Artistic expression provides us with a language [that] touches the fibers of our emotions and consciousness. It is a mix of feelings with materials… we have, here, objects of daily life that force us to mediate, contemplate and to transform. –Camilo Gonzalez Pozo, Director of the Center for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation.
Colombians dream big. So in 2007, when a few of our partners told me they wanted to build a museum to memory, a giant museum to sit in the heart of Bogotá — Colombia’s capital city of eight million — I should not have been surprised. But I was. And when they said they wanted LWR to help build it, well, that plain shocked me.
LWR works with communities in Colombia that have been hard hit by the country’s war. These are rural people who have seen the war play out in their own back yards, as armed groups fight over the very land they live on. It is land that is rich in resources, but often poor in public services. It is land that armed groups, narco-traffickers and even private investors battle over, because of the opportunity for wealth that it represents. For decades — even centuries — it is the land our partners have farmed.
Some of our partners, like Fabian, are survivors of horrific violence. Fabian lost 14 of his cousins and three of his uncles in the country’s infamous Chengue massacre in 2001. Fabian considers himself both a victim and a survivor of the massacre and of the sadness he lived with in its aftermath. “I suffered from antisocial behavior after that,” he told me. “I felt the violence marked me to my very core.”
To make matters worse, at the time our partners proposed this museum, many people, including Colombian political leaders, simply refused to believe their stories. The President of Colombia at that time was renowned for publicly criticizing victims of violence, human rights leaders and even development workers who promoted protection for victims, or advanced their cases in the justice system. This is to say, 2007 was not the best time to build a museum to the memory of victims in Colombia. It was probably not even the time to be discussing it. But our partners insisted.
“We have been afraid to talk about what happened to us. We fear that it will bring on more violence or conflict. But discussing what happened, and having families work through their pain together, unites us. It also helps rebuild trust among neighbors and move forward.” Fabian explained to me last week.
A year later, LWR began working with our partners Minga, Fundación Manuel Cepeda and Agenda Caribe to carry out psychosocial workshops with victims in four communities impacted by violence. The workshops provided greatly needed counseling and helped to strengthen community and victims groups working in rural regions. The workshops were the first of many steps toward healing and toward building back strong rural communities. “I thank LWR and its partner MINGA so much for [the workshops],” said Fabian. The workshops ultimately led to the creation of art, which today constitutes the memory gallery. The gallery depicts the violence our partners suffered, but also celebrates the rural livelihoods they love. The entire process has taken years, and last week LWR was able to celebrate some of the results.
The “We are Land” memory gallery opened in a prominent university in central Bogotá. It will be on display in the city before moving to other urban and rural centers in Colombia. Present at the event were victims of violence from Montes de Maria and Catatumbo, Colombia. LWR's Director for the Andean Region spoke, as did the Director for Bogota's Center for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation.
That's right, Bogotá is opening a center for Memory, in central Bogota! A lot has changed in Colombia since 2007, and the museum our partners dreamed about — the one I never thought would be built — is on its way to becoming reality. It is exciting to see how LWR took a chance, long before the government did, to help our partners develop a gallery of memory. LWR provided a forum for victims to work through the pain and divisions imposed by violence and in some ways helped opened the door to greater investment in similar public efforts.
After viewing this moving gallery with Fabian, and listening to his enthusiastic description of what each art piece represents, I asked him “What is next?” And like so many Colombians, he responded with a dream. “I want to continue studying. Psychology, actually. I want to help others overcome the barriers of violence like I have. Our land was abandoned in the massacre, but I would like to see people return to live there, and to work together on the land. I can help with that.”
After talking with Fabian, and experiencing the gallery last week, I now understand that with nightmares so mighty, LWR is lucky to have partners in Colombia who are working from their dreams.