Guardian angels in Colombia

Peace Brigade volunteers accompanying two Colombian human rights defenders
Peace Brigade volunteers accompanying two Colombian human rights defenders  (© Eric Beauchemin)

In Colombia, it is dangerous to defend human rights. Human rights organisations face constant threats and harassment from the so-called armed actors: the rebels, paramilitary groups and the military. Hundreds of leaders and ordinary members have been jailed, disappeared or killed. Peace Brigades International, PBI, a group of foreign volunteers operating in nearly half a dozen countries, is trying to maintain a space for human rights groups to operate.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: April 6, 2003


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Guardian Angels”. The programme is produced by Eric Beauchemin.

I really was looking to live in a country in which human rights are violated and to see what human rights defenders can do for it and how they survive.

I do remember they had said something about go to work in Colombia, and you know, you accompany people who are working for human rights. And then I called somebody up from Peace Brigades and they sent me information.

I think it would be naïve to think that a group of only 40 foreigners can make a big difference in a situation as complex as in Colombia and in a country as big as Colombia.

It’s very important that we are there because without us, they couldn’t do all this work.

In the developed world, people tend to take human rights for granted: the right to express themselves, to organise, or to defend their political convictions. But if you try to exercise these rights in many countries around the world, you could be tortured, wind up in prison, disappear, or be killed. Colombia is one of those nations: nearly 4 decades ago, militants within the Communist Party set up a rebel movement to fight for greater equality and justice. Other rebel movements followed. In the late 1980’s, right-wing paramilitary groups, closely linked to Colombia’s armed forces, emerged to oppose the rebels. There’s still no end in sight to the war, but nowadays the armed groups are fighting mainly over the profits from Colombia’s huge narcotics industry: 80% of the world’s cocaine and a third of the heroin come from the South American nation.

All the armed actors – the various rebel and paramilitary groups as well as the army – are guilty of serious human rights abuses. Human rights organisations have been one of the main targets. Their leaders and ordinary members face constant harassment and threats. Hundreds of them have disappeared or been killed.

Peace Brigades International, a group of volunteers working in nearly half a dozen countries around the world, is trying to maintain a space for these human rights organisations to operate.

Oscar Gussinyer preparing for the trip
Oscar Gussinyer preparing for the trip  (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: Oscar, you’re preparing your luggage. Where are you going? To Jiguamiando. EB: Where’s that? It’s in the Chocó. There are a lot of communities that are trying to resist the paramilitaries. EB: And you’re accompanying who to go there? Justice and Peace, the Inter-ecclesiastical Commission. We go there just for one week this month because we don’t have any more time. EB: How far away is it from Medellín? It’s one hour in a little plane. And then we have to take a little boat, a canoe, and then we have to go up though the river to the communities like for 10 hours or something like that. There are a road, but the paramilitaries have closed that road and they only have one way to go out. EB: And that’s by boat. Yes. And 10 hours of boat because the river in this time of the year is dry and you have to walk like for four hours, and then you have to take another time the boat, and it’s like crazy. EB: So you have to be physically fit. A little, yes. EB: Have there been threats made against the Commission for Peace and Justice? Yes, yes, a lot. The last month more because there are a few communities that are resisting the paramilitarism project. Justice and Peace are working with these communities. Then it’s normally.

An hour later, Oscar Gussinyer, who’s from Spain, arrives at the domestic airport of Medellín, Colombia’s second biggest city. He and another Peace Brigades volunteer are accompanying a member of the Inter-ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace who in turn is accompanying Manuel Deni Blandón, the representative of a small community of around 2000 people. Manuel spends a couple of weeks every month in Medellín and Bogotá, the capital, trying to raise awareness about the plight of his community.

Our problem is that the government does not recognise our right to life and our right to land. Since 1995, more than 100 people in our community have been murdered, and many have disappeared. The paramilitaries and the army are committing these crimes. They work hand in hand. We have submitted complaints to the government but they don’t listen to us.

We’re speaking in an airport hangar, and there are policemen, soldiers, and police dogs nearby. Their presence and my questions are making Manuel increasingly nervous.

As the legal representative of our community, I’m persecuted because I’m demanding the rights we deserve as civilians. Since January the 5th, I have been receiving threats. They say they’re looking for me because I’m defending the lower classes and peasants and because I’m demanding that the government give us our rights. The problem is that I’m speaking the truth.

I think it’s better to die for something. If no one did this, we would still suffer anyway. Every one of us is born with a different destiny. Mine is to defend the rights of a defenceless community.

I was studying in Norway where I also was a member of the local university group of Amnesty International, but I sensed the lack of something more practical. And I decided to join Peace Brigades to get experience in the field and to do some work that wasn’t only for me but that would have some direct impact in the human rights’ situation in the world.

Vemund Olsen’s commitment to human rights is typical of the people who volunteer to work for Peace Brigades International.

Dorrit Timmer
Dorrit Timmer  (© Eric Beauchemin)

My name is Dorrit Timmer, and I was working in the field of human rights and refugees. I did a lot of different things there, trying to find ways to support human rights defenders in a lot of different places in the world, but in a very different way, with a lot of distance, no. EB: So it was quite a natural step for you to join the Peace Brigades. Yes [laughter], in that way it was, yes. I really was looking to do something more concrete, to live in a country in which human rights are violated and to see what human rights defenders can do for it and how they survive. EB: Did you specifically decide to come to Colombia or did you simply say I want to join Peace Brigades International? In the first place, Peace Brigades in general but because I studied Spanish, I was very interested in a Spanish-speaking country. And I had been in Colombia once before, so I felt some affinity with Colombia because one of my brothers is adopted. And we had a trip with him in ‘98. EB: He comes from Colombia. Yes and we did a trip with my family to look for his roots and I got fascinated by this country.

The most fundamental reason is that I was looking for a programme that would work…that has meaning.

Michael Bell, who comes from Canada, joined Peace Brigades three months ago.

Michael Bell
Michael Bell  (© Eric Beauchemin)

I knew that Colombia was the only or one of the only countries in Latin America that still has a large insurgence group for example that is pretty distinct…not just one, but several. But beyond that, I sort of had classified in my mind Colombia as being just any other Latin American country and of course it’s not. It’s very distinct. EB: So what did you find when you came here? What did I find? The really first time that I actually had a sense that what we do means something was that we were accompanying some people. We came across a military checkpoint. We were obliged to get out of the car so they could do a ‘routine check’ in their words. And they checked all of our documentation, both our documentation and the documentation of the people we were accompanying. They checked over the car and then they let us free to continue our journey. And I couldn’t help but think, what would this be like if we weren’t here as international observers? There would be absolutely no reason why they couldn’t just take them away or plant a weapon in their bag and then say they are supporting one side or the other of the conflict. That was when I first realised, I think, sort of on a human level, what we were doing. And it seems to be working, because often when they realise that you are a foreigner, the dynamic of the moment changes. You have weight on the side of human rights and on the side of peace.

Peace Brigades has four teams in Colombia. One of them is in Urabá, a rural area near the Panamanian border. In the 1950’s, big companies started to encroach on the land of poor peasants there, and many were forced to flee. Then rebels moved into the region.

The state evolved a strategy of the pacification of Urabá during the 90s, which included massive human rights violations and the introduction of paramilitary forces in the region. EB: When you say massive human rights violations, what type of violations are we talking about? During the early ‘90s, Urabá suffered a lot of massacres, especially. It was one of the areas where the paramilitary strategy of massacring the civilian population as a way of getting to the guerrillas because of the logic that the guerrilla comes from the civilian population. So instead of attacking the guerrilla forces, the army and the paramilitary forces attacked civilian populations to drive them off their land in order to prevent the guerrillas from finding food and shelter.

Well for the communities it’s difficult, the communities that we accompany. In the case of Cacarica, they have strong paramilitary presence in that region, and then in San José, they’re dealing more with state forces, and so it’s challenging for those communities to try and live by the standards that they’ve set, which are to remain outside of the Colombian conflict. As a peace community, they have decided not to take part in any one side or the other, and so they don’t allow the presence of armed people within certain regions of their territories, that is within their territories period. And then also they don’t supply food. They don’t supply water to anyone actor, be they guerrilla, paramilitary or state security forces.

We accompany them permanently to prevent massacres and further attacks on their lives and personal integrity, especially their leaders who have to realise travels in the region and who have suffered attacks previously. Especially the night times have been the more conflictive times when the attacks have occurred. Many of the incursions have occurred around 7:30 in the afternoon when it’s already dark and all the authorities’ offices are obviously closed. So the reaction will be slower. Our job there is to have permanent presence there so that the armed actors will understand that incursioning in the community will imply higher political costs later on.

Whenever Peace Brigades volunteers accompany human rights leaders in the rural areas or in risky neighbourhoods in the cities, they always travel in twos. It’s better for Peace Brigades if they come from different countries so that two embassies can be alerted, just in case. It’s also better if the two volunteers are of the opposite sex because some situations can be defused more easily by a man and others by a woman. Peace Brigades also informs the authorities about their activities.

We meet regularly with military officials to remind them of our presence, to remind them of the fact that we accompany particular communities. So for example if some of the accompanied people receive threats by phone or are threatened in other ways, the idea is that we can meet with military officials in this case and remind them of our work and thus pressure them to protect the lives of Colombian citizens which is part of their mandate. EB: Do they actually listen to you? They listen and most often very respectfully. But the point is for us, we want to let them know that we know what’s going on. We want to let them know that we are with the communities that we accompany. So whether they truly listen to us or not in the form of a dialogue is questionable, but the point is that we’re there. We let them know what we’re worried about. We tell them what our mandate is. We let them know specifically what groups we are accompanying and thus give them an opportunity to perform their mandate better.


EB: Dorrit, we’re walking down a fairly busy street here in Medellín. Who are you accompanying? Martha. Martha is a member of ASFADDES. And we’ve accompanied her a lot of times here in Medellín. In the city, during her walks around in the streets, during all her work, and also in the private time.

For the past three years, I’ve been protected by Peace Brigades. Sometimes I do go out without them, but I never go out alone. I’m always afraid when I’m outside. I have received numerous threats and I even had to move away for a while because of the threats. If it weren’t for Peace Brigades, I would have had to stop my work and I wouldn’t have been able to come back to Medellín.

EB: And when you accompany her, do you walk behind her, do you walk in front of her, do you walk next to her? What do you do exactly? I walk next to her, I prefer. EB: As if you were just friends. Yes, of course, talking about the day, things that have happened. EB: You said that you’ve been doing this for a long time. Have you built up a type of friendship with her? I think so. We share a lot of things. Sometimes you see each other a lot of hours a day. You share a lot of experiences. Yes, it’s a type of friendship maybe. EB: So it would be very difficult for you if something were to happen to her. Oh, it’s the most horrible thing I can imagine.

Yeah, sometimes it seems very boring just to accompany the people during their work, walking around the streets, but afterwards when they tell us that it’s very important that we are there because without us, they couldn’t do all this work. So that makes me feel a bit more satisfied about this boring part of the job too.

Eveline Burgmaier is a German volunteer who’s been in Colombia for nearly a year. Among the organisations Peace Brigades accompanies is Martha’s group, which is known as ASFADDES or the Association of the Relatives of Detained-Disappeared.

Eveline Burgmaier
Eveline Burgmaier  (© Eric Beauchemin)

We had this two years ago that two members of ASFADDES were disappeared, and it’s still a trauma here in the group of Medellín. EB: But you weren’t accompanying them when they were disappeared. No, we wasn’t with them at this moment. We separated from them in the morning and they were disappeared during the night. But it’s still knowing that people that had the accompany of PBI. So it was kind of realising that this part of our work didn’t function at that moment.

It’s a dangerous country and the situation of the people we accompany is obviously of high risk. I myself have never seen my life in danger. I believe profoundly in the mechanisms of protection because of our international network, and I think that the political costs of attacking a member of the Peace Brigades International would be too high for the armed actors. They want international attention to the human rights violations they commit here in Colombia and so we are in a certain way protected from that. Of course, we always have to analyse very responsibly the risk situation that we affront. Sometimes we have to say no to accompaniments because we find that we don’t have enough dissuasion to go into a certain area for example. That depends very much on the situation of the war. Especially in the Urabá region and the region surrounding Medellín, you can’t always control the reactions of the different armed factors. The situations are uncertain, and sometimes you have to say no to certain accompaniments. EB: Isn’t that a bit difficult? It can be very difficult because of our friendly relations with the human rights defenders and because we want to contribute what we can to the important work that they realise but sometimes to do a good job in the long-run, you have to say no to certain jobs in the short term.

Fernando Valencia understands these considerations all too well. He’s a lawyer at the Liberty Legal Corporation, a human rights group helping defend the rights of poor communities, like those in the Urabá region. His group has received numerous threats. At one point the threats were so serious that the authorities warned them that a contract had been put out to have all the members of his team murdered. The team’s response was to close down their office for two months. Fernando himself has received numerous threats, and he and his family are constantly on the move. But he doesn’t want 24-hour protection from Peace Brigades.

We haven’t considered this option for a number of reasons. One of them is that your freedom of movement, to work, is limited. The other reason, and now I’m speaking personally, is that I think that there are certain risks that you have to take in life. I’m not willing to accept that something serious might happen to the Peace Brigaders because they are with me. I know I’m deciding on their behalf because I’m convinced that some of them would want to accompany me. But I think that the level of commitment is different. You make certain decisions in life and you also have to accept the consequences. There are threats that are so serious that it wouldn’t make a difference if you were being accompanied by a foreigner. There are groups in this country that wouldn’t care if they also had to kill a foreigner.

I mean we have sort of an image that we don’t like to propagate that we are human shields, that we are so brave. We’re going to Colombia to protect human rights. That’s not really what it’s all about. We’re constantly analysing the space that we have. Every region of Colombia, there’s a certain amount of space in which to work as internationals. And if that space were to close off, we wouldn’t be to do our work and we would have to leave because there’s no sense in dying [laughter] in a situation… I mean where you’re caught in a very violent situation. You don’t want to be in that situation and the people that we defend also don’t want to be in that situation.

But Peace Brigade’s work is not only about life and death matters. Liliana Uribe, another member lawyer at the Liberty Legal Corporation in Medellín, says the mere presence of Peace Brigades can help in other ways too.

One of the things the authorities could do to create legal problems for us is to plant things in our offices. Policemen and soldiers are constantly coming here, and it wouldn’t be the first time that they find dynamite, narcotics and arms in the offices of a human rights group. So one of the important aspects of the accompaniment provided by Peace Brigades is that they observe what’s going on because we know that we are quite vulnerable. You may have noticed that public officials, representatives of the establishment, have been saying that human rights organisations should be investigated. They accuse us of being the right arm of the rebels, of being their spokespersons. They want to show that we have links with the guerrillas. The leaders of various human rights organisations have already had charges brought against them. These allegations are untrue, but people working for human rights have to fight for years to prove our innocence. The authorities automatically consider us guilty.

Yes, they see the necessity of the physical and political support, but it’s a more a thing to see that there are foreigners who are still interested in what’s happening here in the country. It’s something they very much appreciate, and not only here, but also in our trips to the barrios or to the rural area here in the Oriente. We can’t really do nothing for the population there because we are only accompanying the human rights defenders, but we notice that for them, just the pure fact to see foreigners is a really important moral support for them, to see that they’re not forgotten, so that the international community is still interested in what’s happening to them too.

The year that the volunteers spend with Peace Brigades is an intense experience on many levels. Not only do they put in very long hours, they also all live together in the same house, which also serves as their office.

I thought when I arrived here that this would be the hardest part in my work, but I noticed that although we come from different countries from different backgrounds, but we have the same convictions. So we feel like one family and that it makes it that we don’t have really that much of problems in this field.

It’s difficult because I’m a person that works a lot and it’s difficult for me to let go my work if I haven’t finished, and this work never finishes. So it’s very easy to be working day after day after day, at night, at night, at night. EB: Become a workaholic. But I like this work very much, so it doesn’t cost me a lot of energy. It gives me a lot of energy. The most difficult thing, I think, is that you never have or you have very little space for privacy. There are always coming people from other teams, other organisations. It’s a house where you share a lot of things with a lot of people the whole time. It’s a continuing process of changes as well. The volunteers stay here normally a year and then there come others. Not the whole group starts at the same time. So there’s constant rotation and that’s very hard sometimes, although it’s very dynamic as well. But sometimes I’d like to have some more space for myself.

Not only do we live together and play together and we’re always together, but also we make decisions together, which is excellent because we don’t have bosses and we don’t have managers. But on the other hand, when the structure is so horizontal, you’ve got to be able to find other ways to organise, and I think a lot of us, we come from worlds where they’re very hierarchical. We’re used to the hierarchy, to having a boss ordering us around.

It’s not only a consensus regarding the Medellín team which is six persons, and so it’s easier than in most other places. But we’re talking about consensus with the whole Peace Brigades International project. That includes the office in London and Bogotá, and the most difficult thing about reaching a consensus is the time factor, because sometimes you have to make very quick decisions and to reach full consensus on issues sometimes is very hard. In questions of security, the most conservative opinion when we can’t reach a consensus will be the one that counts. So we won’t make decisions that can be too hasty and we always have to take care of our own security and the ones we accompany.

One of the things that our group is working on right now is how to make our meetings more efficient ‘cause we have an awful lot of meetings to discuss immediate situations that arise but also sort of long-term projects and decisions that we have to make. And we have some awfully long meetings. And I’m someone with a short attention span and give me about 45 minutes and then after that, I need coffee and other things to keep my attention. And so that’s just one example of the challenge of living and also working and making decisions together.

Peace Brigades volunteers say the experience changes them forever. It also fundamentally changes the way they view life…and human rights.

I think I came with an understanding of human rights as more on the level of social development, how much food people have to eat, how much education is available to the people, and these are all very important human rights. But in the context of Latin American in general and Colombia in particular, what people really are lacking is freedom of speech, freedom to think, freedom to organise, freedom to belong to whatever group you want to belong to.

If anything it’s made me even more convinced of the importance of human rights. When you read about it in books and documents of law, it can be a very abstract notion, but when you go to the field and you see people having their rights violated on a daily basis, people getting killed, people getting disappeared, you understand the importance of having an international system of rights to protect these people. That it’s not working very well on an international basis is something we have to fight for every day.

[I think] it’s more a confirmation of the things I think are important in life. And you learn a lot of people here, their values and the strong conviction they have in human rights. And I always will look for things in life which fulfil me and which I think are worthwhile. This work gives me a lot of satisfaction and I haven’t found it any other work. So I, at the moment, I cannot think in something else that would give me the same satisfaction.

“Guardian angels” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.