A church worker from Colombia has asked supporters in England and Wales to pray for the success of new peace talks for the troubled country.
Gerardina Cardozo, Programme Coordinator of FUNVIPAS (Vicariate Foundation for Social Ministry) – a CAFOD partner in the Vicariate of San Vicente del Caguán, one of the areas most affected by Colombia’s conflict of more than 50 years – is visiting England and Wales to thank schools and parishes for their support at a time when peace talks bring new hope to her region.
Gerardina is visiting the UK from October 1 to 7. She will be taking part in meetings in CAFOD’s offices in London, before going to meet schoolchildren at St Mary’s RC High School Hereford, and Bishop Vaughan Catholic School Swansea, CAFOD supporters from Christ the King in Llanishen, Cardiff, and to speak to journalism students in Cardiff.
According to announcements made by the Colombian President, exploratory peace talks will begin on October 5 in Oslo, Norway, and then the Cuban capital, Havana, between the Colombian government and members of the FARC guerrillas – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The FARC has been fighting the Colombian government since 1964.
But Gerardina warned about being over-optimistic, having lived through decades of conflict. She said: “It’s a beginning and not much more. It’s not a ceasefire. There have been no concessions from one side to another. And the big issue is that these talks are not taking place at home. We don’t even know the agenda or the methodology. As civil society, how are we going to participate?
“For peace in Colombia, the process needs to involve the whole country. It’s about those representing the people and taking decisions, those ‘in power’, to recognise that everyone must be involved – the unions, the multinationals, even the parish groups.
“We know people in Europe know about our work and are doing things themselves to help us, and it’s not easy, so I’m here to thank them for working with us.”
San Vicente is a traditional stronghold of the FARC guerrillas and, between 1998 and 2002, it was the centre of the demilitarized zone created as a safe haven for the FARC during the previous peace negotiations. Since 2003, the army has increased its presence in the region in order to root out the guerrillas.
Gerardina said: “The years after the demilitarized zone were very hard, but I’m 57, and it’s been this way since I was a small girl. Instead of peace, there has been blood, pain and sorrow. We don’t have a memory of living in peace. It will take a lot of work to design and build that.
“What makes it all work is my faith. I’ve got complete confidence that God is in my life. I have the total conviction that the love of God helps this work.”
FUNVIPAS has been in operation for nine years – working closely only two outside agencies, one of which is CAFOD.
Their mission is to promote peace, justice and reconciliation, and poverty reduction in witness to Christian faith and Gospel values which respect the environment and the dignity of human beings, regardless of race, gender, religion. CAFOD’s funding covers the Vicariate’s work with victims of the armed conflict with a specific focus on displaced communities and women.
In the last three years, FUNVIPAS began the process of setting up 16 parish social ministry teams in the Vicariate often travelling more than seven hours on rural roads by motorbike – or by boat – to get to parishes located in the 96,000km² covered by the Vicariate. A difficult journey in any conditions, but one made particularly hazardous during the annual heavy rains.
FUNVIPAS provides the parish groups with training on Catholic Social Teaching, human rights, citizenship and peace building. Such grassroots initiatives, which are made up of 372 parishioners (133 men and 239 women), are extremely important in a region affected by high levels of conflict. They allow communities to come together and discuss in confidence the problems that affect their community and put together plans to support local community development initiatives.
FUNVIPAS also regularly participates in missions to monitor the humanitarian and human rights situation in the region.
They also work with women who have suffered violence or abuse to help them to recover from the trauma they have suffered. As well as psychological support, women also receive training on women’s rights and receive advice and support to help them set up income generating projects. A few have been able to get back into education.
Gerardina said: “We’ve got marvellous stories of women who came to us after being raped by their partners, with scars from being hit, who had been thrown out of bed into the street – women that couldn’t speak to anyone, only work, cook, wash and have babies. But they’ve now been through university. They still live at home with their families but now are able to make decisions in their families. They have developed a relationship that’s overcome the typical kind of straitjacket, a relationship based on tolerance.
“We have a very very small fund to help them get to University – around £1,000 – and it pays a small portion of their fees. We’ve had 12 graduates in nine years. At the moment, there are 70 women in university. We give a tiny amount to each one. If we don’t do it like this, women can’t sit at the table with men to talk and discuss and to change things. But there are some 60-year-old women, who are only just finishing their primary education. But after education they can express themselves more.
“We were the first organisation to go out on the streets and demonstrate about sexual violence and rape. We got about 1000 people to march, which is great because it is a small place – there were men and women, and boys and girls.”
Barbara Davies, CAFOD Programme Officer for Peru and Colombia, said: “She is an amazing and courageous woman who has a wealth of experience of working on peace issues, strengthening women’s rights and providing support to displaced people and victims of the armed conflict and setting up parish volunteer groups in 16 remote parishes.”
Gerardina expressed her vision for San Vicente. She said: “For the future, we have a dream and the dream is of a San Vicente del Caguán:
“Where there is no armed conflict.
“Where there is no death, no displacement.
“Where there is no fear.
“Where there are no children forcibly recruited by the guerrillas. “Where there are no women raped by their husbands.
“Where you can cross the department’s borders more easily than as if you were trying to enter a foreign country.
“Where families can live and work.
“Where children can walk to school without the risk of stepping on a landmine.
“Where the women are respected.
“Where men also have good jobs to support their families.
“Where people’s rights are respected.
“Where the children can drink the milk that’s actually produced in the region.
“Where the people of San Vicente del Caguán can take part in politics that serve for all.
“Where there are good roads and electric power.
“Where everyone has a decent toilet.
“Where the walls of the houses are made of bricks and not cardboard. “Where the rights of the people, and the environment are respected by oil companies.
“Where people can simply live.”