Turning Outward Amidst a Civil War in Colombia

Ramon Daubon is an independent consultant who works on the democratic behavioral issues in Latin American and US communities.  As a coach in training as part of The Harwood Institute’s Public Innovators Corps, Daubon has brought key Harwood principles to his work.  Harwood's "turning outward" approach has become the central focus of his training workshops in communities in North America and Latin America.

Recently Daubon incorporated The 3A's, Community Rhythms, Public Capital and Public Knowledge into a workshop for community activists in the conflicted Colombian city of Cartagena.  Here is his story.

Fabled Cartagena has always been haunted by violence.  The colonial pearl of Colombia’s Caribbean, the walled and fortified city has been, throughout its long history, prized by corsairs and invading armies.  Now a relatively peaceful haven amidst the country’s long civil war, as displaced populations from elsewhere seek refuge in its poor neighborhoods and former combatants seeking new lives and new identities from all factions add to the bulging slums.  Twenty percent of the city’s one million inhabitants is made up by newcomers.  Everyone is familiar with one another’s background and the tensions are obvious.

Sponsored by a local university, a corporate foundation, the European Union and the presidential commission for the re-integration of ex-combatants and displaced persons, the “ReconciliArte” project helped old residents, refugees and ex-combatants turn outward toward each other by using the arts as a catalyst for working together.   The shared action led to an interest in learning more about collaboration, and ReconciliArte invited the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue (IISD) to explore training local instigators of multi-stakeholder initiatives for improving the quality of life in three large squatter communities.  The idea was to whet participants’ appetite to become moderators of dialogue and subsequently multiply the conversations in other Cartagena communities.

Of the 28 participants in this trial workshop: half were traditional neighborhood “leaders” and the rest were divided evenly between displaced persons and ex-combatants. The ex-combatants were made up of Colombian military, the private paramilitary armies, two separate but coordinated guerrilla movements, and the armed foot-soldiers of the narco-traffickers.

Interestingly, in the course of the workshop former combatants insisted in being treated as one group, indicating rather poignantly that their differences in the battlefield had become meaningless at this stage. They were a sober group.  Their formal educational level was low, but the atmosphere was extremely friendly and open and the participants, particularly ex-combatants, were extremely articulate.

The workshop invites participants to assume a different view of than that which is familiar: a discussion of relationships and their components in general as the building block of communities, of the different ways that people have of relating, and of how changing the inner workings requires changing those components in those different kinds of relationships.  Using Harwood’s tools and frame work we went into a detailed discussion of the The 3A’s as a required introspection by these aspiring instigators of community change,  followed by an initial assessment of the communities’ Public Knowledge, Community Rhythms, and Public Capital.    These efforts were the foundation of the work which followed.  Participants responded very positively to such a preparatory approach for the community-building work that followed.

We then went into a discussion of tensions and the difficulties in repairing shredded relationships or even building them anew.  I felt considerable trepidation over the subsequent use of two exercises about exploring participants’ sense of identity.  War, it seems, is the ultimate definer of “the other;” he who must be killed, whose very identity is a mortal threat.  Totally unrelated to what he may believe in, he is just “the enemy.”  Well, it was a revelation.  Keep first in mind that “recruitment” in any of these fighting forces is not a voluntary act; one is drafted into any of these armies by sheer proximity: they need you, they see you and they take you.  In the process of training you to kill they emphasize that you may not leave; any attempt to desert is harshly dealt with by publicly killing the deserter.  Once you start killing and fearing the other, esprit de corps develops and loyalties become sincere and intense. Rewards of money and recognition for bravery are many and reinforce loyalty, but still, one never really understands what one is fighting for.

Well, once out of their active identity as combatants, these battle-scarred veterans began to see each other as similar: facing the similar prejudice of the communities into which they seek re-admittance as well the hatred of the refugees who blame them for their misfortune and label them as criminals.  When doing a map of the conflict they insisted on being treated as one category (“ex-combatants”) and repeatedly in the conversation referred to themselves as also victims of the conflict, disconnected from the decision-makers among the respective power stakeholders in the fight.

The exercises were a huge success.  Both based around pairs of participants from different communities, one examined prejudices based on a cursory presentation of the other person, while the other examined such prejudices after interviewing the other person in depth.  Both exercises were intense, the prejudice expressions were quite open and the questions for the interviews probed surprisingly deeply.  Afterwards, some expressed resentment over the way they had been cast by their “partner” in the exercise, but as one ex-combatant expressed, “I know what I did and it was my decision to do it; I regret it now but I recognize my responsibility in doing what I did and the power I have to make a different decision now.  Afterward they praised the exercises. ” It was very, very heavy.