“My time with PBI helped me to understand what it means to fight for justice and equality”: Barb MacQuarrie

Published by Brent Patterson on

Photo: The PBI team in 1986: Left to right: American woman, French diplomat & wife, French man, Barb MacQuarrie, Padre Alain, Alice Norton (Canada).

As Peace Brigades International approaches its 40th anniversary in 2021, we are sharing the reflections of past volunteers from Canada who accompanied at-risk defenders in various PBI project countries over the years.

Barb MacQuarrie in London, Ontario writes:

In 1985 I was working in the office of the Union des Pacifistes du Québec, a tiny room on the east side of Montreal where snow blew through the cracks in winter and fleas moved in each summer, when I opened an appeal from PBI for volunteers to accompany members of the Mutual Support Group (GAM) in Guatemala. Members of the group had been assassinated and Padre Alain, a Franciscan priest leading the work of PBI in Guatemala, was looking for volunteers to lend their privileged status as foreign nationals to help shield family members of the disappeared and politically assassinated from a similar fate. Friends rallied to organize a fundraiser and three days later I had a plane ticket to Guatemala City.  

PBI’s philosophy of not engaging in political organizing or undertaking activities that Guatemalans themselves could do made immediate sense to me. Likewise, the insistence of being nonpartisan in a deeply divided and very partisan environment appealed to me. Our goal was to protect lives and to let those struggling for justice find solutions. We were not to be crusaders, riding in to save the day. Activists and leaders from more privileged parts of the world standing down to allow Guatemalans take leadership roles felt like an appropriate balancing of power.

I welcomed the opportunity to put principles of nonviolence into action. In practice that meant spending hours in the workspaces, the travel spaces and sometimes in the intimate home spaces of Guatemalan activists seeking justice and peace.

Just before the 1986 election that would bring a democratically elected president to power, the PBI team was expelled. Our small team of three, led by Padre Alain, retreated to Costa Rica to wait out the election and to return to the country when Vincio Cerezo was installed in office. In Costa Rica we worked to define the work of PBI and came up with the concept of “Making Space for Peace.” It encapsulated perfectly what volunteers from around the world came to Guatemala to do and I’m really gratified to see that it is what PBI continues to do around the world.

During my six months in the country, I learned about Guatemalan history and culture and I met many people who made a profound impression on me. One man, whose daughter had been ‘disappeared’ summed it up just before I left Guatemala, “You have left a piece of your heart with us and we have left a piece of our hearts with you.” 

I returned to PBI in 1987 as the sole woman on a three-person team to explore the possibility of working in El Salvador. Before we could complete our work, one member of the team was captured (arrested) and had to leave the country. A second member became very ill and had to go home. An advisor based in Costa Rica called and asked what I was going to do. I replied that I was going to buy a stove for the PBI house. New recruits arrived and the mission continued.

A large network of groups not involved in the armed struggle, were working for justice. They included trade unions, churches, refugee organizations, human rights organizations and a group of family members of prisoners, the disappeared and the politically assassinated. As PBI volunteers, we accompanied all of them at various times. Unable to provide individual accompaniment except in the highest risk situations, we set up a presence in their offices.

As in Guatemala, we worked on tourist visas and our legal status was always precarious. Sometimes our explicit mission to provide a visible international presence conflicted with the need to avoid coming to the attention of the authorities in a way that would be threatening to them. Our strict adherence to the principles of nonviolence was our only bargaining chip. I was able to use that effectively when I was captured (arrested) and held in a Salvadoran prison without charges for 72 hours. Throughout the constant questioning, I maintained an insistence that PBI is a nonviolent organization and I am a pacifist. The military officials at the prison were able to verify that by reading a diary I had with me when I was captured. After my release they told the Canadian Consular General in El Salvador that I could stay in the country because I was nonviolent.

Left: Barb MacQuarrie cautiously looks out of bombed union headquarters in El Salvador. Top right: PBI volunteers provided accompaniment to demonstrators of the Permanent Committee on the National Debate for Peace. Bottom right: Barb MacQuarrie in the office of the CoMadres, a group representing family members of political prisoners, the disappeared and the politically assassinated.

Although the Guatemalan regime was brutal with its own citizens and particularly with the Indigenous population, they were generally more careful about foreign nationals than the Salvadoran authorities, who famously murdered four American Maryknoll sisters and five Spanish Jesuit Priests, their cook and her teenaged daughter. Fortunately, PBI volunteers avoided being killed, but several us of were jailed for short periods of time. And I was in the office of the National Federation of Salvadorian Workers when it was bombed in February of 1989. No lives were lost during that incident or in a subsequent bombing in September. In October of the same year, a more powerful bomb killed forty unionists and wounded nine others in the same building.

Top: Procession in 1988 to commemorate the 1983 massacre of Las Hojas, El Salvador. Bottom: Barb MacQuarrie with people from the community of Las Hojas.

In El Salvador I was particularly drawn to the struggles of a small population of Indigenous people in the Western part of the country. Despite horrific historical violence and repression, they maintained a connection to their Indigenous identity and were trying to strengthen and reclaim their cultural roots. In 1983 this violence was revisited upon them when 74 people were massacred at the Indigenous cooperative of Las Hojas. I spent many days at Las Hojas, providing accompaniment to the people who remained in the community. 

My time with PBI helped me to understand what it means to fight for justice and equality, not from the perspective of a relatively protected foreign national, but from people who put their lives on the line everyday and who often paid the ultimate price for demanding freedom, justice and equality. I have an enduring respect for the spirit and the tenacity of those who participated in the struggle for justice and who are still trying to lead their people out of grinding poverty and a legacy of violence from the civil wars.

Please consider making an online donation to PBI-Canada to help us with our continuing outreach efforts to find volunteers to accompany defenders. Accompaniment continues to be critically needed in helping to make space for peace.

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