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Real lives

Territory of Peace

When I was three years old, some men came to our house and murdered my parents and two-year-old brother. We were living in a beautiful valley in Santander in a tiny one-roomed house. I remember playing on the patio with my sisters, Sandra and Beatrid, and all around us lay fields of potatoes and corn, the forested hills and the mountains beyond. I often stayed with my grandmother who lived close by, and was with her the day that our parents and Roberto were killed. I am glad I didn't see what happened, but my sisters, who were five and six years old at the time, saw everything. They have never forgotten.

Armed men surrounded the house. They shouted that they had come to take Roberto away. Our mother was inside the house giving him a bath. She grabbed him and ran out of the house, trying to escape, but the men fired their weapons and killed her. Roberto fell to the ground and was crying. Our father, who was inside the house with Sandra and Beatrid, took them to hide under the bed covers. Then he went outside to get Roberto but the men began shooting again. They killed my father and Roberto as well, then they came inside the house. They ransacked it, and discovered Sandra and Beatrid hiding under the covers.

My sisters were hysterical, holding onto each other and screaming, "Please don't kill us! Please, please don't kill us!"

They seized Sandra and Beatrid, dragged them outside and tied them to a fence post, not far from the place where the bodies of our parents and Roberto lay. My sisters were stuck there for half an hour or more until a friend of our father's came and set them free. Then they ran, crying and terrified, to find me and our grandmother.

Sandra and Beatrid couldn't stop crying. They said that they didn't want to go on living any more because our parents and Roberto were dead.

No one knew why it had happened, but we think it was over a personal dispute between my father and one of the men. No one knew what to do with us. Our grandmother was too old to look after us. But neighbours, who already had three or four children of their own, took us in.

I remember that their house seemed quite large and that we even had separate rooms. We called them 'uncle' and 'aunt', and although they weren't our relatives they treated us well. I think they wanted to keep us but after a while a blood relative came and took us away. At first we thought we were going to live with this relative but then she decided not to keep us either. Instead, she took us to a priest at the local church. This story supplements others  told in the Out of War book. All of the young people are part of the Children's Movement for Peace in Colombia, which was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 - and every year since. Note: The last names of the young people involved are withheld; their ages reflect how old they were when they told their stories. Armed groups are not identified by name.

The priest arranged for us to go to Bogotá because he thought that there we would have a better chance of finding a home. We travelled by truck to the city and cried almost the whole way, we were so frightened. We had no idea where we were going. The truck was rough and uncomfortable, and we all vomited many times. It was the worst journey we ever took in our lives. The only good thing was that when we got to the city, the people who met us gave us some clean clothes to wear.

In Bogotá, we went to a centre where many children were living and they decided to split us up. They sent us to three different families. I don't have much memory of that time but I know we were miserable. My sisters were in even a worse state than me. At least I had been used to being away from them because I often stayed with my grandmother, but they had always been together, and they had suffered the trauma of the killing together. Separating them did not help them forget the experience. It made it worse because there was no one around who understood.

None of us settled down with our new 'families' and entually it was decided that we should all stay together and live in Benposta. Benposta is a special community where adults and children who have been affected by violence live together in peace and as equals. The Bogotá Benposta was founded in 1973 by a Spaniard called José Luis. It is a pretty, tranquil place protected by a high fence. To the south, where the land falls away steeply, there is a spectacular view across Bogotá city.

At first, Sandra, Beatrid and I didn't understand what kind of place it was. We were assigned to bunks in a dormitory with many other girls. We didn't know who they were or where they came from. We were afraid of everyone and everything - of the dark, the sounds of the city, of every sudden noise. We started going to classes at the Benposta school but we had forgotten how to listen. We couldn't concentrate because we were distracted by everything. We were embarrassed, angry and aggressive.

But José Luis took a special interest in us,and everyone was very patient. They explained over and over what was expected of us, and gradually we learned how Benposta worked. We also learned to trust José Luis, to realize that we were safe and that no one would ever take us away. That was when we began to live again. More than 150 children live in Benposta and all of us have suffered. Some are orphans. Some have been badly abused, neglected, and abandoned by their parents. Some have been targets for gang assassinations or in trouble with drugs. Most of us arrived when we were between 8and 14 ears old. Once we are here, we can stay forever if we want. Almost all the adults working at Benposta also grew up here.

Benposta is a community run by a council of adults and children who are elected by everyone. Each dorm has its own representative and even the youngest children can choose who that should be. The council makes decisions about everything. One of our rules, for instance, is that when a girl and a boy decide to become girlfriend and boyfriend, they announce this to the assembly of children. We do this because it is a way of showing that having a relationship carries responsibilities. We cannot and should not play with each other's feelings. In a small community like ours, which depends so much on cooperation, heartbreak can be disruptive. Another rule is that children who have disputes with each other can present the problem to the council. But we always try to help each other find solutions to problems, so that disputes do not have to go this far.

Benposta has very little money. The dorms are basic and our food is simple. We go to school inside the compound and are joined by another 300 day-students who come from other nearby barrios [poor neighbourhoods]. We have classes in the morning and, in the afternoon, we work for the community - there are schedules for cleaning the rooms, making furniture, working in the gardens and for helping in the kitchens. In the afternoons we also have creative classes in dance, art and theatre.

Benposta is based on the idea that peace is created through justice, liberty, democracy, respect, good behaviour and community government. Sometimes, outsiders criticize us for being an isolated and idealistic island of peace in the middle of a terrible, chaotic and violent country. People say that what we have created here cannot be reproduced in the 'real world'. Yet I think that if we can create a place like Benposta among people who have suffered so much, why can't others do the same? Benposta's principles are not unusual. We are all supposed to believe in democracy and justice and respect - so why not put them into practice as we do? Even very young children can understand what democracy means if it is explained to them and if they experience it in their lives. If children believe that their decisions matter then most will make good choices.

In 1996, when I was 10 years old, we heard about the Children's Movement for Peace, and it was natural for all of us at Benposta to join. We voted for our rights in the Children's Mandate [election] and in 1997, during the run-up to the Citizen's Mandate, we formally declared Benposta to be a 'Territory of Peace'. We erected a signboard at the entrance to the compound that showed the symbol of the white hand against a green background. It meant that in this place, no conflict would be resolved through violence. In this place, all human rights would be respected. In this place, children would always come first and would never be the victims in the disputes of adults. During that year thousands of schools, offices, parks and other places erected the 'Territory of Peace' symbol. In some parts of the country, whole villages declared themselves to be 'Communities of Peace'. In all these places, people and children were claiming the right to stay out of the war and to reject violence. It was a wonderful and beautiful idea, although unfortunately many of the armed groups refused to recognize that right.

For me, the Movement is important because it gives a lot of different children the opportunity to express their feelings about the war and their ideas about making peace. For a long time children have been caught up in the problems of war, but we've never had the chance to be part of the solution. Street children, orphans and very poor children especially have very little chance to express their feelings or to create their own solutions.

The Children's Movement is not perfect, and we have many problems, especially in communicating with each other. But it has a good heart, a good mission. I think of it as an ever-expanding river, getting fuller and richer all the time. Our most important message is that children can be involved in peace building now, in our friendships and relationships, and by helping our communities. If you help other people then they will help you, and life will become better for everyone.

Last year, for the first time, Sandra, Beatrid and I went back to the place where we were born. We went to see our old home. It was abandoned but still standing. We could see the bullet holes left in the walls when our parents and baby brother Roberto were killed twelve years earlier.

We knew that their bodies had been buried in a cemetery and that a stone marker had been erected listing their names. Unfortunately, someone destroyed the marker with bullets and it was impossible for us to find their grave. My sisters and I built a small altar ourselves, placed some flowers there and said prayers for our family.

It was a hard journey for us. One of our aunts, whom we had not seen in a long time, said to us, "What an awful family name to have!" She meant that our name was somehow infamous because of the way our parents were killed. The way she said it, without thinking about how she would hurt us, was very cruel. Sandra was especially upset, but Beatrid and I comforted her. We told her to ignore it, that our aunt was simply careless and did not realize what she was saying. Often people do not realize the ways they can hurt a child who has suffered the way we have.

When I go to church, I find the Mass difficult because in the prayers we are often asked to give thanks to our parents for bringing us into this world, yet when I think of my parents I think of grief and suffering. It is only when I think of Benposta, and the way we help each other there, that I can give thanks. Many children have suffered in the war, and some have suffered even more that Sandra, Beatrid and I. Too few have been as lucky as we have in finding a way out.



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