Pubdate: Sat, 13 Jul 2002
Source: Irish Times, The (Ireland)
Copyright: 2002 The Irish Times
Author: Ana Carrigan
Bookmark: (Terrorism)


Colombia's beleaguered human rights defenders recently bid a sad - and, for
some, fearful - farewell to Anders Kompass , Mary Robinson's main man in
Bogota. Ana Carrigan reports.

The village was just a small farming co-operative, tucked away in the folds
of the Andes. One day two truckloads of Colombian paramilitaries drove up
the road and pulled up in the little square in front of the community store.
They rounded up the women and children in the church, then took away the men
and shot them, leaving 24 bodies strewn along the road.

Two months later, when the local priest brought Anders Kompass to meet the
survivors, only eleven families still lived there. The other 40 had fled to
displacement camps. On an open-air veranda overlooking the church, where
graffiti read Peace Weeps, old farmers and young women came forward one by
one to tell the Swede that they were very frightened, but they did not want
to leave their homes.

They wanted to live and work their land as they always had done. The
government had abandoned them since the massacre. The health service had not
returned. The school teacher's salary had not been paid.

Please, they implored Kompass, we are tomato farmers. This is not our war.
Please, do what you can to get us out of this war. Somehow.

The Colombian peace process was just three months old when Kompass arrived
to take over the UN Human Rights office in April 1999. He was 44 years old,
a seasoned, committed Latin Americanist with 25 years experience working for
the Swedish Foreign Service and the United Nations in Mexico and Central

Kompass was shocked by the large numbers of Colombians who had no rights
whatsoever - and by the official indifference to so much suffering. The
greatest stimulus to his work in Colombia, he said, was to be in contact
with people who have no voice. "In this job you are privileged. People give
you a lot of information. That's also why you feel such responsibility.
People tell you a lot. My job is to be their voice."

He knew that without agreements on international humanitarian law and human
rights laws, civilians would never be free of the guerrillas and
paramilitaries. He also saw very clearly that unless the civilian population
was removed from the war, the peace efforts were doomed to lose popular
support and would fail.

For a long time, his was a solitary moral voice, articulating a coherent
message on behalf of Colombia's powerless, voiceless population. But in the
swamp of moral and political ambiguities and confusion surrounding the peace
efforts, no-one was listening. Human rights defenders are an endangered
species, and Kompass was no exception. There was a real danger that someone
might try ridding Colombia of this contemporary "turbulent priest".

Two months ago, after a prominent general accused him of being an enemy of
the state and of the army, Kompass rented a bulletproof car.

Last month, Anders Kompass returned to Stockholm. Before he left, Colombia's
human rights community organised an impromptu get-together in Bogota's
Tequendama hotel. A choir of small children, formally dressed in scarlet
surplices, led by a young woman in jeans and a smart black blazer, opened
the proceedings.

"If you love life, and the earth," sang a choir of children, then segued
into a medley of folk songs and folk rhythms from the many regions of
Colombia to which Kompass's presence had so often brought a measure of
protection to communities trapped in the war. There was poetry and laughter
and speeches. But mostly, there was a deep sadness and anxiety. Everyone had
known this day would come, but had hoped that somehow it wouldn't.

For people who had worked in his orbit for three intense years, it was hard
to come to grips with what this meant. So they sat and listened quietly to
the speakers; they applauded politely; they didn't whisper, or gossip.

"People go, and the institutions remain," one young man explained. "But in
this case, the institution and the person had achieved such harmony that now
we are facing a vacuum."

According to James Lemoyne, Kofi Annan's Special Representative to Colombia,
Kompass's insistence on defending the principles of international
humanitarian law and human rights laws have established them as an essential
benchmark for policies towards Colombia. Lemoyne also says his Bogota office
has set the standard by which all UN Human Rights Offices will be measured.

"On a personal level," Lemoyne says, "his courage and his ability to weather
criticism and maintain his leadership of the human rights communities were
quite extraordinary. Anders Kompass is a direct inheritor of the great
Swedish tradition of ethical idealism and service. He is the walking
embodiment of the values of Hammarsjold and Wallenberg."

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