Monday, October 10, 2005


Last night I made empanadas under the strict instruction of our 7 year old friends. Well, I say "made", in reality I was meerly the onion chopper, the real work was done by the experts - the kids.

I arrived in Bogota on friday evening and on Saturday after doing some errands in town boarded a small bus that bundled me off to the edge of the city, past the glistening apartment blocks of the weathy bogotanos and into the San Luis neighbourhood, a ramshackle illegal* settlement home to thousands of internal refugees from all over the country.

I was here a few weeks ago with the delegation but due to our packed agenda didnt have the chance to recount our visit - I should have done - something special is happening here. We came to visit the Casa Taller de Ninos y Jovenes (Kids and young peoles house workshop) a youth project which left a inspirational impresion upon all of us.

Nicolasa, a friend and the founder of the project moved to the area about five years ago. Exhausted by the seemingly worsening situation in the country and the stressful world of human rights, high politics and fruitless judical followups in which she was engrossed she moved to San Luis to try and get away. Indeed, despite the harsh poverty of the area it is a potential escape, its location is nothing short spectacular, overlooking the seemingly infinately expansive bogota below and backed by the majestic Andes, coated in thick forest that nourishes the cool clear air. But her retreat didnt last long before the situation of the kids whom she played football with on the scraps of wasteland inbetween the houses promted action.

Begining in her house she started a sort of aferschool club providing a place kids could go and be kids, an activity which for many was possible neither at home nor or at school. As the group grew, her house overflowing with energetic younsters it soon became necessary for the burgening project to have its own building.

When we arrived a few weeks ago what we saw was a small but neat four room building with an inner courtyard. The kids collectively gave a presentation, efortlessly switching presenter unrehearsed from one to other as they described with eloquent speech and their own wonky photos what had been there before - little more than a ruin. With an inspirational spark from nicolasa and some techinical help from some locals on bricklaying and rendering the kids built their own social centre up from that ruin. They were quite rightly damn proud of it. There was a garden too, also previously a wasteland which they had cleared - and where now, just two weeks since my last visit stands a plastic greenhouse full of freshly planted veg, a duckpond full of ducks laying breakfast every morning and a pen housing a rowdy young goat.

Of course it hasnt been and is not still without problems. Nicolasa recounts that when it opened her idea was to have no rules but what resulted was chaos. Kids would steal the toys donated to the house, leave it in a mess and fight each other and her. The rules however, she did not impose but were arrived upon collectively by the kids and as such are now much better respected. Thre exists thus a real sense of collective responbsibility - for the stuff and the place but also for each other. In their presentation they explained their decision making and conflict resolution process - a weekly meeting (and impromptu when neccessary) where everyone tells each other, with no holds barred, exactly what others have done to piss them off but also and perhaps more importantly what they have done thats pissed off other people and how to move on. Its incredible to see in action, and is the most effective participatory decision making/conflict resolution body I have encountered and one in which the dynamic between adults and kids is without doubt a horizontal one.

Thats not to say that kids dont go for advice to some of the grownups. Nicolasa reads all the kids school reports and provides help in areas where they are failing but she neither does their homework nor forces them to do it - simply states that its up to them and they are capable of it. What she is militant about and what differentiates this project from so many others is that its not charity or telling the kids theyre are victims. Yeah they have lived through some shit that would keep a shrink drinking whisky till he dies if these kids were to make it to their forties in the UK, but what is made clear is that if they want to get out of the cycle its up to them - no one will do it for them.

Normally, for those with nothing in capitalist society there are two possible routes: charity or individualism red in tooth and claw - handouts or handguns. What has been achieved here in san luis transcends this individualistic/colectivist binary - yeah the kids get fuckall if if they do fuckall but equally, everyone is responisible for everyone else, if someone cant be bothered to do something then others will motivate them. Whats touched me also here i spose is that something like this proves that we can look after each other, that when we have a collective sense of ownership, of responsiblity and community, the desire to screw your brother in the ground is not set in stoney nature as we are so often told but a social construct that can be broken. Ok, maybe for many of the parents this hope is futile or at least very distant but starting with kids and it working i opening real spaces of change.

Its things like this where real change on a small scale is visible that make me question the tail-chasing that us as activists embark upon with our high profile adventures. Dont get me wrong, I still think all fronts of attack are necessary and valid and will keep chadsing my tail until im a little older. But im glad to know that if i do get disillusioned there are other avenues.

Over the last year or so word has spread on the sucess of the project. even to the mayor of bogota knocking on the door offering a new roof and the desperatly needed relaible funding for the centre. Of course, this being on the condition of a sign outside advertising the virtues of the local government. Not a bad offer I hear you wooly liberals (i.e. my mums & dads) cry: "Whats an egobusting sign in return for the greater good of a roof and funding for the project?". Nico´s response was characteristically kurt and pertinent "if you provide the neighbourhood with water and electiricty then you can think about putting a roof on our courtyard." Indeed its a classic example of politicians (especially here) atempting to buy political credibility with the people they deprive of the basics through piecemeal high visibility offers. Moreover it would go against the DIY ethos of the Casa Taller.

Getting back here on saturday evening was fantastic. On sunday we wandered up to the top of the settlement and into the natinoal park and wathched the chaos of bogota disappear into the rolling mist in the valley. We made lunch at home where there are almost always a few of the kids runing about not to mention the goat that had escaped from the pen and was now inside to prevent him eating the veg in the garden. Sunday evenings they do a cinema club projecting offbeat films for kids and adults and make empanadas (kind of like small deepfried cornish pasties) to sell to the punters/friends. We helped out with the onion choppoing. I found my vocation.

(*Large parts of the San Luis neighbourhood are illegal in the sense that the settlements have not been officialy sanctioned by the lacal authorities. This means not only do the population not have access to public services such as water and electricity but they have no protection from eviction should developers decide that the desirable location would be better used with an expansion of the rich apartment blocks which currently stand the rest of the city and San Luis)

Sunday, October 02, 2005

"seamos realistas, pidamos lo imposible"

On Friday the negotiation commission reconvened, this time the authorities willing to dialogue, presumably as they too feared the recriminations of it going into the hands of national government. By 3pm an agreement had been reached. The students would disoccupy on the following conditions:

  • That a commission of truth justice and reparation headed by the municipal authorities including social and human rights organisations be set up to bring to light the causes of the deah of Johny Silva.
  • That the authorities respect university autonomy – in the sense of not entering the campus by force.
  • That a series of forums are run in the city regarding:
  1. Local Governance
  2. Public security policies and local community
  3. The right to mobilization and social protest.
  • That the relevant authorities guarantee the security of thestudents exiting the occupation of the Ermita Church and their transference to the University of Valle and that the Mayors Office and the Catholic Church commit to not initiate judicial actions against those that took part in the occupation or those that accompanied the process.

The disoccupation was scheduled for four o´clock but no one really knew until the last minute when it was going to happen. Outside the crowd had grown to some 300 people. I sat accross the street getting some shade and making a start on my belated bowl of soup from the comunal cauldren that is permanently bubbling over a fire on the pavement. As i started to tuck in I was signaled to come over to the door of the church where people were amassing. It was announced that we needed everyone round the door for the safety of those inside so they could not be identified. I bolted some soup and gave the rest away secretly relieved to have to graciously tackle the grusome looking bone half floatin gin the middle. As I moved towards the door to find out what was going on I was told that they needed as many of us that knew those inside to come in as well. The human wall protecting the was parted for an instant and i slipped inside.

Expecting an empty church with 15 or so masked students waiting to bundle out I was shocked to see the pews almost full as if some huge leftwing mass were about to take place. It was not far from the truth. We sat down somewhat confused. With the place full and no one masked even the media were allowed in, though unders the strict condition that they only film and take photos from the back so as not to capture faces.

At the front men in strange robes were assembling. As the echoed buzz of the packed church dulled the priest stepped up to the microphone. What followed was without comparision one of the most bizarre experiences of my life. A mass. The priest proceeded to give readings from the bible which due to the acoustics of the room and poorly set up mic were completly unintelligible. I wasn’t the only one looking somewhat bewildered though not for the lack of comprehension of the text but the whole situation. After the reading the main priest stepped up to the mic at the central alter and gave a speech that probably would have had him excommunicated from the Vatican – Supporting the occupation in the sense of the need to create spaces of dialogue and supporting its aims going beyond that of the seeking justice for tragic death of Jhony to the need to have public education as a means to liberation and social justice. Unlike the priest at Jhony´s funeral he clearly regarded heaven to be an eathly concept that we must construct with our own hands rather than something to wait for. I was thoroughly shocked. A number of other speeches followed, from those representing the mayor and national government and also from the students attempting to put a dignified twist on their exit form the church.

So neither Miguel Justi, Secretary of the Municipal Government, Colonel Gomez Mendez, Cali´s Metropolitan Police Chief nor the Chief of the ESMAD riot squad resigned in accordance with the demands of the students.

Was then, the occupation a failure? This is a tricky one.

I think the students knew well that they never would get what they demanded. The point of demanding resignations was more to make public the partial responsibility of those figures in the death of Jhony Silva. This certainly was achieved.

When you demand the impossible the concessions those in power are willing to make are usually much greater that if you demand the realistic – this is simple bargaining – demand the realistic and you get half of it – demand the impossible and you get something realistic. Another thing this achieved was to bring the issue of education, university autonomy and human rights to the fore in cali and moreover on national level. To get all these people to the negotiation table is not easy, to get them to listen is even harder.

There is possible a pessimistic position here in the sesnse that the death of person could be viewed here as being used for political ends that that person never fought for. ie. public education, uiniversity autonomy and human rights. This requires a moment. Jhony was a student, maybe not a political one, but one that benefited from the public education system others fight with their lives for. The demands being made, the occupation, marches, negotiations go much beond justice for the death of one student, but this is not political opportunism. The entrance of police into the university grounds is not an isolated case but represents a continued attack by the state against the right to public education and social protest that often emerges in spaces where people have the access to the knowledge resources to criticise the system. It is unfortunate that it takes the death of human being to both mobilize and unify and simultaneously, to be llistend to. But such is the case. And it is in the interests of all those students both that simply access and those that fight for public education that this case is followed up, justice is served, and that the broader issues addressed.

What remains now is that the authorities comply with the promises made – this will require ongoing pressure across different levels. To add your voice to those demanding jusrtice on this issue email universities(at) and or assemble outside the the colobian embassy in london on the 22nd of October to comemorate one month since Jhony´s death.

Friday, September 30, 2005

and we waited…

Since the start of the occupation on Wednesday a negotiation commission has been in session composed of representatives of students, teachers, the church, civic authorities, university workers trade union, local government, the university administration and the Defensoria del Pueblo. The idea being to pressure the authorities into constructive dialogue about the demands being made.

Of course, authorities being as they are they refused to enter into dialogue until the students disoccupied the church. As such Thursday was a waiting game with talks deadlocked. As we sat around in the hot sun cheering the occassional supportive passing motorist support grew. It was clear that the students were not for moving without some sort of agreement.

We waited...

The problem seemed to be that the students had to some extent demanded the impossible – the resignation or sacking of people who’s hire and fire is up to national, not local authorities when it is the local authorities they are pressurising. By Thursday evening it was announced that President Uribe was comming the next day and the threat of military eviction was hinted – this would mean mass detention and violent recriminations by authorities once those inside were registered. This was not be an option - if it was decided by the national government that they would evict militarily the students would have to leave as the potential risk is too great.

The pressure was now on.