Teaching Peace In A Time Of War


On
May 26, Colombian voters elected the former mayor of Medellin, Alvaro
Uribe, president. The candidate of the right, Urib president e has
long-standing ties to paramilitaries, who are accused of the worst
of the human rights violations and massacres that have marked Colombia’s
decades-long civil war. Uribe has called for an all-out war against
the left-wing insurgency. 

Many
Colombians fear that an escalation of the war will bring greater
attacks on unionists and those sections of civil society which have
already been targets for assassination. Last year, 159 Colombian
trade union leaders were violently murdered. The year before, assassinations
cost the lives of 129 others. According to Hector Fajardo, general
secretary of the Unitary Confederation of Workers (CUT), 3,800 trade
unionists have been assassinated in Colombia since 1986. Last year,
out of every five trade unionists killed in the world, three were
Colombian, according to a recent report by the United Steel Workers. 

Those
who know Uribe best, the residents of Medellin and the state of
Antiochia, where he was also former governor, call for negotiations
and peace. Ligia Inez Alzate Arias is one of the many educators
fighting to provide an education to Medellin’s children in
the midst of budget cuts and civil war, where teachers have organized
a unique effort to get guns out of the classroom and to begin teaching
a culture in which the children of participants in different armed
groups can learn to live with each other. 

Alzate
was general secretary of the Association of Instructors of Antioquia
for 12 years and a leader of the CUT in Antioquia. Five years ago
she returned to the Presbyterio Camilo Torres Restrepo Elementary
School, where she’s now the principal, to begin finding ways
to remove the war from the classroom. 

Being
a teacher union activist is the most dangerous job in Colombia.
From 1986 to 2001, 418 educators were murdered. In just one week
in early May last year, Dario de Jesus Silva, a 22-year veteran
teacher in Antioquia Department (where Uribe was governor), and
Juan Carlos Castro Zapata, another school worker in the same province,
were assassinated. Both were activists in the teachers’ union.
On May 14, Julio Alberto Otero, a university lecturer and union
activist, was also killed. 

Over
85 percent of trade union assassinations are laid at the feet of
the country’s paramilitary death squads. But Human Rights Watch
and almost all other observers say the Colombian military provides
them arms and logistical support in a covert “dirty war.” 

The
government targets teachers because they have helped lead resistance
to budget priorities, which threaten to abandon the country’s
educational system. The Colombian Federation of Educators (FECODE)
struck for 48 hours on May 15, 2001, over a proposal to cut the
education budget by $340 million.  

I
spoke with Ligia Inez Alzate about her experiences. 

DAVID
BACON:
What made you become a teacher? 

LIGIA
ALZATE: I started teaching in a rural town 16 hours outside of Medellin,
where we were actually building the school where I was assigned.
At the time, the army was looking for guerrillas who belonged to
the National Liberation Army (ELN). That August, the army bombed
the school because they said the guerrillas were meeting there on
Sundays and we were allowing it. The government recalled me, saying
it was too dangerous to work under those conditions. 

How
do Colombian teachers cope with having to provide an education in
the middle of a war? 

Students
in our school belong to gangs formed by different social groups—guerrillas,
right-wing para -militaries, criminal gangs, and organizations of
drug traffickers. They take guns into the schools and soon they’re
firing at each other at the school gates. 

So
in our school we implemented a project called Living Together and
made our school a zone of peace. That means that everyone who comes
in has to leave their guns behind and learn how to live with other
people. At the beginning it was very difficult, because we had to
speak with the actual organizers of the gangs. 

Adults
are responsible for giving guns to children. They even train them
in how to use them. So we began saying that we wouldn’t accept
the presence of weapons in school. 

How
many children were killed in your first year at school? 

Just
at the school, two, but in the area around the school, many more.
The whole reason for carrying the guns was to use them. In the early
1990s, even teachers were being killed by students who weren’t
allowed to graduate. 

Were
the children afraid of what would happen to them if they began leaving
their guns at home or outside of school? 

Yes,
they were afraid to admit that they were carrying guns. They were
also afraid about what would happen outside. We realized that the
situation was even more serious in the schools around us. We began
discovering what the guns were being used for. 

One
boy told us he had a gun to use at night to kill people pointed
out by the drug dealers. After confessing what he was doing, he
was found assassinated in a nearby barrio. 

One
day some of the principals were talking about what to do about the
kids who were arriving late. We found they were using drugs outside
of school time and making connections in the school. That’s
when we began to see that there were other actors involved. Investigating
in the barrio, we discovered that organizations of drug dealers,
guerrillas, and common criminals were all involved. Paramilitaries,
too. 

How
did the adults who were responsible react to this? 

They
felt that this was none of the schools’ business, that it was
their problem. Given the seriousness of the situation, we organized
forums in the community called Agreeing to Live Together and tried
to talk with the adults who were training the children. 

We
had meetings with the heads of the different organizations about
living together and about non-aggression. They would come to these
meeting with hoods over their heads, so their identity would be
hidden. 

At
first, they tried to close their eyes to the problem, but after
a while they got used to having to talk about it. We also realized
that to make schools a zone of peace, we would have to present some
alternative to arms and drugs for young people. All over the state
we got the government to build playing fields for sports, so young
people would have something else to do. We built cultural centers. 

The
discussion about the violence became much broader than just the
schools, to encompass the whole society. We told the women, “You’re
the mothers of the children who are killing other children. We have
to talk about this.” The discussion went on in the whole community.
We were able to stop the war in our schools for two years. 

What
is the situation in your school now? 

We
no longer have children carrying guns. They are much calmer. Using
the Peace Curriculum, the students speak about the benefits of understanding
each other, and talking through disagreements. As a result, our
school is a place to study and learn, for knowledge and investigation,
not for conflict. Our parents now defend our school and try to get
the government to give us the resources we need. We have agreements
about appropriate behavior and sometimes parents accompany their
children to class. They’re very concerned now about the quality
of instruction. 

Is
the escalation of the war having an impact on Medellin? 

This
year the situation became very dangerous again, because the paramilitaries
entered our city. They took over a big section of Medellin, in zones
where we had been working. It’s much more difficult to have
a dialogue with the paramilitaries. They’re organized and financed
by the army. It’s a way for the government to intervene directly
in our communities. 

Some
schools have had to close for two or three months at a time, because
the fights between the gangs have become much sharper. This causes
the problem to spread, because the students who are displaced then
go to other schools to finish their studies. Our classrooms are
too small to accept them all. In some schools, there are 60 to 65
students in a single classroom. These schools then become the ones
where the violence is the worst. The paramilitaries even stop public
buses from entering those barrios, so the children no longer have
a way of getting to school. 

Have
you been able to get the cooperation of the government in controlling
the paramilitaries? 

No,
we haven’t been able to get the paramilitaries to have the
same kind of dialogue with us. Other groups have respected the education
process. But not the para- militaries. 

Is
that because they look at teachers and unions as an enemy? 

To
them, we are a military target. They accuse teachers of fighting
against the government’s education reform law. When we try
to organize parents to oppose it, they accuse us of being insurgents. 

We
know the government is behind them. When workers began fighting
the law that substituted individual negotiations for collective
bargaining, many workers were killed. When they try to take over
bankrupt businesses that still owe them back wages, the owners send
paramilitaries to kill the workers. That’s called insurgency
by the paramilitaries. 

How
have teachers tried to assert their political rights, given that
level of repression, and how has the government responded? 

In
1992 we participated in formulating Colombia’s basic education
law. Teachers wrote some of the articles, which were incorporated
into the Constitution, and established that education was a responsibility
of the state, the family, and the whole of society. We broadened
the concept of education to include defending the environment, preserving
life, and the right to use technology. We looked at education as
a process that goes on from birth to death. 

Preschool
teachers helped draw up the law that covers that part of education.
Teachers in technology or in academic subjects helped to decide
what should be covered in those areas. We all contributed our experiences.
The most important part of the law was Section 60, which mandated
a special budget for education consisting of 60 percent of the net
national budget. 

In
May 2001 the Interior Ministry, at the command of the International
Monetary Fund, decided to break the teachers movement and reform
the education law by getting rid of the special budget. They substituted
a system in which education became the responsibility of different
states, without providing them any resources. Today we have no guarantee
of funds for education. 

The
reforms the government proposes are all coming from the International
Monetary Fund. They want to privatize social services, making individuals
responsible for their own education and health care, although people
have no jobs and often not even enough money for food. The government
wants to make it easier for foreign companies to exploit our natural
resources and labor. 

Do
you think peace is possible? 

This
is a very critical moment, in which the war is flaring up again.
But the people who are demanding peace are growing stronger. We
are all working for peace. We have a strong civil society, which
is very organized. We believe that we can each begin with ourselves.
But there must be international intervention that demands the will
to make peace. 

What
is it like to be a trade union leader in Colombia? We know that
over 150 union leaders there are murdered every year. 

Being
a trade unionist is very dangerous in Colombia. We’re called
terrorists, because we fight for better conditions, for collective
bargaining, and because we oppose the restructuring of laws governing
education, labor rights and so on. All these actions make us military
targets. 

Many
political points of view are represented in our federation, including
the traditional parties, as well as parties which may sympathize
with the insurgency. We are constantly struggling against increased
prices for basic services, denouncing the exploitation of our natural
resources and the revenues from that leaving the country, and fighting
to keep the right to collective bargaining. 

Do
unions see a way out? 

The
CUT has proposed a number of steps towards peace. We want to include
all social movements in this process—workers, women, youth,
community leaders, and others. All should be able to express their
needs, and propose their own agendas. 

We
declare internationally that no one represents us—not the guerrillas
or any other force. We are joining a large section of the population
that is rejecting violence. We want the negotiations between the
government and the guerrillas to begin again and civil society needs
to be included. We need a cease fire. 

The
U.S. Congress voted $1.7 billion for the Colombian military 2 years
ago, under Plan Colombia, supposedly to fight drugs. What do you
think of this policy? 

Plan
Colombia is a time bomb. They fumigate the illegal crops, but they’re
ruining the land and involving communities that have nothing to
do with the drug war. The war has left a path of destruction, wreaking
havoc in the areas of the oil pipelines, destroying many small towns.
We need to build infrastructure in the country, reactivate our national
economy and agriculture, and give people a way to make a living
and stay on their land. 

The
money for the military is really going to support the arms trade,
instead of supporting Colombians. Instead of investing in war, we
need to invest in peace.




David
Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer.