Learning to Document Historic Memory
by Allie Prescott, communications volunteer
posted on February 9, 2016
Sembrandopaz, in conjunction with the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH), has been collaborating on a historical memory project during 2015 with 13 leaders and youth selected from various communities across the Alta Montaña of El Carmen de Bolivar, with the initial impulse and continual guidance from the Peaceful Movement of the Alta Montaña. This project aims to document, through the testimony of victims, human rights violations, and personal narratives, a collective history of violence, community organization and resistance to promote dignity, an understanding of what happened and why, sustainable peace, and inter-community ties.
To accomplish this goal, documenters who in the case of the Alta Montaña are members of the local communities go to areas where violence took place and carry out collective conversations, interviews, and photographic/ audio-visual documentation. At the end of the process, after approval from the Peaceful Movement, the collected information is made available to the public, educational institutions, and museums.
The idea for the memory process originated from community leaders from the Alta Montaña who during the negotiations with the government that resulted from a peaceful march in 2013 expressed the hope of documenting what had happened and continued to happen in their region. Instead of having outside documenters do the interviewing and documenting, however, they wanted to train local teenagers and adults from the Alta Montaña to carry out the work. With the help of Sembrandopaz, a proposal was made and approved and the project began in April 2015.
The Center or Historic Memory and Sembrandopaz facilitated the selection and training of four documenters and nine photographers (“reporters”) from across the region, the majority of who are younger than 28 years old. All of those selected are leaders in their community and organizing members in the Youth Peace Provocateurs, the youth branch of the Peaceful Movement of the Alta Montaña.
This marks the first time where the collection of information through interviews and visual media is done by people from the same community in which the investigation is focused. Many involved feel that this has significantly helped the collection process. “There is a trust that influences what we hear. I already know many people. As a reporter, I feel like family,” said Glenda Jaraba, a 19 year old from Camaroncito.
While all of the documenters were personally impacted by the conflict, the collection process also helps them understand the extent of violence that took place as well as the current situation in which many live.
For Naun Alvarez, a 25-year-old leader in his town Camarón and one of the four documenters chosen to conduct interviews, “the investigations have helped me understand the histories of my people, of our roots. It is important because if we don’t know our history, we don’t have anything to fight for. We don’t have the trajectory. It is a privilege to gain the trust of people and talk with them…to know that before the conflict, we lived well. People were happy. When one tells the stories, you see the strength that the farmer has. The strength to return and to keep going despite all of the difficulties. They have a value. They are humble yet committed to the struggle.”
This region, which consists of 52 communities with over 20,000 people currently returned to the communities, was greatly impacted by the armed conflict from 1985 to 2008, with ongoing insecurity up to the current moment. It was said that if you enter the Alta Montaña, you don’t leave. The guerrilla took advantage of the mountainous terrain to hide their camps, and many farmers were murdered or displaced due to violence between the guerilla, armed forces, and paramilitaries.
The majority of schools were bombed, occupied by armed forces or abandoned, churches destroyed, houses demolished and land abandoned. Investigators heard stories of how families lived in constant fear, how they constantly had their bags packed, ready to run from their homes at any minute. Noises as slight as a bird pecking were mistaken for gunshots and people would run from their homes.
According to Naun, of the thousands living in the area, all but 5% were displaced due to the conflict, and the majority of the families have not yet returned. Many people have returned to the area only within the last ten years. “We have recuperated about half of what we once had. These communities are fighting for a change. When people started returning in 2005 and 2007, people had to start all over again. This process has had a huge impact because people are looking for development of their land. It has helped wake up the people. The movement has helped inspire people to better their lives and do something to look for change,” said Naun.
The documentation process provides a safe space where stories can be shared, a space that previously did not exist for many people. “It is a very important process because there are many people that are usually not able to talk about what happened. They didn’t have the space or someone trustworthy to talk about it with. Now that we have this process, it gives people an opportunity to talk. When people talk and have that space, they feel better. We have talked with a lot of people, many that before did not want to talk because they were afraid. Now, they are talking. Each day there is a willingness and eagerness to live,” said Naun.
David Estrada, a reporter from Puerto Mesita, agrees, “I see the change it has caused and the impact of what we are doing has had on the communities. People no longer want to stay quiet, but want to be heard.”
Through photographs and film, the nine reporters have the opportunity to show the people and environment of the region in the aftermath of the conflict. Kristian Sanabria, a SembrandoPaz photographer who has lived in the Alta Montaña, not only taught the photographers how to operate a camera, but how to use photography as a tool to tell stories. Many of the photographs show people working in the house or the fields and the natural beauty of the landscape. The pictures range from mothers taking care of their children, farmers cultivating their land, the use of a “hornilla,” the typical wood-burning cooking stove, meetings of the Peaceful Movement, how communities work together to fish in order to provide nourishment, access to water using water holes, children travelling by donkey, the remnants of bombed schools that now function as open-air schools, as well as the contamination of water due to the mass cultivation of African palm and pineapple. In the process, the photographers are learning to think critically about some of the issues in their communities.
Although the project is far from done, documenters and reporters alike feel a sense of pride in where they come from and where they are going, and the strength and resilience they have found in their resistance to, reconciliation, and rebuilding from the armed conflict.
“It is a privilege to be a farmer. The cities would not exist without us. We are helping and feeding many people. We are very happy to be campesinos. It is 100% our identity. There are many ideas that we are dirty and uneducated but we live in tranquility and we feel very good. We may not have roads or electricity but we love what we do have,” said Naun.