftermath of forced internal displacement; the CEDECOL Peace Commission responds.]
Three days later, back in Bogotá and still heavy with our witness in the Magdalena Medio, we viewed sites where CEDECOL Peace Commission affiliates work with the multi-generational victims of forced displacement.
Organized communities targeted by armed actors—like the farmers of El Garzal—commonly assert that they would rather die on their own land than flee.
The fate that these campesinos deem worse than death is displacement to a place like Soacha.
Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced citizens in the world.* They ring the major cities in hellish shantytowns—labeled invasiones by the traditionally housed—where they struggle to survive, much less maintain their sense of dignity and identity.
In addition to facing inhuman levels of poverty, social stigma, and identity death, forcibly displaced persons in these settlements have merely traded one brand of violent threat for another.
Soacha is ranked #1 in Colombia for the highest number of residents who came there after being internally displaced; it is additionally ranked #4 in the number of its own residents it displaces due to violence. Gangs and paramilitary control wide swaths of these encampments, filling the vacuum that government has been unable—or unwilling—to occupy. They battle each other in the open over territory and conduct drug deals in public. (Even the precarious geography of these settlements fuels violence: one aid worker explained that when recent flooding created mudslides in Soacha, fighting intensified as armed groups contested the new parameters of a shifted landscape.)
We were informed that street combatants currently fall into four main categories: active paramilitaries; “demobilized” paramilitaries who have disbanded from their units but have gone on to organize BACRIM (“criminal bands”); so-called “neo-paramilitaries”: members of former paramilitary groups that were demobilized who have stayed together in similar structures with similar objectives rather than “retire” or join BACRIM or common street gangs; and ordinary street gangs—which are becoming more organized, and reaching out for alliances with paramilitary affiliates in a bid to conduct business more openly.**
These armed actors routinely target boys for coerced recruitment as early as 9 and 10 years old.
They are powerful enough to frame themselves as a quasi-government; the police in Soacha entrench themselves in a literal bunker.
We arrived in Soacha during a “social cleansing” period; five people had already been assassinated in the previous seven days. “These come in seasons,” one of our Bogotá partners explained in a low voice, briefly taking over for a local director after an exterior door was closed for privacy. A target list of social undesirables (suspected homosexuals, addicts, prostitutes, petty criminals, the HIV positive, etc.) is posted beforehand around town. An early curfew is publicized as well, enforceable by murder; it makes no difference if a victim is returning from a job or schooling. In a city that churned through seven different mayors just from 2010 to 2012, these bloody purges are imagined by armed actors to legitimize their presence: they frame themselves as powerful authorities protecting and serving the common good of a community abandoned by the government.
As in remote rural areas of Colombia, civil society—not the state—is the first, and sometimes only, line of defense against oblivion and death.
If Soacha is the city with highest population of displaced persons in Colombia, the true numbers are even higher, since government agencies render them invisible—and deny them access to services—by systematically under-counting them. It has largely been left to non-governmental organizations to provide not just relief, but recognition. On our day in Soacha, we visited two such professional service sites affiliated with the CEDECOL Peace Commission.
James Baldwin wrote, in a memoir on race and civil rights,
People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.”
The level of material deprivation in Soacha is so appalling that any agency could be forgiven for focusing solely on immediate physical needs. However, the Peace Commission affiliated programs we witnessed are clearly informed by an understanding that peace at the societal level is built only on the possibility of dignity for the whole individual.
In the U.S., community organizing programs with an interfaith, “relational” bent emphasize the goal of establishing personal connection in the course of individual and public meetings.
From our first day in Bogotá, a striking number of advocates matter-of-factly disclosed to us that they came to their work after a childhood spent hearing the stories of displacement from parents or grandparents. I began trying to see, when I could, that we asked the people we met how they came to their vocation.***
At Los Pinos Comedor, a children’s soup kitchen that fronts a multi-service agency in the Los Pinos area of Soacha’s neighborhood of Altos de Cazucá, I asked the director: “Why do you travel two hours each way to Soacha, when there are so many poor people right in the slums of Bogotá who need help?”
Maria’s answer was not one of remembrance, but of being sought out, seeking, and finding. She had been working in accompanying Mennonite church leaders across Colombia, and then one day an indigenous family showed up in her office in Bogotá with a simple plea: “Come to Soacha and see how we live.” It was a life-altering moment:
I witnessed their needs, saw families very alone, and others afraid to go to them. In Bogotá, it’s easier to get people to go to serve those in need. In Soacha, the church runs projects that serve those who feel abandoned by the state…we are here to plant the seeds of love, hope, and solidarity.”
Beyond childhood hunger relief, the professionals at Los Pinos Comedor task themselves with addressing three areas of assistance to the community, as outlined by the director:
Psychological recovery, rebuilding the social fabric, and emergency humanitarian aid.”
Tutoring is provided to the children, and trauma recovery groups for entire families are scheduled four times per week. There is intentional focus on building peace from the ground up, from community-wide campaigns like Pan y Paz (“Bread and Peace”) to working with parents on family violence, since, as it was put to us,
peace is an urgent social program in Soacha.”
Three armed groups currently war for control of the Los Pinos neighborhood.
Staff of the comedor are members of a Soacha Roundtable Working Group, a monthly conference of international, local, and state organizations serving the area that was started in 2009. They conduct a political analysis of the ever-changing power dynamics of the neighborhood, and make sure they are not duplicating each other’s efforts.
Maria clarified the mission of Los Pinos Comedor and associated programs like it in Soacha:
We don’t want to replace the government. Our goal is to teach the community how to announce, and denounce.”
We ended our day at Creciendo Juntos—“Rising Together”—in the Rincón del Lago barrio of Soacha’s community of Sucre. It is another Mennonite initiative affiliated with the CEDECOL Peace Commission to provide professional services in education, community building, and psycho-social accompaniment at the neighborhood level. They are currently open only half-time due to a lack of resources, but have grown to serve 150 children from ages 5 to 17 as well as their families. As with the mothers of Los Pinos Comedor, over the last twelve years of operation at Creciendo Juntos, the residents of the community it serves—including ten local youth—have grown into assuming key leadership roles.
Given the wide age range served, programs at Creciendo Juntos range from play therapy for the youngest, to workshops on sexual and reproductive rights for high schoolers, but
all offerings are designed with the agenda of teaching non-violence.”
Programs for older children are especially designed to focus on personal development as well as peace. In addition to computer science, sports, music, and dance offerings, Creciendo Juntos also boasts a small recording studio. Some of the young adult programs are built from hip hop and urban culture, including break-dancing and graffiti art;
arts and music are presented as alternatives to violence.”
Creciendo Juntos has worked with Justapaz to bring in a hip hop artist from Bogota to work with their youth, and recently organized an evening peace concert that drew 300 participants and also included urban dance and graffiti art demonstrations. Even though youth from different neighborhoods were in attendance—a potential tinderbox for conflict—the evening passed peacefully, and there was a reported dip in youth violence in the area afterwards. They hope to secure funding for another event like it on September 21 of this year, the UN’s International Day of Peace.
Like students everywhere, the children of Creciendo Juntos gravitate towards art and music; however, they also possess a keen social and political consciousness urgently in search of an outlet. A workshop on public policy was recently held—by special request of the youth leaders there. And even their chosen music programming is more than it may seem at first glance: in the impoverished south of Bogota, hip hop has had a history as the protest music of the young since it was introduced from the U.S. in the 1980s.
One umbrella group for the hip hop artists of Soacha—and the name of the recent hip hop concert for peace—is Diplomácia Poética—“Poetic Diplomacy.”
We were informed that the artists that operate out of Creciendo Juntos call themselves Voces Ocultas—”Hidden Voices:”
The youth here use hip hop in a positive way. It is a way for them to describe what they see around them in their neighborhoods, and they use it to ‘make proposals.’”
They announce, and denounce.
This summer, Voces Ocultas released their first official video on YouTube, XXI Siglo (“21 Century”). It features hip hop and dance grounded in the landscape of the neighborhood. The young artists and spectators featured are ebullient—and powerful.
On June 29, Voces Ocultas departed from the margins of Soacha into the heart of Bogotá for a CD release party in the historic Candelaria district.
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
At least in the U.S., the poor do not individually think of themselves as “the least of these.” In fact, outside of the context of powerful political action they do not often even personally identify as “the poor.”
In Soacha, according to one program leader, few Colombians they encounter who have suffered internal displacement will call themselves “displaced persons”:
The families in our programs will say, ‘We live here for economic or family reasons.’ Only five or six have said, ‘We are in Soacha because we were displaced.’”
If inequality—not poverty—is the ultimate motor of war, then the rural and urban churches of CEDECOL are playing the long game for peace.
* Reports from 2009-2011 list Colombia trailing just behind Sudan in the official number of displaced persons, until they finally surpassed the war-ravaged African nation in 2012 with nearly 5 million—230,000 of whom were displaced just that year. For more background on why this number is still increasing even as more of the guerrilla conflict has been pacified in recent years, see this (pointedly titled) article from 2009: If Colombia Is Winning Its War, Why the Fleeing?
**To add to any confusion: the labels “neo-paramilitary” and BACRIM are often used interchangeably; an explanation of the politics and legal implications of whether or how the two are distinguished by the state (and the consequences for their victims) would require a separate essay.
***As a church-based delegation, even many of our secular meetings felt like they took on a pastoral feel behind closed doors. One Colombian leader told us by way of introduction, “You are messengers of peace—I share this vocation with you. I am a follower of Christ; it is a clandestine vocation of mine.” At our pre-meeting for a visit by a politician active on one of the legislative peace committees, we worked on a list of questions and advocacy points that focused on policy and the agencies we had already visited. I added towards the end, “If we have any time left, someone should ask him if he has a personal story behind why he does this work.” A delegation member made sure we asked, and the private conversation that resulted was one of the most memorable of our trip.
****We arrived in Soacha with hearts still full from our visit with the people of El Garzal. I naively asked one of the program directors on what grounds it was possible for victimized campesinos to be stigmatized.
Some Colombians share the same essentialist view of their unfashionable (and proximate) poor that we hold towards our own. In the search for reason and comfort these displaced persons are viewed—whether with open contempt or self-conscious benevolence—as having done, or been, something that justifies their current situation. Stigmatized poverty is a forced—and enforced—exile into the status of “other,” even if nothing else has changed.
In circles where overt prejudice is itself stigmatized (here and abroad), progressive, feel-good bigotry is couched in the language of low expectations, and “poor choices” that simply must have been made (or not) at some point, to explain away the misfortune of situational or generational poverty.
Uncomfortable Christianity requires the courage to bear the humility required to see with clearer eyes not only what is but what always was, and to imagine the potential for what still must be—at both the individual and the societal level. Compassion flatters the self; empathy terrifies—and demands a response. Here is the ominous promise of the kingdom of God on earth: justice and peace shall kiss. Christ was clear that the literal feeding of the hungry with loaves and fishes was never meant to be the main course. We are, after all, the faith that congratulates itself each year for recognizing that sometimes the rightful king rides in on a donkey and wears a crown of thorns.
The stigma experienced by displaced persons in Soacha illustrates that it makes no difference if a change in socio-economic status happens overnight, at gunpoint. They are widely perceived as drug addicts, criminals, guerrillas, or otherwise inferior to the non-displaced. Some Colombians actually believe that forced displacement is no longer a problem and that DPs are surely just the ordinary underclass, invading urban areas with their filthy shantytowns in search of government handouts and criminal mischief. (One upper middle class woman—a business owner in Bogotá—was asked by a researcher for her opinion of the internally displaced; she replied, “There are still displaced people? I thought that they all went back to the fields. Well, anyways, you can’t believe what they say.”) Some report being spat on by other urban residents, and many have found it impossible to find employment. It is not uncommon for displaced persons to lie about their status when seeking jobs—they conceal what they supposedly are in order to preserve high-stakes public spaces where they might still be visible as who they are.