My coworker, Gina, and I met the audiovisual and communications team from the ACA in their office at 10:30 on August 2nd. Maricella is a tall, dark-haired teenager with broad features, perfect skin, a perfect smile and eyes that always seemed to be smirking at you with that ‘you don’t know shit’ look. She came from a community outside of Dabeiba with her good friend Dyionsys, a short, stocky 15 yr old who combined her grasp of the seriousness of the situation of violence facing her community with a bubbly, flirtatious personality typical of most 15 yr old girls. The only male student, Oscar hailed from a different community in Antioquia, San Francisco, which, as Oscar is quick to tell me from the get go, is a community that has suffered massive displacement (more than half the population) as a result of several killings, threats and presence of different armed actors in the last year. While all three obviously have a passion in documenting their communities’ experience, Oscar seems to be the most serious about it, jumping at the smallest opportunity to handle the camera or carry the fanny pack with all the supplies, always with laugh much bigger than one thought possible from such a skinny teenager.
These three students are studying documentary-film making under the direction of ACA’s veteran film makers, Gustavo and Carlos. (check out some of their films…though in Spanish, you can still get an good idea of their quality and signifance) Both of these teachers are well read, well travelled activists who are skeptical of any kind of authority and though staunchly anti-US, are able to differentiate between the disastrous Colombia-policies of the US government, and the citizens, like Gina and I, who are trying do our part in promoting change. That does not mean, however, that they let us off the hook; we are the only way the US government will change. It is our responsibility to get things moving. Naturally, I think that their self-righteousness is getting a bit out of control, until I remember all the work and difference they are making through their documentaries and audio-visual school.
The seven of us cram into two of Colombia’s typically tiny taxi cabs and get to the terminal with more than enough time to catch the overnight bus heading from Medellin to Popoyan. After an uneventful 10 hour bus ride, Gustavo wakes Gina and me up telling us, “it’s time to get off.” Thinking we were at some bus terminal in Popoyan, Gina and I were a bit surprised when we stepped on to the side of the Pan American highway amidst North Cauca’s rolling-hill countryside. Noticing our surprise, Gustavo told us to hold tight and not to worry. Sure enough after about 5 minutes, and without any phone calls or other communication, two motorcycles pull up along-side us and introduce themselves as Felipe and Gildardo from the Indigenous radio station Pu’yamat based in nearby Santander de Quilichao. As quickly as they appeared, they took off, assuring us that taxis would be by to pick us up. Within two minutes, two taxis came speeding up the high way in the opposite direction, honked twice,did a fast U-turn and slammed on their breaks right before that ran the curb and into our baggage.
Soon enough we were in the Pu’yamat’s office right of the main plaza of Santander de Quilichao. Judging from the recent news, this city has been anything but a pleasant place to live. Five bombings in one month, one would think, would turn any small town into something of a desolate ghost town. This was not Santander, however. Santander is by far the prettiest small town I have yet to see in Colombia. The plaza is full of people and even fuller of huge trees that must have been protected for decades. The weather is perfect with enough sun to keep things warm, but not too much to make things hot. Walking across the plaza, I couldn’t help but quickly forget that this pleasant town has been some of the worst violence (or at least, the most publicized) the country as seen in this summer.
Unfortunately, we only had time to eat a bit of lunch, where we met up with a Colombian who manages the Red Italiana in Colombia and an Italian traveler looking through Colombia for inspiration for her grad school thesis. Together we caught the next bus to the village of Guavito, our final destination, where the ACA was going to participate in the final ceremonies of the Rodolfo Maya film festival as well as the graduation of 20 or so students from the ACIN’s 1.5 year-long audio-visual school.
The ACIN is the (Association of Indigenous Councils of North Cauca) and is the human rights organization that fights for the recognition, respect and protection of the Nasa peoples of North Cauca. Among other programs, they have a 1.5 year-long ‘university’ where they teach activists, both local and non-local, how to make documentaries about their experiences. The idea is that such education will empower people to tell their own stories rather than wait for wealthier documentarians from the US or Europe to come in and tell the story for them. As we all know from the Michael Moore movies, documentaries are one of the most effective ways of eliciting emotion and motivating people to act around an issue. Furthermore, raising such consciousness is one of the best ways toward non-violent protection since no government likes to be known as a human rights violator. Thus, through making their own documentaries, activists, indigenous people and farmers are participating in their own protection and their own solution to their community’s problems.
Guavito is a village in the Lopez Adentro reserve which is a part of the Nasa Indigen
ous community. The Nasa people are inspiring for many reasons, but one of the most significant for me was their Indigenous Guard. The indigenous guard in North Cauca is a civil-guard that is composed of up to 7,000 men, women and children. They are armed only with canes decor
ated with ribbons represented dead ancestors and mother-nature, this civil guard is charged with being present when combat happens or armed groups encroach on civilian territory. Like International Accompaniers, the hope is that through reminding armed actors of human rights and that they are watching and ready to react in the case of violations, they can dissuade armed actors from endangering civilian populations. Most villages have a contingent and those who don’t are monitored by a neighboring village’s guard. Every guard contingent has a guard leader who is equipped with a walkie talkie used for quick notification of events occurring anywhere in the zone. They maintain open dialogue with all sides of the conflict and thus have personal contacts with higher ups of all the armed groups. As such, they were much better prepared than us to respond in emergencies because we have no contact, and thus no dissuasion, with the guerrilla forces.
The guardia was present every day of the festival, always at the end of the driveway making sure to check everyone who entered and left. Being white foreigners, Gina and I weren’t allowed to leave after 6pm. It felt a little weird to be enclosed somewhere, but hearing every day of another murder happing close by, it turned out being more than a bit comforting.
With this indigenous guard there to do any security accompaniment better than we ever could, we realized that we had been invited along more to see how people in this part of the country are organizing themselves and resisting the violence in their way. While we had missed almost the entire actual festival, we were there for the part in which they discussed how they plan on taking this event back to their communities to continue the fight in their respective regions. There were times when things became uncomfortable as the ACIN started asking for commitments from people on what they were going to do back home. They knew that while all the attendees were serious about the movement, they had lives so complicated and so full of uncertainty that unless they did not come up with concrete ideas and action plans there and then, the actions would be sacrificed to raising a family, getting medical treatment or establishing a new home.
Eliciting these proposals was a bit like pulling teeth and required much prodding and encouragement by the ACIN. However, in the end, they filled several wipe boards with small, accomplishable ideas such as organizing local community musicians into a resistance concert, or interviewing 3 or four community members about their personal struggles with Colombian violence. Individually, none was very grand. But that was the point: small, local actions that are initiated and participated in by local people have a much more long –lasting and personal effect than something that reaches the entire nation or even the world but isn’t connected to any local community.
There are certainly times when I have been starting at my computer for 5 hours in one day where I forget what it is like to feel the energy of people organized in pacific resistance to violence. Those days are wrought with headaches. However, it is trips such as this one to Guavito, where I get to know fellow young people like Gustavo and Oscar and see them so impassioned by the idea of empowering a younger generation like Marcelli, Dionysis y Oscar to take control of their own story, that rejuvenate the mind and remind me of how important it is that I do what I can as an international to help that the individual Colombian movements for peace continue.