Communiques From PGA Tour

The PGA conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia was followed by an 18-day people's caravan through Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Twenty-five delegates who had attended the conference continued on the caravan, which met with people from social movements during its journey north. These accounts illustrate starkly what activists in these countries are up against.

Fighting same with same

Quito, Ecuador: Sitting looking at my friend, I feel my insides fall away and my head swim. I'm unable to comprehend what he is telling me. Two of his friends were murdered by the paramilitary today. It was only three days ago that he told me one of his old housemates was killed while we were in Cochabamba [at the PGA conference]. I am so out of my depth. I flounder and look at him trying to gauge his feelings. He is not crying, but he is not stoic either. He looks tired and heavy, but still carries his daggy, light energy.

We are having a day off the [PGA] caravan and are in a 'campasino' building in Quito. The day before, I visited the border province of Ecuador and listened to horrible stories about the refugees, fumigations and Plan Colombia violence there. Someone is playing guitar and there are innumerable bottles of alcohol scattered around the backpacks and mattresses. It seems so incongruous to the stories Marco* is telling me. But then, I can't imagine where his stories would make sense to me; given my background and the comfort zone I inhabit most of the time.

I have my arm around him. I am wondering if I will see him again after I leave Colombia. I shyly ask him, knowing that it's a stupid question, but nonetheless needing to fathom: how they continue in spite of the risks, assassinations, kidnappings, massacres and tortures. He looks at me with the same heaviness in his face and tells me flatly that they don't choose to struggle, that they are forced to by the political situation in Colombia.

But, despite what I could have let myself think after travelling with activists and meeting amazing radical social movements across the country, not all Colombians are politicised. Many look no deeper than the media spin: that Plan Colombia means helicopters and drug eradication. Although they realise a war is going on they prefer to go about their lives without engaging deeply with politics. I resolve that it takes a special strength to resist in Colombia.

Last week the American government declared that the 'war on terrorism' will extend to Colombia, and announced that both FARC and ELN - two of the strongest guerrilla organisations in the country - were terrorist groups, and vowed to destroy them. Extending the 'war on terrorism' to Colombia will justify an even more brutal persecution of activists and social movements here.

The stories of torture are limitless. Over 3000 unionists have been killed or disappeared in the last year, not to mention teachers, cultural leaders, nuns, priests and often, entire communities and villages. One activist we met described Plan Colombia as a scorched earth policy on social movements, he told us they don't even talk about human rights any more, but ask 'at least let us live'. Most organisations spend the majority of their energy just surviving - to fight is another step.

As an activist, I find it's necessary to seek as much inspiration as information, so you don't stumble under the weight of the atrocities you discover. But although I drew from the spirited resistance of people I met in Colombia and across South America, I still carry a heavy weight of confusion and helplessness. When you know something is wrong, wrong beyond debate - so intrinsically evil and short sighted that it is unfathomable - what do you do? I don't know how to help. I know that our struggle is their struggle, as Marco says: 'same with same'. I wish I could adequately convey the emotion of what I have seen. I wish I could express the magnitude of the problem in Colombia: the extent of the violence driven by the state, greed, the USA and corporations at the cost of between 11,000 - 40,000 lives a year and the displacement of over 2.6 million people.

November 1st will see a national strike, which has been planned for two years. It is with much anticipation and fear that I will follow the events.

My time in Colombia was full of contrast: I would dance with Marco to cheesy salsa, share a joint and laugh as he teased me about Australian English, (which he insists consists of 'fuck' and not much more), and forget that there was even a war. Then, as we walked through the streets of Bogota, five young soldiers would walk past with machine guns slung over their shoulders and all the statistics and horror stories would come flooding back. At these moments, Marco would look at me and say, 'We don't need your sympathy'. Making fists and placing his hands together knuckle to knuckle he would look up: 'we need to fight same with same'.

The corridors of the university will have a scar...

Bogota, Colombia: 'We are very sad and worried, it's too hard to understand that another 'compañero' is dead...'

The National University of Colombia, in Bogota, is a colourful and lively place. Almost every available space on buildings, in class rooms and corridors is covered in murals, graffiti, posters and stencils decrying Plan Colombia, protesting the war in Afghanistan and celebrating resistance.

Over 80% of universities in Colombia are private. There are 32 public universities, which have long been recognised as a hotbed of activist and leftist activity. The National University of Colombia is the largest public university and a vibrant centre for a range of critical projects. Students have renamed all of the landmarks, squares and buildings on campus and there is strong sense of radicalism thoughout the university. There are hundreds of active affinity groups on campus from Virus, a media and mural collective, to anarco-feminists and political musical groups. In addition to the diverse groups, the teach in-style meetings and discussions held daily around the campus, there are regular tropels - literally 'bustles' - when students directly confront police, taking over streets surrounding the university or blockading the main university entrance. When there is a tropel the hazy smoke of tear gas fills the campus, the constant noise of rallying cries and molotovs and tear gas canisters exploding fills the air.

At a tropel last week students protested the privatisation of health and education, and world wide American imperialism. A group of students were protesting the bombings in Afghanistan when police responded to the demonstration with violence. Police fired tear gas on the crowd and over 15 students were injured, two seriously, and one died. Police denied responsibility for the shooting, but a number of witnesses confirm the shot came from behind police lines. Carlos Giovanny Blanco Leguizamo a twenty-two year old medical student was shot at around noon, he died ten minutes later, still on the university campus.

Emilie*, a student from the National University, said, "the media and the autopsy report says it was a shot from a .22 gun and that he was shot from less than 10 metres. They want people to think that there was someone from inside the university who killed Giovanny, but people who saw say that it was the police, they used a gun that isn't like the guns they officially use so there aren't many proofs, but many people saw the act."

The following day two more students were murdered at the National University in Medellin. Reports suggest that they were playing chess in an education centre when two gunmen entered and shot them. Protests were been held simultaneously at universities across Colombia. Protesters were demanding respect for their anti-war sentiments and their right to protest and were marching in defiance of the murder of the medical student.

In the past two years, students, professors and university union leaders have been killed at four universities. Three students and six professors have been slain in the last year at the University of Antioquia in Medellin alone. The fact that universities provide a space for resistance activity means that they are also extremely dangerous places for activists, with many plants and right wing groups on campus. The United Auto-Defence groups of Colombia (AUC), which represents some 20 far right-wing paramilitary groups, announced its arrival, through a campaign of bathroom graffiti in student and professor lounges, at the University of Cartagena. There has been precious little reported about these latest killings, as is the case with many of the devastating attacks on civil liberties and human rights in Colombia. Morale is low, people are afraid, but resistance continues.

By this time the National University will be covered in the tents of students staying on campus in protest and new graffiti will mark the walls; 'asesinos' - assassins. In spite of the almost complete blind eye the media has turned on this event, the denial of responsibility by police, and the fear and confusion that people feel, 'many students will stay at the university discussing things and making decisions'. With heaviness Emile finishes her mail, "the situation is very difficult, many people are too scared... but we have to go on. This isn't the end of the story, we hope and believe that there is another possible story for this country, so we go on..."

*names changed for security reasons

By Alex Kelly 'The Paper' www.thepaper.org.au