U-C: What I See

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A Report from a PC(USA) Colombia Accompanier

Dr. Philip E. Gates, Trinity PC, Prescott, AZ, served as a PCUSA volunteer accompanier
in Colombia June 30 through August 31, 2005. The following is his report.

Colombia has endured civil war for 41 years. While visiting with Colombian Presbyterian Church (IPC) Executive Secretary Milton Mejia in September 2004, Rick Ufford Chase, PCUSA moderator, was with Milton when he was informed of the midday assassination of friend and fellow human rights advocate Professor Alfredo de Correa Andreis. Professor Andreis’ murder was a defining moment for Moderator Ufford-Chase. Upon his return to the United States Rick sought and received approval of the GA Assembly Council for our denomination to establish an accompanier program with the (IPC).

Because the IPC plays a leadership role in attempting to restore respect for human rights in all of Colombia, its clergy and lay leaders are at high risk, much as was the case of Professor Andreis. At one point in time, Milton Mejia himself had to leave the country for three months until authorities could apprehend an individual who had issued a credible threat on his life. During his 11-year tenure as Executive Secretary, Milton has assisted five IPC pastors and their families in going underground because of death threats related to the pastors’ human rights work.

Assassinations of human rights advocates in Colombia, including approximately 100 priests and pastors over the past ten years, is but one of the tragic legacies of this four decade old internal conflict. In addition, an average of 3,000 innocent civilians are murdered by one of the two major warring factions, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), or by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (paramilitaries), who are funded by the drug war-lords and wealthy Colombian landowners. Four million landowners, mostly farmers and ranchers, have been forced off their land by these two armed forces. They want control of as much land as possible for militarily strategic purposes, and to use it for cultivation of the coca bean and poppies used in the manufacturing of cocaine and heroin. The majority of the four million people displaced from their land have fled to the cities where they live in slums or on the streets. About 500,000 of them have fled to other countries. Sixty-five per cent of all Colombians (28 million people) live at or below the international poverty level. In short, the majority of Colombians live in misery, fear, and hopelessness because of a war that seems to know no end.

Since Moderator Ufford-Chase received approval for the accompaniment program in November 2004, our church has been sending pairs of volunteers to Barriquilla to accompany IPC church leaders on a month-by-month basis. They reside on the campus of the IPC’s national headquarters in Barranquilla, Colombia. Their job is to, in Rick Ufford-Chase’s words, “Go see and be seen.” As simple and direct as this charge is, its positive impact on IPC clergy, members and non-Presbyterian associates is immense. Many of the accompaniers have reported various Colombia clergy and members telling them “Your presence is an answer to prayer:” “You are saving lives.” “With you here we feel more confident.” “Threats to us have lessened.”

Dr. Philip E. Gates, a life-long Presbyterian and currently a member of Trinity PC, Prescott, AZ was one of 10 Presbyterians trained for this volunteer work in Tacoma Park, MD in February 2005 by Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (PPF). He, along with Presbyterian Kathryn “Cat” Bucher, Sherman, TX, served as an accompanier the month of July. Gates’ assignment was extended through August when another accompanier scheduled for that time had to cancel.

Following are a few examples of the suffering being experienced by many of the 28 million poor and 4 million displaced persons who Gates, along with his colleague Cat Bucher, observed during their accompaniment work (names of people intentionally omitted for security purposes):

A young couple with eight children living in a displaced persons shanty town on the outskirts of Barranquilla are living on less than one dollar a day. While sitting in their small, unpainted and weathered wooden shack with corrugated tin roof, dirt floors, no electricity, and no running water, the man of the house told us he tries to find work as a field hand. However, because there are so many unemployed displaced people seeking work, he is only able to get employment a couple days a week, not enough to feed his family. Therefore, his wife found a job as a cook at a daycare center in Barranquilla. Each day, she rises at 2:30 a.m., walks five miles to the center, cooks a noon meal, gets paid in food, walks back home with her groceries, and prepares an evening meal for her family. “At least our children do not go to bed hungry,” said her husband.

In another displaced person community, again on the outskirts of Barranquilla, we observed community members purchasing 25-gallon plastic containers of water from donkey cart vendors. When our escort, a human rights worker, asked them why they were purchasing water when the city is to provide it by water tanker truck twice weekly at no charge, they responded there had been no water truck deliveries in their community for several weeks. Our escort told them he would show them how to complete the appropriate paper work to notify the city of this problem. Filing a report like this is risky.

In another displaced community, four representatives were sent to the Mayor’s Office in Barranquilla to report certain irregularities in delivery of city services to which the community was entitled by law. Within days all four were found murdered, most likely by those who had been pocketing money originally designated for the undelivered city services.

We met a young woman living in the city of Soledad who tried to make it to her government-assigned medical clinic, a two-hour bus ride, to deliver her baby. The infant was born enroute, and died of complications. Members of her displaced community told us they wish they had a car that could be used for community emergencies such as this.

We had a two-hour meeting with five women living in Carmen de Bolivar, a city of 70,000 located in the interior of the country, about 100 miles east of Cartagena. All five had fled with their families from their mountain community of 6,000 people after guerrillas entered and began massacring residents to frighten them off their land. Each woman discussed how she had been forced to flee, leaving everything behind, including valued livestock. Each told us she had lost one or more family members, friends or neighbors during the massacre.

During a period set aside for lunch at the community center where we were meeting, my colleague, Cat Bucher, a trained massage therapist, offered to massage the legs of one of women. In her 80’s, she had complained of chronic leg pains. Later, my colleague told me that while massaging the woman’s legs, she’d asked the elderly lady when the pains had started. The woman stated that they had begun shortly after she had been forced to watch her adult daughter tortured and killed during the massacre in her village.

Even when displaced persons flee to the cities in search of safety, they are still in danger. Paramilitary death squads periodically enter the shanty towns looking for those suspected of having fought or at least aided the enemy and/or who were witnesses to paramilitary acts of violence. In one community we visited in early July, we were told that in the preceding six months, seven members of their community had been assassinated. In a second community, we were told that in the month prior, one of their community members had been assassinated and five had been wounded, one seriously. In still a third community, a young married couple on their way to work were beheaded by a para death squad while the couple’s children looked on.

During conversations with various clergy over the nine weeks he was in Colombia, Gates met a priest jailed for alleged subversive teaching and later exonerated, but who still fears he will be assassinated by those who perceive him as guilty. Another priest told fellow accompanier Bucher that his anticipated assignment to a parish requiring his human rights expertise believes it will be his last posting inasmuch as the three preceding priests assigned there have all been assassinated. A Presbyterian pastor shared in intimate detail with Gates his account of being extorted for several million pesos because of his alleged subversive teaching. Anonymous sources continued to harass him by telephone, and with mail drops, which included pictures of his teen age daughters going to and coming from school. Ultimately, police were able to track the perpetrators down (though they eluded capture), and after six months of terror, the pastor and his family have returned to a fairly normal existence.

Despite this climate, IPC clergy have played a leadership role in organizing and coordinating the “Red Ecumenica” (Ecumenical Network) in which many denominations (Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian) have joined together to improve human rights conditions in all of Colombia. Since organizing six years ago, it has started 35 human rights centers in as many cities throughout Colombia to assist the poor and displaced in procuring decent housing, health care, job training, food and clothing, legal assistance, etc.

Those in power see this human rights activism as interference. A variety of hostile activities have been initiated to try to curtail the forward motion of the churches in this regard. During these difficult and dangerous times, PCUSA will continue to stand in solidarity with its faithful and courageous sisters and brothers of all faiths in Colombia. In October of this year, eight more accompaniers were trained for PCUSA by PPF, and they, too, are being assigned in pairs to go “See and be seen” in the year ahead.

If interested in learning how to become involved as an accompanier or wish to have a program presentation about the accompaniment program at your church or civic organization please contact Dr. Phil Gates, 145 N. Rocky Dells Dr., Prescott, AZ 86303, 928-541-9458, drmsg@aol.com for more information. Because the costs of the PPF training and the expenses for accompanier participation (approximately $2,500 for one month’s service) must be covered by voluntary contributions, anyone interested in helping with the costs of this program is invited to send a tax deductible check to Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Box 271, Nyack, NY 10960, c/o “Accompaniment.”