The Stories
Monica Puto and her accompaniment of pacifist Colombian farmers

Escorting justice

 La scorta  alla giustizia  DCM-002
04 February 2023

The term justice is a much broader concept than “the law”. Whether one goes back to the Latin etymology “iustitia” or the Greek “dikaiosýne”, this word contains a reference to the transcendent who acts as guarantor of the rights of human beings. It is the “justice” of which Jesus speaks of several times.

Since 2009, it is this “justice” that that has accompanied the members of the Community of San José de Apartadó in Colombia and other “doves”, who have been fighting for it without arms. Monica Puto, 54, originally from Pordenone, is one of them. She is one of the pioneers of Operazione Colomba [Operation Dove], the non-violent civilian corps of the John XXIII Community, who are active from Palestine to Ukraine. Among other things, she is one of its members. Unlike other volunteers and, above all, female volunteers who choose to accompany the persecuted for justice -who may be non-believers or believers of other religions-, Monica Puto has found in Operation Dove her own way of following the Gospel. Her own mission.

“It is actually their mission, the women and men of the Peace Community. We volunteers simply stand by their side, and it is an honour and I am proud to do so. They are our teachers of nonviolence and justice”. The “school” is a village composed of a few hundred houses surrounded by the emerald green hills of Urabá, in the north-west of the Country. There, a few hundred peasants have been resisting the longest running war in the West for almost twenty-six years, and refuse to take part in it. In the heart of the banana-growing region, the pseudo-Marxist militiamen of the fifth front of the Fuerzas armadas revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the ultra-right paramilitaries of the Autodefensas unidas de Colombia (AUC) and the army’s XVII Brigade (whose commander, General Rito Alejo del Río, was sentenced to 25 years for the execution of a trade unionist) have been fighting for decades. All three place the local farmers at a crossroads, they either collaborate or resist. The people of San José opted for an unprecedented third way: to declare themselves neutral and stay, and build a solidarity and non-violent way of life.

The residents govern the Community together through an assembly, while the eight council members, elected in turn, take care of the management. Each has their own field, which he or she administers independently, while the common portion of land is cared for together. In addition, Thursdays are dedicated to the collective maintenance of the roads, the school, and the community centre. The results can be seen at a glance. The little wooden walled and tin roofed houses are humble but well cared for, like the plants and the animals. In one of them live the doves. “What we do is not a job. It is a concrete sharing of the reality of the inhabitants. We try to live like them, to move like them, by mule or on foot”.

As a member of Pope John XXIII community, Monica has chosen to live without a salary, with only a reimbursement of expenses. During her time in Italy, she also helps to raise funds for the project, which is financed by donations from private individuals, associations, lay and church organisations. “For the most part, these are small contributions. It is mainly the poor who help us. Big donors contribute more willingly when they see a tangible outcome, whether that be a school, a hospital, or a church. We, however, do not build anything. We simply walk together, and voluntarily choose a situation that others are forced to endure. We cannot change it. Nevertheless, we can point the spotlight onto an unjust system for which our lives as Europeans are worth more than those of Colombian peasants. To employ our lives to act as a shield for them. Perhaps it is because of this “shielding” characteristic that often, as is the case today, that all the volunteers are women. We are not humanitarian workers but brothers and sisters of a piece of humanity that is willing to give its life for justice”.

For the people of the Community, the possibility of a violent death is a constant companion. “They don’t say if they will kill us but when”, Monica points out. Armed groups have taken a heavy toll on the non-violent rebels who refuse to carry weapons, inform on their companions, grow coca or even sell them food. Of the three hundred founding families, 35 remain. On the white stones that form the circular mausoleum of the Memorial Park, 325 names are written. One for each murdered inhabitant. The numbers increase despite the peace signed by the government and the FARC on November 24, 2016. The vacuum left by the demobilized guerrillas was immediately filled by new criminal factions, heirs of the old paramilitaries. “On  December 29, 2017, hooded men with guns and machetes broke into the community and tried to kill the representative, Germán Graciano Posso, and a council member, Roviro López. The latter could have escaped but did not want to leave Germán alone. They would have both died if the children had not noticed and raised the alarm. The whole community then rushed and disarmed the attackers. It was moving to see them mobilize as one body to protect each other. The words of John came to mind: there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends”.

It is not easy for the doves to watch over people in constant danger. “It is a very deep, spiritually intense journey. It asks a lot of questions, shakes you up and asks you to repeat your “yes” every day. The hardest thing to bear is the frustration; for we don’t see great results”. This is why, in addition to initial training, the Community offers ongoing training, that respects different sensitivities. “In a society obsessed with performativity, the Community has taught me that the mission has no end. It is a path on which we proceed without knowing where and how we will arrive. The only important thing is to leave traces that point to the right horizon. That we are going the right way. Then every step becomes justice”.

A journalist with “Avvenire”, an Italian National daily newspaper.