New Internationalist article on PBI in Sri Lanka, Guatemala and Colombia from 1998
Illustration by Sarah John.
On January 5, 1998, New Internationalist published this article titled Foreign Bodies about ‘a day in the life’ of Peace Brigades International by Luis Enrique Eguren. As PBI approaches its 40th anniversary in 2021, we share this article for historical memory:
Have you ever had the experience of being in a foreign country and feeling distinctly uncomfortable, definitely unwanted?
Peace Brigades International (PBI) volunteers have this feeling most of the time. But rather than wanting to leave, it is the reason they are there in the first place, accompanying people whose lives are under threat or observing in situations of fear.
Committed to non-violent resistance, their approach is low-key. But it saves lives. Humberto Centeno, a trade unionist in El Salvador, was clear about the role of the volunteers: ‘I was accompanied 24 hours a day. I can say categorically that being accompanied by foreigners in this way is one of the reasons I am alive today.’
Colombo, Sri Lanka, 5.00 am
A refugee camp. Almut and Pete, members of the team in Sri Lanka, arrive at the camp at the request of the refugees. There’s been a threat, from irregular paramilitary forces, that the refugees will be thrown out of the camp so that it can be removed. Almut and Pete are the only international presence, and they place themselves at the entrance to the camp, in a clearly visible position. Some local journalists turn up. They all wait.
Peten, Guatemala, 6.00 am
A mountainous region, more than 20 hours from the capital by four-wheel drive. Members of various Guatemalan organizations and a forensic team are excavating a mass grave. In it are the presumed victims of army massacres dating back to the early 1980s. Emma and Judith, members of PBI in Guatemala, are there as international observers.
It’s the beginning of the third day’s work. Anonymous threats against the work team have not been translated into action, as yet. Peasants have begun to trickle in from the surrounding area; among them are those who have broadcast the existence of this tomb. They want an investigation, at last, of the facts, after long years of silence.
Barrancabermeja, Colombia, 8.00 am
A group of people from local organizations are on their way to investigate claims of massive violations of human rights in a remote area, several hours by road from the nearest town. Francisco and Tessa, from PBI Colombia, join as international observers. The area is well known as a confrontation zone between guerrillas, the army and paramilitary forces. The paramilitaries have made death threats against ‘that human rights lot’, saying that ‘we’ll eat them for breakfast if they show their faces here’. Despite these threats, the commission and the international ‘accompaniment’ set out in two vehicles towards the area. They have given prior notice of their trip to the civil and military authorities.
Colombo, 11.30 am
After several hours of waiting in the morning heat, two vehicles arrive with armed people in military dress. They enter the camp shouting, but their attitude changes on seeing the international observers and the press. After a tense meeting with the refugees in the camp, the paramilitaries leave, visibly put out and not without issuing a threat: they will soon be back to evict the refugees once and for all.
Barrancabermeja 13.00 pm
The commission of investigation and its international accompaniment have arrived at their destination. The Colombian organizations have already begun several interviews with local inhabitants, who show great fear of talking. Threats permeate the atmosphere.
Peten, 14.00 pm
The exhumation takes its course. Shots are heard little more than a kilometre away, which causes unease among those present. The peasants say it is the army, firing into the air to frighten them. One of the international observers and a member of the forensic team set off to ask the nearby army post what is going on.
Colombo, 15.00 pm
Urgent meeting of the PBI team. Since the situation in the refugee camp appears serious they decide to tell the project office (in Oxford, England) to activate the Emergency Response Network, so that the Sri Lankan authorities can be pushed into intervening.
Barrancabermeja, 16.00 pm
The investigating commission and the observers set out on the return journey. A military patrol intercepts them along the way and interrogates them with some hostility. The patrol talks by radio with its commanders. Eventually the commission and the observers continue their journey.
Peten, 17.00 pm
The work team finishes for the day. The PBI observer and the member of the forensic team return from their visit to the military base: no-one there knows what the reason for the shots might be, but they will look into it. The atmosphere is very tense. PBI calls its office in the city of Guatemala to stand by in case anything happens.
Bogotá, 20.00 pm
The PBI team receives a call from an organization of lawyers working on human rights: one of its members has been detained. Since this lawyer has already received many threats, the organization asks PBI to visit the police station and ascertain his physical condition: two PBI people accompany a lawyer to the police station. The night will be a long one. One more among so many. The hope for better times and greater peace always remains. That is, precisely, what they are working for.
–by Luis Enrique Eguren