Dreaming of a better life

by J. Ron Byler Ron Byler

It is the farmer who does the work who ought to have the first share of the crops. II Timothy 2:6

On December 4, 1996, a group of paramilitaries gathered the villagers of Pichilin, Colombia, shot and killed 12 of them and burned down many of the villagers’ houses. The next day, the 12 bodies were displayed in 12 different nearby communities in the coastal region as a warning not to participate with the resisting forces.

Most of the remaining 400 villagers left their village, becoming part of the five million other internally displaced Colombians over the years who have fled violence in the rural regions for the cities.

Seventeen years after the massacre, the memory of the 12 who died is still fresh in the minds of those in Pichilin. Only about a third of the villagers have returned.

Sembrandopaz (sowing peace), one of MCC’s partners in Colombia, is the only organization, including the government, that has offered help to the village after the massacre. Fifteen families are participating in a loan program to grow yucca on two hectares of land. The harvest provides food for the participating families, as well as a source of income in the marketplace.

When I visited the village recently, we met with the community action council to hear about their hopes for the future. “I am a young person and I want to work for my community,” said one person. “We must never forget those who have died,” said another. A third person described her dreams for how this farm village could prosper once again.

As we left the village, we promised to pray for the community and congratulated these leaders for not giving up, for dreaming of a community that could grow enough food for their families and respond to future challenges, for loving the earth and for loving their work.

On the edge of the village, we stood silently at a memorial commemorating those who had been killed. The memorial read: “We remember them…hands that build peace in the search for reparation for the victims of Pichilin.”

Even now, after I’ve returned to my country and home, I wonder whether my own government can do more than fund a ten year program, Plan Colombia, that provides most of its support for the Colombian military? Or whether my country can do better than institute fair trade laws that seem to only further pinch small rural farmers throughout Central and South America?

Or whether I can do more? And how? How can we work for a better life for these farmers and for the villagers of Pichilin?

Ron Byler is executive director for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

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