reflections on colombia 2 – the gift of accompaniment

Mennonite church in Cazuca, Soacha

If displacement is the word we kept hearing when looking at the struggles of the people, accompaniment is the word that marked the path of those seeking to help. Having been separated from so many of their resources, displaced people need others to walk alongside them, assisting them in restoring some of the many connections that have been broken. In a small way, we were privileged to accompany displaced people by hearing their stories of loss and hope. But more importantly, we witnessed the skilled and compassionate accompaniment offered my MCC partners like Mencoldes, Justapaz, Sembrandopaz, and the church projects in Cazuca, Soacha – many people whose faith leads them to risky and sacrificial work.

MCC worker, Aleja, in Pichilin

Where most of us might think of “therapy” for wounds, among those serving Colombia’s displaced people the more typical words used are “psychosocial accompaniment.” Displaced victims of violence need people who will help with emergency needs that provide at least the very basic elements of stability. Traumatized people need kind and interested listeners who make it safe to share their stories and their emotions, whatever they are. They need people who listen and help as they sort out possibilities for the future. When given even this basic support, lasting damage along the lines of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is much less prevalent than one would expect.

We met many of those who were  providing this crucial accompaniment for the displaced individuals and families mentioned in the previous post – in the shacks of Soacha and among the displaced rural villages. Heartbreaking stories become the norm, and one has to guard against being filled with anger and demands for simplistic answers.

by a memorial in Pichilin
by a massacre memorial in Pichilin

Accompanying such wounded people can be complicated by our associations with the victimizers – after all, Canadian corporations are prevalent among the mining companies which are often numbered among those who use paramilitary violence to clear the path for their ongoing exploitation of this resource-rich country. And it is very appropriate for those North Americans who accompany displaced people to spread the word about the evil that our invested dollars are perpetrating in places like Colombia. The least we owe to these victims of systemic violence is a greater attention paid to the truth.

One of the miracles amid the violence and tragedy of Colombian history is the constitution that was created in 1991. Since then, some impressive laws have also been passed to facilitate reparations – such as the Peace and Justice Law of 2005 and the Land of Victims Law of 2011. In theory these provide a legal basis for a country in which corruption is reduced and human rights are defended. Turning this into reality is a slow process, but another important form of accompaniment practiced by the NGOs we visited is known as judicial accompaniment. Persistent, strategic support for the rights of oppressed people are asserted patiently on behalf of individuals and groups. Occasionally, there is success. As in the American civil rights movement, patient insistence on the implementation of laws already in place is a key part of peace-building.

mural telling the terror that visited Mampujan
      Mural depicting the terror that visited Mampujan

Again, we see the benefits of those who have maintained their communal identity. They have been able to appeal for their rights with a collective voice. Mampujan  was one such village, and it became the first village to receive reparations from the government for their shared displacement. Hopefully more will follow.

Mennonite church in Cazuca, Soacha
Mennonite church in Cazuca, Soacha

Like the term “solidarity,” “accompaniment” stands for an approach in which we come together with people in need as equals and as listeners. It is an approach that recognizes the resources and resilience of wounded people and offers support without encouraging dependency.

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