Claudia* was 14 years old and at school when, suddenly, she saw a group of uniformed armed men pass the window. After a few minutes of insults and blows, the group broke into her classroom. ‘Damned guerrillas,’ they shouted, ‘you collaborate with the FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia].’ Neither Claudia nor her classmates understood the accusations: they had seen guerrilla factions close to their community, but they were not guerrillas themselves.
‘Who is the teacher?’ asked one of the uniformed men with a threatening tone. The young teacher identified herself. She was full of fear but had a protective instinct. While the armed men continued to insult the students, two of them forcibly took the teacher and, right in front of the class, ended her life with a single shot. Her tears and cries were useless; violence and injustice do not listen arguments.
A group of the students – including Claudia and the son of the local pastor – were tied up and taken for ‘a walk’. They received more insults and accusations, and were abandoned in the mountains. When they were finally able to return to their community, they discovered that, on that day, it was not only their young teacher who had been murdered. The grandmother of one of her friends, a young teenager and the pastor of the church had also been killed – all accused of being ‘damned guerrillas’.
Two days later, Claudia and the rest of her community left behind their land in the distant mountains. They left their crops, their animals and everything that gave them a sense of security and belonging. They feared that the illegal armed groups would come back and kill more members of their community. Joining the sadly growing list of ‘internally displaced persons’ in Colombia, they took what little they could carry in the cattle trucks and small boats in which they had to cross the river.
It's been 12 years since that terrible day and Claudia remembers it well. She no longer cries when she re-tells the story, but she admits that she felt much fear and rage. After many hours of travelling, they were received by Christ the King Church, a small but supportive community that welcomed them with open doors and hot food.
It was that physical, emotional and spiritual shelter that helped Claudia and her community find a new place to live. It helped her to overcome the trauma of multiple losses, to process her pain and anger and to recover hope.
Today, Claudia is a happy woman. She has not forgotten her experience. Instead, she has embraced it as part of her history and feels blessed to help other people who still experience the trauma of forced displacement. That’s what resilience is all about.
Communities of faith have a unique and indispensable role, because more than ‘surrendering weapons’, it is necessary to ‘give the heart’.
As for the accusations about alleged guerrilla support, some believe it was motivated by the interest of using the land for a hydroelectric power plant without having to compensate or pay for the land. In fact, the old strategy of fear tends to be much cheaper and more effective for groups wielding power than compensating and relocating families from poor communities.
Recent peace agreements with guerilla groups are not perfect, but many people believe that an imperfect agreement is better than no agreement at all. The more than 7 million people displaced in Colombia – and the millions who chose to go abroad – long for peace. If I learned anything from Claudia, from her community and from the Church of Christ the King, it is this: in the construction of a lasting peace, all social actors have a role. However, communities of faith have a unique and indispensable role, because more than ‘surrendering weapons’, it is necessary to ‘give the heart’.
Delivering weapons is relatively easy, but delivering the heart is more complicated and implies a profound change that involves us all: from those who lay down their arms, to college students who do not bully displaced or demobilised people, to neighbours who do not stigmatise and discriminate, to politicians who can govern in favour of their people.
Jesus said: ‘Blessed are those who seek peace, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God’ (Matthew 5:9). Today, more than ever, it is necessary for us to be a great tribe of peacemakers, willing to surrender more than weapons and willing to pay the price for doing so.
You can read more about Tearfund's work with those affected by war in Colombia in the 2018 Impact and Learning Report, which will be launched in Autumn 2018.
*Name changed to protect identity.