reflections on colombia 1 – the wounds of displacement


[I’ve recently returned from a two week learning tour in Colombia. For most of the group this trip was a part of St. Stephen’s University’s program on International Studies. For me it was to better understand my duties as part of the board for MCC Canada – the relief, peace and development arm of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches. This post begins a three part series reflecting on the deeper meanings of what we saw.]street art memorializing the half million displaced people

Displacement is clearly the single word that sums up the tragic side of what we saw on the SSU/MCC learning tour to Colombia, a country in which at least 10% of the population (and perhaps nearly twice that many) are internally displaced. These are individuals, families and villages driven from their homes and land by the violence that surrounds them. The violence, fed largely by greed but occasionally by fear, comes at the hands of the paramilitaries, the official military and the left wing guerilla groups. Behind it all are the wealthy landowners who stubbornly (and fearfully) want to hold on to land and power and the foreign corporate interests (yes, that’s us and our pension plans) that want to exploit the abundant natural resources and people of this beautiful country.

The most typical and most broken seem to end up in shantytowns around Bogota like parts of Soacha. Here they hide from anyone who may have threatened them in the mass anonymity of urban poverty. Most former traces of community and connection with the land are shattered. With incredible hardship, they begin from scratch, dressing neater and cleaner than one could imagine in such surroundings, walking and commuting – often for hours into the heart of Bogota – in order to earn the few pesos they can to survive. These neighbourhoods are filled with crime, disease and a number of armed groups. Displacement traumatizes individuals, breaks up families, exposes children to abuse and neglect and challenges all attempts at community. Yet, incredibly (from a Northern perspective), many try to do just that – beginning to rebuild a sense of community and hope – not just looking for a stepping stone into the “real city” but creating some sense of home right where they are.


In other situations, entire villages were displaced. After a combination of threats and the massacres of their leaders, villages are ordered away from their homes and land. It may be because someone wants their land (many such villages have not had much opportunity to establish legal title), it may be because they have committed the sin of threatening the established powers by organizing themselves and asking for their rights, or it may be just the random will of the people with guns and machetes. The reason that is typically voiced (if there is a reason) is that villagers are suspected of having supported the wrong people (either the left-wing guerillas or the right-wing paramilitaries), but the truth is that the villages just want to be left alone to farm their land and raise their families.

walking through the plaza of old Mampujan

When these villages are able to stay together, they have a real advantage over the scattered individuals who flee to the cities. Their trauma is lessened by being shared and expressed together with those who went through it with them. Many more of their relationships and families remain intact. And sometimes they are able to return to work their land, restoring their dignity and ability to earn a living. Displacement has still been an intense violation, but the connection to each other and to the land provides a resilience that inspires.

Displacement is a huge problem around the globe. Sometimes, like in Colombia, it is forced displacement based on fear of violence. In many other regions it is economic displacement as people are desperate to find a place where they can make a living. There are those who would suggest that displacement must happen as the world modernizes and globalizes, but I would suggest that displacement always wounds deeply – it cuts off ties to land, to culture and faith, to community, to roots of all kinds. Many of us here in Canada have parents or ancestors who were displaced (as I do), and we’ve heard stories of pain and of new hope. I think The worst wounds are created when the displacement is surrounded by fear and followed by instability and alienation. Hope comes when displaced people find others who will walk with them as they seek a better future. So the next word is accompaniment.

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