The Canadian PBI volunteers who accompanied Colombian communities attacked by paramilitaries in 1999
Steve Law and Evelyn Jones from Kennetcook, Nova Scotia were Peace Brigades International volunteers in Colombia in 1998-99.
On March 26, 1999, the head of the largest paramilitary organization in Colombia issued a death threat against international workers who were providing human rights protection and humanitarian aid to communities displaced by the civil war.
Steve says, “That was the most blatant demonstration by the paramilitary that they didn’t want us there. Things became very, very difficult for everyone living in this area, and for us.”
On April 4, 1999, just hours after Steve and Evelyn said their goodbyes to the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, a peace leader and two residents there were killed by the paramilitary group ACCU (Peasant Self-Defence Groups of Cordoba and Urabá).
The next day another paramilitary group, AUC (United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia), attacked the village of Arenal and the settlements of Villahermosa and Cano Seco.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Evelyn accompanied a United Nations delegation to an isolated river community that had seen seven members of its community tortured and killed and another seven leaders kidnapped and held for ten days.
Evelyn was witness to the physical and psychological devastation experienced by survivors. She consoled widows of the dead and disappeared. She also worked with other PBI volunteers to accompany several Colombian human rights defenders out of the region.
During this time Steve travelled to San Jose, a mountain community that had also been attacked by paramilitaries. Steve accompanied the bodies of those massacred in a solemn procession from the morgue to the cemetery.
Steve lived with the wounded survivors during their stay in the local hospital and spent several days providing nocturnal vigilance in the community, prepared to alert the town of possible further incursions of death squads.
After eight months in Colombia, Steve and Evelyn returned to Canada.
In September 1999, The Sunday Herald reported, “Canada values Colombia for its investment potential, Mr. Law says, but gives the country a minimal amount of aid. It limits the number of refugees from Colombia to 100 annually.”
That article continues, “During Colombian President Andres Pastrana’s visit to Canada earlier this year, Prime Minister Jean Chretien showed his support for the president and signed a framework agreement to liberalize trade with Colombia.”
It also notes, “The prime minister also threw in an offer to train Colombian military officers at the Lester B. Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in Nova Scotia.”
On December 2, 1999, Steve testified to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade about the human rights crisis in Colombia.
In February-April 2000, Steve and Evelyn embarked on a cross-country speaking tour to highlight the ongoing situation in Colombia.
As noted in the poster for that speaking tour, “PBI is a non-partisan organization that originated in Canada in 1981 in response to calls by Central American human rights organizations to provide non-violent accompaniment to human rights workers. Through protective accompaniment to organizations and communities, PBI seeks to reduce violence and open up political space for social change.”
This article is based on writings from that time by PBI activists Scott Pearce and Erika Zarate as well as an article in The Sunday Herald.