Saturday, May 9, 2009

Desplazados, Abogados, A Human Rights Case Made Clear

Tuesday, June 17th Quibdo, Colombia
A meeting was set up in this building that Tuesday morning, desplazados and the lawyers representing them were to brief us on a successful human rights training program. That sounds promising, so we stop in La Campesina Café beforehand for some coffee.

This is a cooperative café run by women who have been displaced. The café gives them a chance to make a steady wage, and help them gain some stability. The morning sun pours into the open space decorated with colorful murals.

A week in two days

We sit and are offered some juice, coffee and sweet rolls. It is a chance to collect our thoughts before the meeting. I have only been in this country since Sunday evening and the intensity of Colombia and our mission here is afecting me on many levels, my sense of time has been stretched. The hustle of the café provides a background to collect my thoughts as the staff goes about preparing for another busy day of providing nourishing meals to the busy people of Quibdo.

The meeting is held in a basement room, dank and screened on one side, but open to a view of the Atrato River which flows behind the building. The table is crowded with a large group of mostly men, some of them in suit and tie. The abogados (lawyers) have been filing denunciations and petitions on the behalf of the desplazados.

The lawyers are working for social justice

A smartly dressed young lawyer, Antonio, introduces us to the people gathered here as important people for a powerful organization in the United States. Spanish was becoming more easily understood now that I had been immersed in the language, but I was worried that he was giving the assembled desplazados the idea that we were able to bring about some change because of our affiliations.

When one of the young guys at the meeting is asked what the program has done to help him, he shows a piece of paper with his name on it, it is a certificate from the human rights training he went through. The value of the training is in the empowerment it gives to these young desplazados.

They may not have a great deal of school learning, but they are very well spoken about their rights as citizens of Colombia. Knowledge is power, and it becomes an important part of their new lives.

Some of these young adults have been here since they were children and may have been part of the group that pressed into Quibdo in 1997. The government housed them in El Coloseo (a stadium) for two years and provided no food or water. Now many are living in some of the public housing developments we’ll visit tomorrow before our departure for Bogota.

My sympathies can't right a massive injustice

As they spoke about the situation they were in, I chastise myself. My assumption is that these people, with little education, cannot be speaking in the strings of multi-syllabic phrases used by social justice advocates. But they are, and it’s not rote memorization. It’s practical knowledge to them, the key to their fight for the better life they deserve.

I see the hope in their faces, I feel inadequate, they are well-versed in this complex legal situation. I struggle to keep up with the non-conversational Spanish. I spent several weeks before my trip translating Spanish documents on these topics. It made me a better listener. But it was something that demanded the rapt attention of a student. The more I pay attention, the more I feel the need to do something meaningful to help.

Not just my Spanish speaking and Spanish listening—all senses are needed to comprehend!

I also wanted to absorb the nuances of body language of those around me, again I got the overwhelming feeling that we were the focus of their hope at this point in time. We must be able to help them, I was aware of my own powerlessness in the face of the saga of the displaced.

As my feelings overwhelmed me, the rains began to fall outside the screened open end of the room, the sound of pounding of water on the flowing river. Like a baptism, I imagined it absolving me of responsibility for the hopes of these earnest, smart desplazados. An illusion I can no longer harbor or indulge.


© Copyright 2009 Guy Arceneaux All rights reserved

No comments: