Too often, those of us immersed in Colombia get lost in the sheer magnitude of the horrors of the five-decade-old armed conflict: over 31,000 civilians murdered in just the last 10 years; almost 3 million people driven out of their homes since 1985; more than 1,350 massacres perpetrated between 1994 and 2004; at least 134 Protestant church leaders killed in the past four years; an archbishop, a bishop, 32 priests and dozens of nuns murdered since 1987; three presidential candidates murdered in the 1990 campaign; a whole political party—the Patriotic Union, with over 3,000 members—exterminated; and on and on…
Swimming in this sea of death and destruction, we rarely stop to mourn individual losses. We focus on the forest instead of the trees. Why is there no Colombian Oscar Romero or Martin Luther King Jr.? Some would say it is unfair to hold one life up as more significant than the rest. Yet martyrs, as representatives of a people’s suffering, are powerful reminders of the human cost of violence.
While many should be remembered for their sacrifice for justice and peace, this May we will commemorate two in particular.
In the wee hours of Monday morning, May 19, 1997, paramilitary gunmen stormed the home of Mario Calderon and Elsa Alvarado. Mario – a former Jesuit priest who had dedicated his life to working for the poor, human rights, and environmental protection – and Elsa – a human rights worker who founded the Cien Dias human rights magazine – were both human rights defenders at the Jesuit organization CINEP.
Elsa and Mario were shot 40 times each. Elsa’s father, Carlos, was also killed, and her mother, Elvira, was wounded. Mario and Elsa are “martyr(s) for social justice who tried to build a country based on human rights for all, rather than based on the privileges of a few,” said Father Alejandro Angulo S.J., director of CINEP.
On May 18, thousands will gather in Bogotá’s central plaza to commemorate the lives of Elsa and Mario. The plaza will be full of photos of the thousands who have died in the conflict, and while they will be remembered, we will focus on two trees within the forest of memories.
People of faith throughout the United States and Canada are invited to join in this commemoration of the lives of Elsa and Mario and all Colombians who have given their lives for justice and peace in Colombia. Join us for the second annual Days of Prayer and Action for Peace in Colombia on May 20-21. Find out how here.
Jess Hunter-Bowman is the Andean Regional Director for Witness for Peace.