Connect with us
Colombia: life is stronger than death

Buenaventura has always been a tough place, with a harsh climate, high temperatures and stifling humidity. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Monday, December 31, 2012

(Buenaventura, Colombia) December 31, 2012 — First day... 29 June 2008: A wonderful Sunday afternoon. Children ran in every possible direction on the football pitch and community grounds of San Francisco district in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca. Men and women bustled around, preparing activities to celebrate life as a community, with music, singing and laughter. It was an occasion worth celebrating: the closure of an intensive process of formation and exchange of ideas, of identifying ways to live in suc an adverse environment.

Buenaventura has always been a tough place, with a harsh climate, high temperatures and stifling humidity. Throughout history, leaders have tended to forget about this region, except for its harbor, a crucial entry and exit point. Since colonial times, the harbor of Buenaventura has been the world's gateway to Colombia and the country's gateway to globalization; a gateway built on exclusion and structural violence, on the kind of development that ignores the human element.

Today Buenaventura is a fierce battleground of guerrillas, paramilitary and governmental forces, of strongmen and drug dealers, all fighting one another and each other's allies, but mostly manipulated by external actors. However, in the annals of Colombia's unofficial history, Buenaventura has also been a place of renewal for black communities, a space earned by the sweat of men and women who sailed the long rivers and carved out a living space in semi-harmony with the jungle, wresting ground from the mangrove swamps to build entire settlements.

That afternoon, as we celebrated the life of black communities, brothers and sisters drew on their shared history to look to the future, agreeing on an action plan that would serve as the roadmap of a resurgent people. I spent the entire afternoon with my video camera, capturing the joy of women in pink t-shirts, proud to be leaders in the process, and the talent of boys and girls dancing in traditional costume, bearing witness to the irrepressible strength of joint effort. 

I filmed faces, smiles, rhythmic movements, applause and speeches. At the time, I could never have imagined I was witnessing the last public words of Doña Martha Cecilia "Chila," a displaced black woman who had led this and many other initiatives in San Francisco district.

When the light of the sun that accompanied us that day disappeared, I received a distressed call from the director of the organization that had enabled the entire process. She said Chila had been killed just a few minutes after the end of the activity. Her dead body lay on the football pitch. People were paralyzed with fear; nobody dared go to her. I wasn't far away and all I dared was to make a couple of calls to the authorities and local people who might safely be able to help. Death was back in San Francisco and other districts of Buenaventura just when it had seemed the killers were yielding to the peaceful strength of the community.

Second day... Meters away from the place where Chila had been killed by anonymous weapons, family and friends, known and unknown, gathered to bid her farewell and to share their pain and indignation. Among the unknown were three of us paisas, as they call anyone who is not black around here, vaguely acknowledged as "the Jesuits" and friends in a joint project. The night before, we had prepared a short audiovisual presentation with the pictures and videos we had taken that Sunday afternoon, when we thought they might serve during a different kind of celebration.

In a room behind the altar, we discussed with members of different organizations what kind of words we should use, who would speak and what to say, and whether it would be sensible to send a clear message about human rights through the presentation we had prepared. In that chapel, there was despair, indignation and pain caused by injustice and the mystery of death. However, from my perspective of faith, I could recognize the risen Christ in that lifeless body behind the altar.

The residents here do not stand in silence in the presence of death. Music, drums, movement and alcohol accompany death, for life and death are not separate but parts of the same essence. There is death in life itself. With the melody of the music, the penetrating drumbeat, the cadence of the poems recited for Chila, and that strange mixture of life and death, my heart burst into tears. What exactly was I doing here, why had life confronted me with this reality, what could I offer these people, what lessons should I learn? What was God telling me in my desolation? 

As tears rolled down our cheeks, Don Mario, leader and poet from Buenaventura's La Gloria district, approached us to shake hands, saying emphatically: "Whites don't cry for blacks," suggesting with these words that we had become brothers of the community. A lasting friendship was born.

Third day... Months later, thanks to the seeds of life born from that celebration of death and to Don Mario, we found ourselves sitting under a tree in the Matía Mulumba center, to discuss possible ways to give practical form to our friendship.

Since then, many things have evolved in this relationship: the La Gloria district process, as we called it, the La Gloria district struggle, as they continue to experience it. La Gloria is a rural district on the outskirts of the city of Buenaventura, a violent place with a high concentration of displaced people. 

Since 2009, Jesuit Refugee Service Colombia has been accompanying the La Gloria community in its struggle to win respect for the collective rights of black communities and to prevent forced displacement and child recruitment. The action plan, in which Chila had taken part, remains a point of reference for their shared life. The danger is still there and rises each day like a giant threatening to crush small local initiatives. Not much has changed in reality. Nevertheless, there is "La Glorita," a small farm that started as a symbol of collaboration between the community and some organizations, including JRS, and is now run by the community alone.

That afternoon, as we agonized over Chila's death, we found renewed life in the courage that arose from that very injustice. Death is not eternal, life is. After three days, Christ shows us the metaphor of death, the metamorphosis through death and victory over death.

This and other experiences have helped me to understand clearly that the message of the resurrection is present daily in families who must leave their homes to live as displaced, marginalized people. The history of humanity is marked by the stories of those forced to start all over again in a land not their own, in a foreign culture, to communicate their ideas and feelings in a borrowed language. This is the fragility of our history, represented by people who see how the light of life fades, the sun hides and night falls.

But after night comes day and, before it comes, a beautiful and colorful miracle takes place. With each new day the sun brings its message of life. Death can bring life to those who suffer, with the strength that comes from sincere brotherly love, if they accept it in their hearts. In death is life, for those who want to believe and see it this way. 

by Luis Fernando Gómez Gutiérrez, JRS Latin America advocacy officer. This article was published in the last issue of Servir. Click here to access the PDF and to read more.