January 12, 2012

The Poetic Unfolding of the Human Spirit

by John Paul Lederach

Colombia – February, 2009


Over lunch break a vigorous soccer game ran up and down the green yard outside the convent retreat center in Los Pinares on the edge of Bogotá. At the center of the field, shouting instructions, a young Colombia woman kept up with the best of them scoring a winning goal in the waning minutes of the break. Half an hour later in the front row, Edilia¹ reported the details of the game and instigated others to join the next day. Our workshop on community transformation and peacebuilding started up again.

Forty people from sixteen mostly rural communities sat in a circle. Brought together by the experiences of armed violence and displacement from across Colombia, they sought words to explain what had been experienced. Explanations never come easy for things that lie beyond rational sense. Even questions fumbled from one frustration to the next.

The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda ended his illustrious publishing career with a small volume titled The Book of Questions. Linking three or four sentence-length poems per page, the book raised unanswerable question after unanswerable question. Our workshop feels like we have been dropped into his book.

How can I heal if the violence has not ended?

But how long do I wait on violence to end before starting?

How can I heal if it is dangerous to talk about what happened to me and my family?

In what tense do we conjugate healing from collective violence and massacres? Past? Present? Future?


What do we do with two hundred orphans in one set of villages?

How can we accept the very people who took the lives of their parents back into our village?

Will even God forgive those men with the chain saws and laughter on their face who took both arms off the father in front of his children?


How do we reconcile with people we never knew?

Why did the government give money to the demobilized militia commander but nothing to the families he killed?

How can we reconcile with people who never admitted doing anything wrong?

How do I prove I am a victim?


Where are the remains of my father?

When do we get to go home?

Is it safe?


Where was God?

Where is God?


These were the survivors. People who had lived and continue to live in some of the hardest hit local communities in Colombia's five decades of wars. Everyone in the room had tasted the salt that runs from eye to cheek, had felt the throat clenching fear that sends legs running at night, and the noisy heart throb echoing in the cavity of a bottomless silence. Victims, some would call them. Hardly the name they choose for themselves. In the passing of years, often facing new rounds of violence and displacement, they struggle to find voice, to speak words where the law of silence pervades in the land of forgetfulness.


Speaking the Unspeakable. That was title poet Robert Pinsky gave his recent New York Times review of Katheryn Harrison's book While They Slept. Across decades she had followed the story of a young teenager who murdered his parents and siblings in Medford, Oregon in the mid 1980s. One sister survived. The two have not spoken a word for three decades.

It perhaps takes a poet to situate what may otherwise appear in news media as a sensational anomaly in the context of this longstanding human inquiry, which remains for the most part unanswered. Pinsky looked to mythology and the classics, the literature before and beyond what he calls the 'the Freudian cure' and the 'too mild and cool' notion of the 'therapeutic'. He brings forward the figure of Philomena, her tongue torn from her mouth who transforms into a nightingale in order to 'sing' the accusations against her rapist. He cites the narrator's lament from Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus that 'it cannot speak' and is forced to look away, unable to absorb the tragedy heaped upon the destroyed yet living Oedipus: 'I would speak, ponder, question if I were able'.

The whole of Harrison's book deals with two survivors in a family. In our room in Los Pinares convent, we have forty people from eighteen communities who in their extended families and communities have lost hundreds. Generationally, across fifty years their communities have lost thousands. None of them suffered a one-time trauma. The see-saw battles of multiple armed groups fighting for their farms and allegiance had hit time and again. And were still hitting as we met.

As they say in Spanish, we do not recognize ourselves in the phrase post-conflict. Such a thing does not exist.

In Africa they have a proverb: When elephants fight the grass gets trampled. Ali Mazrui once noted that when elephants make love the grass also gets trampled.


Midweek we all leave Los Pinares to attend a public meeting in downtown Bogotá. Soon we are seated in a grand hall filled with Colombians. They are standing where seats end, on the spiral staircase in back, out to the door on the side. They have come for the launching of the book The Moral Imagination, just off the presses in Spanish and to pay homage to some extraordinary leaders. On my right sits Dámaris Vargas, daughter of assassinated campesino leader Josué Vargas. She watches a bit nervous as the hall fills. The night is, in part, recognition of her family's sacrifice.

Life has not been easy since she lost her father. Her mother, fearing reprisals did not want the children involved too closely and moved away from their home farm. But as Dámaris grew older she decided to go back and continue with the movement her father had initiated, the Association of Workers and Campesinos of the Carare River (ATCC). She eventually became Vice-President of the organization. Then in late 2008, only a few months earlier, heavy rains produced an unexpected flood that caught her younger son. Another in a long series of losses she decided to take time off and left for the capital city. When I told her the book was finally out and that I really hoped she could come to the launching, she was uncertain, not sure if it would be too much. But she met me outside the door and agreed to sit at the speakers' table.

We begin. I start with confessions.

The book was written in a period of professional and personal crisis. The personal crisis: After a severe car accident in Spain I was not sure I could go on. The professional crisis: After three decades of work I had noticed that the most interesting peacebuilding emerged spontaneously, and seemed to have little to do with all our peacebuilding work. Was this work worth it? And what if anything seems to be the core that holds it together?

The book sought answers in four stories, each pregnant with response from unexpected quarters. A young man in Northern Ghana who chose respect over vengeance and called his enemy accuser the paramount Chief, 'father'; a half a dozen women on the border of Somalia who refused to give up hope or succumb to violence; a Sufi poetry professor who walked unarmed into the mountains to bring down the last of the rebel commanders into the inter-Tajik peace talks. And of course, simple peasants from La India, deep in the heartlands of Colombia who started a most unusual nonviolent movement that squared off with armed groups of all stripes. Five or six of the founders of that movement are with us tonight, including one seated beside me who lost her father nearly twenty years ago.

I learned from these people. Simple things. Simple principles that when combined create movement and echo. They were visionaries. They had the capacity to envision a web of human connections that included building relationships with their enemies. They refused to accept a dualist "you are with us or against us" approach. They embraced complexity. They held a firm belief in the human capacity for creativity, forging ways forward in the face of violent threat that did not depend on weapons. None of them ever picked up a gun. And of course they took the risk to step into the unknown, armed only with love and courage in the midst of hate. These four qualities add up to something very different than political realism or expediency. Reaching out to enemies, embracing complexity, creativity and risk add up to the moral imagination in action. And their imagination put in action held the keys to breaking cycles of violence while still living under threat of the gun, vengeance, and retribution. They were artists. And the book follows the pathway of art and soul needed to find and follow this imagination.

I sat down.

Questions came.

To the last one of the evening I noted my hope that the book would, among other things, bring some stories of lived courage to the fuller awareness of the Colombian people, who did not seem to know about extraordinary examples in their own country like that of Josué Vargas and the ATCC. I explained that people in that remote and hard hit area of the country known as Magdalena Medio still remember a famous speech he gave that sparked the movement more than twenty years ago. Many locals can in fact recite it word for word. I had found that so inspiring that I decided to memorize his words myself and had repeated them many times in other parts of the world.

"Do it now," came the response.

I hesitated. I looked at Dámaris. She had heard those words as a young girl — most likely live, in person and on the spot — when they emerged from her father's mouth.

"Please," she said. I stood.

"First the context," I started. "Imagine we are, all of us here, among the hundreds convened by a notoriously violent Captain of the Colombian army but connected to the paramilitaries. We are milling about in an open plaza when the Captain arrives and then stands on a makeshift podium. Accompanied by dozens of heavily armed men they slowly circle and surround us.

The Captain starts his speech with these words: I have come here today to offer you forgiveness. Your forgiveness will take the form of an amnesty if you accept these weapons. He turns and shows the crowd boxes of guns. You are only asked to do the right thing, he says. We want you to join the ranks of local militia, to join us and fight the communist guerrillas.

His offer soon becomes an ultimatum, a demand about choosing sides in the conflict. He concludes with four choices.

  1. You can arm yourselves and join us. You will receive forgiveness.
  2. You can go and join the guerrilla. We will find and destroy you.
  3. You can leave your homes. Run. Flee. Become displaced.
  4. Or you can stay. But if you stay and do not join us, you will die.

These are your four choices today.

Imagine how you would feel standing in that plaza, afraid to even look at anyone of your neighbors. Stunned into silence. Wondering if yet another of a long string of massacres was about to be unleashed. Caught with no choice and no exit, and hoping that nobody says a word. And then out of the midst of the crowd a lone voice cries out.

Capitán, por favor.

Heads jerk to see who is speaking. Who, the fool, would dare speak? You could get us killed you want to shout. Please don't talk.

And there stands Josué Vargas, white straw hat perched on top of his lanky frame, feet solid in knee length black rubber boots. His words came spilling out, the ones that now nearly twenty-five years later remain alive on the tongues and memories of the people along the Carare River.

Capitán, por favor. You speak of forgiveness, but what do you have to forgive us? You are the ones who have violated. We have killed no one. We have never gone into anyone's house late at night and pulled them from their beds, or shot them in front of their families, or disappeared them never to be seen again.

And what is it that you are offering us? You want to give us millions in weapons, in guns paid for by the state, yet you will not facilitate even the minimum credit for our farming needs. There are millions for war but nothing for peace.

Tell us Capitán, how many men in arms are there in Colombia? By rough calculation I would say at least a 100,000, plus the police, plus 20,000 guerrillas, not to mention the Paras, the drug lords and private armies. And what has all this served? What has it fixed to have more guns and militias? Nothing. In fact Colombia is in the worse violence ever. We may be simple but we have arrived at the conclusion that weapons have not solved a thing and that there is not one reason to arm ourselves. We need farm credits, tools, tractors, trucks to make this little agricultural effort we try make produce better. You as members of the National Army, instead of inciting us to kill each other should do your job according to the national constitution, that is, you should protect the Colombian people.

Look at all these people you brought here. We all know each other. I can look around this Plaza and I know each and every face. These are my neighbors. We are not strangers. And who are you, Capitán? We know you. You are not a stranger to us. We know that some years ago you yourself fought on the side of the guerrilla and now you are the head of the paramilitaries. You brought people into our houses to accuse us, you lied, and you switched sides. And now you, a side switcher, you want us to follow your violent example?

Capitan, with all due respect, we do not plan to join your side, their side or any side.

And we are not leaving this place.

Today we have decided to think for ourselves.

Such was the moral weight of truth of those words that the Captain stepped down off the podium without a word and left the Plaza. The miracle that day was that not a single person was shot or arrested. And think for themselves they did. Within a few days that group of campesinos formed the ATCC and established their key principles and a quota.

Quota for entry into the organization: We do not want your money. We want a personal commitment — We will die before we kill.

They had principles:

  1. Faced with isolation: Solidarity. Everything in teams. Together.
  2. Faced with the law of silence: Complete transparency. We will speak openly and all are invited to our meetings.
  3. Faced with fear: Sincerity and a disposition to dialogue. We will understand those who do not understand us.
  4. Faced with violence: Talk and negotiate with everyone. We do not have enemies.

And they put the principles in motion. Within in weeks they began to walk out and meet the armed groups across their region. Hand painted signs went up at the edge of their villages: What the people from here say. You are welcome. No guns allowed in our area. They negotiated and they achieved the first civilian-initiated peace zones in Colombia. It came with a cost. It had to be renewed over and again. But they have never given up. The people you see sitting here at this table and those scattered among you in the audience are the living voices of this movement, still alive and inventing in 2009, twenty odd years since the speech of Josué Vargas."

I sat down, wondering if I got it right, worried I had parasited on sacred of words.

Later in the evening several of the friends from La India gathered round a table. "There are several things your story needs to know from that day in La India," they say. "First, Josué knew that Capitán, personally. Eighteen months earlier the Capitán had him arrested. They took him to a holding building they had near the airport outside Cimitarra. For weeks they tortured him. But they could not break him. He had nothing to confess. When Josué spoke those words, without remorse or vengeance, he was speaking to his torturer. That is why the words moved people and why some say the Capitán stepped down.

Second, you should not have such a professional crisis. You forget. Twenty-five years ago two of us came to a big academic conference in Bogotá. When they got back to La India they said the only thing that made sense was this one guy who cancelled a meeting to sit with them for a couple of hours around a coffee and helped draw out ideas and approaches on paper napkins. They came back with their version of your ideas, just as we were starting the ATCC. Kind of confirmed that what we were thinking was right. You may not have met him but your napkins reached Josué Vargas."

In peacebuilding sometimes it takes twenty years to notice a seed has sprouted.

The next morning a ten-word text came over the email from Dámaris. I am proud to be the daughter of Josué Vargas.


At the end of the week our workshop closed. I ride toward the airport with the ever-lively Edilia. She is excited to be headed home, back toward the interior of the country. She laughed when we discussed the last game of football at the Convent. Bogged down in Bogotá traffic we have time to talk. Family. Work. Life. And the unexpected.

Back Seat Taxi

"Where are you headed tonight?"

"Back to teaching."

"Me too. What age do you teach?"

"Well after university I went back to teach the younger ones,"

she said. "I like working with kids."

"Where do you teach?"

"Little town, south quite a ways from Bucaramanga."

"I was through there a few years back, place called

San José de Miranda. Left a huge impression on me."

"Wow, my village is just across that mountain."

"Is Padre Rafa still there?"

"Oh my yes, still there."

"San José de Miranda. I never felt more overwhelmed.

Sitting with so many widows and orphans."

"Yeah, too many of them out our way."

"One story haunts me. This young campesina woman telling

us how she watched her husband take bullet after bullet.

Then they used his head for soccer in front of her children…"

I felt my voice crack. She looked out the side window.

"That was my home town. My father was killed that day. Paras."

Silence held us like the last note of a lost lullaby.

"Father Rafa was so helpful. He pulled us through. He's why

I decided to go back.

I love teaching.

I love the kids."

This essay is excerpted from "The Poetic Unfolding of the Human Spirit" and reprinted with permission of the author.

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is a Senior Fellow at Humanity United, a project of the Omidyar Foundation; and a professor of International Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.