Colombia: Mission In Conflict Zones

The city of Tumaco has been the theatre of clashes between criminal gangs for the control of the drug market. Nevertheless, there are those who have chosen to remain, to grow in faith with the local people and to respond to numerous social challenges. This is the testimony of a young Comboni Missionary.

When I arrived for the first time at the parish in Tumaco, I soon realised that there were invisible walls that clearly marked the borders of the areas occupied by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and by other groups which were under the control of the Rastrojos, a paramilitary organisation involved in Colombia’s armed conflict. Fortunately, the paramilitaries left and a relative calmness has returned in these neighbourhoods.

The FARC promoted the cultivation of coca and worked alongside Central American drug cartels, which gradually became more and more organised and protected. The new rich people of Tumaco, who represent an exemplar in the eyes of many young people in our city, started to earn huge sums of money. Drug use increased dramatically among teenagers, who became more and more introverted and suspicious of anyone who wanted to help them.

Today, security has dramatically decreased in the cities of Colombia, where several militias, former members of the FARC, operate autonomously. They are bacrim (criminal gangs) as some call them or simply drug traffickers. Meanwhile, new groups have settled in the area adjacent to Tumaco: the Usuga, the AUC, the Aguilas Negras, the Gulf Clan who perpetrate contract killings. These groups are spread throughout the territory and are very dangerous. According to statistics, the number of murders in the country is shocking and hundreds of families have been forced to leave their neighbourhood because of feuds for the control of the drug market.

The first and most important reason for our presence in Tumaco is the awareness that God is among us. And we can see His presence in many people we work with: leaders, families, women and men, who, though they have been abandoned by the State and though they live in extremely precarious conditions, are witnesses of faith, civic responsibility and resistance to evil. We can attest to the beauty of these people, their passion for life and their generous love. Every day I feel I am loved, protected, embraced and forgiven by them.

Another extraordinary reason to work in Tumaco is that no one wants to do it. If there are many reasons to come to Tumaco, it seems, however, that there are none to stay. As our founder St. Daniele Comboni taught us, we chose to stay, to share our lives with people and walk together with them.

We, the Comboni missionaries, have been entrusted with the responsibility of the parish La Resurreccion and, in accordance with the pastoral plan of renewal and evangelization of the diocese, we are committed to the training and promotion of lay leaders.

The work in the districts has led us to focus our attention on several sectors of the parish pastoral plan, and we always try to walk together with the local people and community leaders, and to respond to social problems in the territory.

Three years ago, thanks to the help of some families, a small school was built, in order to meet the ‘educational emergency’. The project Educar en la Calle Viento Libre was created to support more closely the most problematic and disadvantaged children of the neighbourhood.

The Centro Afro Juvenil has been established for the promotion of training, spirituality, peace and culture. It is a multi-purpose centre where groups of young people can develop their creativity through dance, music, reading, catechism classes, sport etc.

Our parish church is located in the district of El Carmelo where The Youth Centre St. Daniele Comboni has been established. The centre houses a library and an internet room. A group of extraordinary women, cooperating at the centre, make up the chorus Buen Viento. Their songs express the problems of the community along with the hope and the faith with which they try to face them. We, the missionaries, offer spiritual assistance to all those who come to the parish, which is also a meeting place for catechists, family groups, devotional groups and ecclesial movements.

In addition to the pastoral work in the parish, we are committed to supporting the coordination structures of the diocese of Tumaco, Edap, the College of Consultors, Vicarie. We are also involved in some of the pastoral sectors: catechesis, youth and vocational ministry, missionary animation and social media communication.

We try to reach suburbs where ‘the cry of life‘ demands to be heard, as the Conference of Religious of Latin America (ClAR) affirmed. And that’s why we try to go regularly to rural areas of our diocese in order to visit the communities. We also get in touch with these people through the diocesan radio Mira and provide quarterly training programs for animators and catechists.

Our goal is to help the laity to emancipate itself at the service of a local, missionary and prophetic Church. But, we need more people willing to face the challenge of living on the outskirts of the country, and not just going there simply for a visit.

– Fr. Daniele Zarantonello

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